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The Megaurban Food System of Dhaka / Bangladesh


The research project started from the proposition that the analysis of food systems in mega urban contexts offers special insights into the discontinuities, contentions, fragmentations and conflicts, which global processes generate in local arenas. This proposition was based upon six assumptions:

  1. Megaurban food systems are located at the interface between formal and informal spheres of food supply, distribution and consumption
  2. Megaurban food systems reflect the dynamic articulations between global and local forces that shape food supply, distribution and consumption.
  3. The informal sphere of the food system is constantly adapting to the structure and dynamics of the dominant modes of globalized food chains.
  4. Megaurban food systems reflect the dynamics of specific material and resource flows.
  5. Food markets are dynamic nodes within megaurban settlement development.
  6. The functioning and efficiency of the informal sector is of utmost importance for sustaining the livelihoods and food security of the urban population.

The central hypothesis of the project was that the food system of Dhaka reveals a remarkable degree of resilience. A food system was defined as an integrated set of production, exchange, distribution and consumption activities that lead to the potential satisfaction of nutrition for a given individual or household (Ericksen 2008). It was assumed that “it is the informality (...) and its dynamics that determines the food system’s overall efficiency and resilience” (Bohle and Zingel 2008: 18). In order to understand informality, it was argued to focus on institutions and social practices, rather than on actors, economic entities, or entire economic sectors and their structural characteristics. Informality was taken as an aspect of actors’ agency that is constantly negotiated in contested urban arenas: At the actors’ level, informality was differentiated as a specific strategy and as certain habit or routine of doing things (Etzold et al. 2009: 9f). At the level of the entire city, informality was seen as “an organizing logic, as a system of norms that governs the process of urban transformation on itself” (Roy 2005: 148). It was argued that informality may be regarded as the major prerequisite for “adaptive food governance” (Bohle et al. 2009). It was a major aim of the project to contribute to the development of a joint understanding of the term within the community of researchers of the priority program 1233.

The research project was conducted from 2007 until 2010 and integrated development economics and development geography. While Hans-Georg Bohle and Benjamin Etzold studied the role of street food in Dhaka, Wolfgang-Peter Zingel and Markus Keck emphasized the organization of food wholesaling in the mega city. By means of qualitative methods the project addressed the following two guiding questions:

1.   How is the mega urban society of Dhaka organized around food?
2.   How might the food system change in the future under various plausible scenarios?

Results from Development Economics: Rice and Fish Wholesaling

This subproject revolved around three major topics, i.e. the role of wholesaling within the mega urban food system; the embeddedness of wholesalers and their maintenance of informal business networks; and the resilience of wholesalers to business disturbances.

The food system perspective revealed that wholesalers play a pivotal role for the mega urban food supply. Surveys showed that at present, raw food is sold at 87 wholesale markets within the area of Dhaka City Corporation (DCC). Out of them, there are 24 rice and 13 fish markets with an estimated total number of 1.700 wholesalers (roughly 900 fish and 800 rice wholesalers) who work in 90 percent of the cases as commission agents by order of rice miller, pond owners or intermediary suppliers in rural areas. Sales amounts of 3,800 kg rice and 800 kg fish on average per day. Monthly expenses of 32.000 Bangladesh Taka (BDT) in the case of rice traders and 63.000 BDT in the case of fish traders on average are substantial compared to those of retailers or street food vendors. (Keck et al. 2008; Keck et al. 2012).

The embeddedness perspective revealed the role of informality for the functioning of the wholesalers’ businesses. The merchants maintain strong, long-standing relationships to a selected number of suppliers who deliver large quantities of rice or fish; similarly, they maintain loose relations to socially distant suppliers who deliver only small amounts. Whereas a rationale of instant profit maximizing dominates in loose relationships, trust and reciprocity are the basic governance modes within informal business networks that serve to gain long-term stable returns. The long-term relations were evaluated as being much more significant for the traders’ businesses because of their sentimental and instrumental value. The sentimental value is based on the sharing of more fine-grained information and a higher degree of mutual knowledge. It gradually leads to an ever growing versatility of relationships and thus to flexibility, options for action, and an atmosphere of mutual trust. The instrumental value becomes apparent in joint problem solving activities, reciprocal commitment and mutual support in times of adversity and crisis. As such, informal business relations add to the merchants’ adaptive capacities and to their overall business performance in a positive way (Etzold et al .2009; Keck et al. 2012).

The resilience perspective revealed a variety of uncertainties that the wholesalers face in Dhaka. The traders have to deal with the ever increasing population growth and spatial expansion of Dhaka. They need to bribe numerous power brokers, such as patrolling policemen in order to get access to otherwise restricted roads, bureaucrats in order to reduce the time waiting in queues, or criminals that would guarantee security in return. Furthermore, especially at governmental markets, wholesalers need to pay high advance payments in order to get access to these places in the first place. Nevertheless, despite all these adversities, Dhaka is well supplied with food – not least due to the constant effort of wholesalers. The overall food availability in Dhaka is well over the national urban average, most prominently in terms of fish. In this case, roughly 700 tons of the perishable are provided to the urban market every day. By taking the population figure of the DCC area as reference, this amounts to a gross availability of 99 gram per head and day, which equals 170 per cent of the national urban average (58 gram per head and day) (cf. BBS 2007). The same holds true for the other food segments. Thus, from the perspective of food supply, the resilience of Dhaka’s food system could have been confirmed (Keck 2012; Keck et al. 2012).

Results from Development Geography: Street Food Vending

This subproject revolved around three major topics: the role of street food within the mega urban food system; the livelihoods of the street food vendors; and the politics of space that gave insights into the informality inherent in the governance of the mega city.

The food system perspective showed that the sale of prepared food in cities’ public places is an important informal element of food systems in cities of the developing world. Embedded in broader distribution networks with wholesalers, retailers and food processing companies, the food hawkers provide crucial services for the urban consumers in a flexible manner. Street food serves as a supplement to self-prepared meals for most customers, in particular for the highly mobile urban labor force such as rickshaw pullers and day laborers, who require small nutritious snacks in between in order to keep going. But full meals and snacks from the roadside are also a substitute to home-prepared food for those who do not have access to permanent shelter, cooking facilities and adequate food, such as Dhaka’s growing floating population (Etzold 2008; Keck et al. 2008).

The livelihoods perspective showed that street food vending is an essential self-employment opportunity for vulnerable populations, also for migrants who just recently came to Dhaka. In many cases the net profits are higher than from formal employment like in the garments industry. However, street food vending is a precarious economic activity; one of the greatest constant risks for the street food vendors is to be evicted by the police. The vendors, thus, employ multiple strategies to reduce their exposure to such erratic – and often violent – disturbances, to cope with losses, and thereby to secure their livelihoods. They adapt by shifting to more mobile and more flexible modes of vending, and by seeking arrangements that enable them to continue their business in the long run and increase their resilience. Thus, their position in informal networks of power frames the space of action for their vending activities (Etzold et al. 2009; Etzold 2011).

This relates to the governance perspective. While street vending in public space is deemed illegal by Bangladesh’s law, it is most often tolerated by Dhaka’s authorities. Thus, tensions arise about the actual mode of governance that is in effect in these constantly contested urban arenas. Informal arrangements with local power brokers grant or deny vendors the access to lucrative vending sites, but at the same time create new dependencies (i.e. patron-client-relationships) that lead to their further exploitation. In this regard informal “street politics” largely govern the local urban arenas, in particular the street food vending sites. In the face of changing formal governments and shifting public discourses around hygiene, security, corruption and the use of public space towards “modern” life styles, Dhaka’s street food economy shows her greatest advantage: its flexibility, both in spatial and economic terms. Mobile hawkers bring food into the living areas and the local kitchen markets and retail shops are dispersed all over Dhaka. All of the involved actors are able to react quickly to “everyday-hazards”, while offering their products to a price that is within the reach of the majority of Dhaka’s population – the urban poor. Thus, for food distribution, the pivotal role of informality could have been confirmed (Etzold and Keck 2009; Bohle et al. 2009).


Research Team:

Project Speaker: Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Bohle (Geography Department, University of Bonn). E-Mail: bohle@giub.uni-bonn.de, Tel.: (+49) 228 73 - 3688

Project Coordinator: Dr. Wolfgang-Peter Zingel (Department of International Economics, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg). E-Mail: h93@ix.urz.uni-heidelberg.de, Tel.: (+49) 6221 54 - 8913

Research Associate: Dipl.-Geogr. Benjamin Etzold (Geography Department, University of Bonn). E-Mail: etzold@giub.uni-bonn.de, Tel.: (+49) 228 73 - 3852

Research Associate: Dipl.-Geogr. Markus Keck (Department of International Economics, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg). E-Mail: keck@uni-heidelberg.de, Tel.: (+49) 228 73 - 3852