Reimagining the Future of Open-Air Food Markets

Building a vision for safer, more sustainable markets in Kenya

At first glance, open-air food markets in Kenya can seem to some as chaotic. But at closer inspection, patterns of premeditated balance begin to emerge. What might look messy and makeshift on the surface is actually an organized and resilient institution at its core. Driven by shared economic incentives and a strong sense of belonging, markets in Kenya have adapted to crises such as floods, fires, and most recently, a global pandemic. 

With financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation, The Eastern Africa Grain Council partnered with IDEO​.org to reimagine the future of open-air food markets in Kenya. The goal was to consider how to promote higher standards of safety, sanitation, comfort, and sustainability now and in the future. 

In order to understand the day-to-day operations, space design, and interactions in markets, the team spoke with vendors, shoppers, and operators across seven markets in Kenya, in addition to gathering inspiration from experts and satellite imaging from dynamic markets around the globe. 

An orchestration of economics, people, and space 

The team quickly learned that vendors work together on virtually every aspect of their businesses—from buying stock to agreeing on prices, and even sharing resources. This ultimately increases their bargaining power and chances of closing a sale. Even the proximity of their stalls is by design, with vendors working together to arrange their stock in a way that is intuitive to shoppers. They know the dietary habits of their customers and group their produce according to common recipes. A functioning market is the delicate balance between economics, people, and space. 

However, not all markets in East Africa have succeeded. Across the region, there are unused markets, or ghost structures, with state of the art facilities that vendors refuse to work within. These well-intentioned, but failed public market interventions are often designed in a vacuum, without public participation from the actual people who will use it day-to-day. This leads to significant losses to vendors that has made them skeptical, if not resistant, to change. 

“I wouldn’t change where I am located. I am right by the entrance where all shoppers come through.”

Female vendor, Kiambu Wakulima Market

These ghost structures often featured standard-sized stalls affixed to the ground, that don’t account to the seasonality of crops and changing demands of shoppers. Another issue with the new markets was relocation. Vendors stand to lose a significant amount of income in the process and risk being separated from business partners, collaborators, and friends.

A balance of safety, hygiene, and good nutrition. 

The design team created 15 sacrificial concepts that promote food safety, good nutrition, hygiene, and waste reduction in markets—while amplifying the economic practices of its participants. The concepts serve as provocations that can be adapted in ways that suit local needs and contexts. 

Building: Another major pain point vendors and shoppers faced was around frequent flooding, congestion, and lack of protection from rain. Vendors need a seamless indoor/outdoor transition as well as the flexibility to relocate to reduce revenue loss. The team tried to bring that modularity to the design with retractable walls and roofs that give vendors the autonomy to reconfigure the space according to their needs.

Stalls: Although they’re one of the basic building blocks of a market, stalls are currently made out of available materials, such as wood, that are not rain, heat, or mold proof. The team reimagined a more modular, stackable, and weatherproof version of what already works.

Solar Energy: There is no formalized power supply within most open air markets. Today, vendors are forced to rely on energy sources that put them at risk, and in some cases have even led to fires. This gap presents an opportunity to build integrated photovoltaics that double as an outer layer for the building as well as a source of reliable electricity.

Waste management system: Cleanliness is the most critical concern for all market participants. Waste can drive consumers away and jeopardize vendor health and the bottom line. Waste when properly collected and treated is a raw material that can be used for production and can create more revenue for the market.

Since our engagement, The Rockefeller Foundation has been working on piloting the smart markets of the future and producing guidelines for scaling and replicating them across Africa.

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