Consumer movements: Pitfalls and lessons from successful movements in Kenya and beyond | Food Literacy Forum Part 3
Consumer movements are collectives of individuals and organizations that advocate for the rights and welfare of consumers, especially when those rights are violated by powerful corporations and governments. Consumer movements are necessary to put power and agency back in the hands of ordinary citizens, and the third public forum on food literacy, hosted by the Route To Food Initiative, explored the potential and pitfalls of consumer movements, including lessons from successful movements around the world.
What are some of the prominent food issues in Kenya – and beyond – that deserve the attention of consumers, and that can be addressed through movement-building? For Layla Liebetrau, program coordinator of RTFI, movements are particularly useful when directly responding to problems created by power inequalities in the food system.
“When I think of a movement, I think of issues that require a consolidated response across different sectors and actors,” said Layla Liebetrau. “These are issues that touch on power and inequalities in the food system, how corporate actors are influencing how food is produced, distributed and consumed, all against the backdrop of the inherently political nature of food.”
Movement building for David Cidi Otieno is all about food sovereignty. Otieno is secretary general and policy advisor of Kenya Peasants League (KPL). “KPL envisions a Kenya where farmers practice family farming, agroecology and organic food production systems and control means of food production for food sovereignty,” he shared in the session.
The panelists shared some of the successful movements around the world that can be taken as exemplars, including La Via Campesina, that was started in the 1980s when national peasant groups began to form ties with transnational organizations, starting in Latin America and then on a global scale. The agrarian movement of smallholder farmers moved to challenge the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism in global economics and to find alternatives that would protect the rights of smallholder communities around the world.
A neoliberal economic environment means that African governments tend to tolerate unfavorable conditions such as anti-competitive practices, receiving lower quality imports than would be acceptable in other markets, enduring misleading product claims, and enduring increased exposure to hazardous waste, in order to be “attractive” to foreign investment. How can consumers have more voice and a bigger say to oppose this when they are caught on the underside of these high-level decisions?
“We have to think critically and recognize that the way things are is not the only way they could possibly be,” said Layla Liebetrau. “Don’t always take things at face value, or imagine that the dominant system is the only option we have. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What can I do in my life, to either support the system of challenge it?’ Your spending decisions matter and do make a difference,” said Layla Liebetrau, urging the importance of consumers buying produce from trusted local farms. For Samuel Kiiru Ngugi, national assistant coordinator of Slow Food Kenya and coordinator of Slow Food Activities in Nakuru County, the Slow Food movement encapsulates this resistance to neoliberal ideologies of profit and the dominance of capital.
“We’re looking to bring producers and consumers closer in Earth Markets, that champion local foods,” said Ngugi, sharing the Slow Food philosophy: “Slow Food envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.”
Still, consumer movements are not always successful, and sometimes struggle to make an impact. In 1986 for example, India passed the Consumer Protection Act and it was thought that would the new law would encourage consumers to stand up for their rights and lead to consumers even going to court to sue powerful corporations. But the consumer movement struggled to make an impact because there was hardly any unified action which would demonstrate the strength of the consumer organizations. Similarly, the 2010 Kenya Constitution guarantees certain citizen rights and protections, which begs the question: why do consumer organisations struggle to make an impact, even in the context of a favourable legal environment?
“The problem is that most of these movements operate in isolation, frequently in urban areas without a direct link to food producers,” said Otieno. “To be successful you absolutely have to have meaningful linkages of the consumer movement and food producers, and you have to go beyond sloganeering to buy directly from local farms, and actually push for more justice to farmers directly, for example agitating for better prices and more resources going to farmers.”
Layla Liebetrau echoed this sentiment: “Your purchasing decisions matter. The reality is that we’re operating in a very broken food system, and we must challenge what we imagine food to be.”
The session was moderated by Christine Mungai, writer, journalist and curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi.