Power & Control

As we seek to make food systems in Africa work better for Africans, we need to develop more sophisticated understandings of how power relationships within our food systems can be made to function better.

It has been estimated that in Mexico, 3 out of every 10 pesos Mexicans spend on food goes to American retail giant, Walmart. This ability to capture such large shares of national food budgets across the globe helps Walmart generate annual revenues beyond the national GDP of all African economies, bar Nigeria.

(Above: A customer passes through freezer cabinets in the frozen foods section of a Shoprite Holdings Ltd. supermarket in Johannesburg, South Africa.. Shoprite is South Africa's biggest food retailer and earns about one sixth of its revenue outside of the country. Shoprite and other retailers like Walmart are using South Africa as a base from which to launch expansion plans into other parts of Africa.)

Indeed, from farms to retail, increasing monopolization along the length of the value chains that make up the food system is a global phenomenon. In 2005, just 10 seed corporations controlled over 50% of commercial seeds, 10 pesticide manufacturers controlled 84% of the market and just 5 companies controlled 75% of the world grain trade. Currently these companies are almost exclusively American or European and carry considerable financial and political power. 

(Above: A sign of Swiss farm chemicals powerhouse Syngenta is seen on May 10, 2015 at the company's test site of Les Barges near Vouvry, western Switzerland. On May 8, Syngenta confirmed April reports that Monsanto had made an offer for a merger that would have formed a world market leader in both seeds and crop chemicals.

The merger of Syngenta and Monsanto, already two global giants in the agro-industrial sector,would create a global agro-food powerhouse bigger than any that have ever existed. Concerns have been raised by industry observers worldwide about the anti-competitive nature of the proposed merger.)

With major global food companies such as Walmart, Associated British Foods, Cargill, Shoprite and Monsanto expanding into highly fragmented value chains in Africa in search of new customers, the very nature of these African food systems and the cultures that underpin them has already begun to shift. As companies like Walmart and others turn to new market opportunities in Africa, will 30% of Africa’s food bill also end up in this American company’s revenue stream?

Some argue in favour of consolidating fragmented value chains, stating they lead to increased foreign investment, enhanced technological development and increased financial efficiency, which benefits the end consumer. However, when viewed from a systemic perspective, an equally valid counterargument contends that the process of consolidation tends to allow the most profitable elements of the food value chain to be separated from the marginal or unprofitable elements – the profits from abundant water separated from the needs of the citizens and ecosystems which used to rely on this water, for example. Ownership of these profitable elements is then concentrated in few hands (very often shareholders in developed economies), while ecological or social costs are externalised at a local level.

As the concentration of profit increases, so too does the power to manipulate the food system in order to enable greater concentration of profit and control in future.

However, the questions of power and control are not simply about big companies. When food is scarce, power in the food system plays out between governments and their citizens, urban and rural constituents and even between individual members of a household. It also raises questions about how researchers and the academic community exercise power while engaging with power and powerlessness.

(Above: Low wage workers, many in the fast-food industry, join with supporters for a 'die-in' in front of a McDonald's to demand better pay. Employees at Walmart and fast food restaurants say that the current minimum is not a living wage.

Global food companies like Walmart and McDonalds have faced increasing criticism over income inequality.

The CEO of Mc Donald earns $9,224 per hour. Roughly 1,196 times as much as the average company employee.

In 1968 the top CEOs were paid only about 20 times what workers earned.)

(Above: Seemingly out of place, a sign for American fast food company, KFC, directs customers in a rural part of South Africa to a newly opened outlet.

KFC and other fastfood chains are experiencing strong growth in many markets across Africa. Image by Erik Miller)

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