Unlocking the power of local food markets: Promoting smart, sustainable, and inclusive development in Southern Thailand

By Apichaya O-In, Stan van der Leemputte, and Hadee Hamidong

Cross posted from Thailand Social Innovation Platform

Yala’s Railway Market (Photo: MAD ARAI D)

Bustling food markets in Thailand’s southern border provinces are an integral part of the local food system. They are a real-time indicator for social cohesion, food security, and economic prosperity in society. However, lack of investment and maintenance along with the recent impact of COVID-19, have put these essential community resources at risk. Mrs. Patimoh Sadiyamu, the newly appointed and first-ever Muslim woman vice Governor of Yala has given an interesting reflection on the issue.

Sadiyamu, a native of Yala, now 55, knows the significance of local food markets to the region all too well. Growing up in an impoverished rural area of Yala province, Sadiyamu, spent her young years helping her mother gather vegetables from the villages to sell at the local Railway Market in Yala city. “For so many families just like mine, selling locally sourced products at the market is crucial to their income and livelihoods”, Sadiyamu reflected.

Much of life revolves around local food markets in Thailand’s southernmost provinces; they are a source of nutrition, income, and social contact. For this culturally dynamic subregion challenged by socio-economic instability, food markets bring diverse ethnoreligious groups together, fostering social cohesion while providing a strong base for the local, mostly informal economy in which local people are employed. Sadiyamu explains why a meaningful collaboration to unlock the intrinsic power of local food markets in leveraging the sustainability of food consumption and production is long overdue given their critical role in improving quality of life and environment.

“The aspiration has always been there, but when we consider the markets as an ecosystem, we find that the high level of interdependency between the current market system and other value chains discourages new ideas that may lead to any transformative changes. Also, without a due and inclusive process of public participation people who currently benefit from the current system are often reluctant to join due to fear of losing their stakes in the transformation. We have to empathize that the local markets are their crucial source of income for many. For some, their livelihoods are just so dependent to the markets that any disruption would be less welcomed.”

Mrs. Patimoh Sadiyamu

Notwithstanding these complexities, the transformation of local food systems and markets is possible and something to strive for. According to Sadiyamu, redesigning Post COVID-19 local food markets in Thailand’s southern border provinces is an opportunity for the people, local governments, and private sector to collaborate and tackle some longstanding systemic issues in the areas of social cohesion, food security, and poverty. For development efforts to be transformative, Sadiyamu suggests, “they must be innovative, locally rooted, user-driven and carefully embedded into the local context. Local authorities have an important role to play here; they need to have a deeper understanding of local dynamics, have insights into people’s problems, provide support, set up standards and protect both vendors and customers.”

The current impacts of COVID-19 have disrupted Thailand’s food systems and magnified the importance of food supply chains and local markets to people’s lives and livelihoods. Moreover, the food systems’ highly interconnected nature will likely see disruption produce ripple effects in political, social and environmental systems, threatening SDG progress.

Yala’s Railway Market (Photo: MAD ARAI D)

With this in mind, UNDP is collaborating with ALC, an Innovation Lab to introduce Social Innovation Platforms (SIP) that utilizes a portfolio approach to enhance the sustainability of local food systems. The open innovation platform utilizes a listening process to gather insights on local dynamics and complexities, connects issues across sectors and thematic areas, and leverages the creativity and know-how of all of society to co-create a portfolio of solutions not only for the people but with the people.

In partnership with local governments, local academic institutions, young creative groups, local incubators, schools, food entrepreneurs, and market managers, the first batch of solutions (prototypes) is currently being co-created in three southern border provinces of Thailand, namely Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. To give an example, Yala Municipality has now partnered with UNDP to co-design digital strategies for traceability and related innovative projects in its local fresh markets. Traceability can help to create awareness and demands of food security, safety, and sustainability among consumers and producers which subsequently contribute to the success of participatory guarantee systems (PGS) for local food produces to be promoted in the localities.

Moreover, creative activists, private sectors, and local governments in the subregion will gather to co-design a practical guideline for event-based activities to be truly impactful for local food systems, economy, and social cohesion linking with a work-in-progress of video documentaries that features hidden recipes, richness of local food produces, and local ways of lives associated with local markets.

To strengthen the power of systemic solutions in the current experimentation, these prototypes are designed to be multilevel and interconnected both conceptually and physically to one another and linked to Yala municipal food markets as a living lab. This fits well with Yala City’s aspiration to get back on its feet, stronger than ever by introducing a smart city project with the latest municipal digital platform to improve access and quality of public services and boost local economy ensuring no one is left behind. This includes an e-government program that involves an e-marketplace for local producers and service providers called “Yala Marketplace (Lad Yala)”.

In this regard, Sadiyamu viewed that the open innovation platform focusing on food as a driver of inclusive changes, social cohesion, standardization and laying down new structures is a very useful initiative to unlock the power of local food markets.

Yala’s Railway Market (Photo: MAD ARAI D)

Mr. Renaud Meyer — the Resident Representative of UNDP also explains that SIP responds to Thailand’s efforts on SDG localization as the platform encourages and empowers local stakeholders to play an active role in creating the conditions for innovation through multi-level and multi-sector partnership: one that is not focused on single-point solutions but that is coherent to the nature of the complex challenges faced by the sub-region.

In September 2021, the United Nations will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The Summit will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems. To reach these goals, we must explore how innovative platform approaches, such as SIP Thailand, can play a role in catalyzing change dynamics in such a complex, interdependent system. As Sadiyamu put it, deeper understanding of ‘stake’ holders and meaningful co-creation efforts in tandem with the mapping of development linkages, are essential in breaking silos, building new forms of collaborations, and leveraging collective impacts in the southern border provinces to accelerate the progress towards achieving the SDGs.

Since August 2019, UNDP has been working in collaboration with ALC, the Social Innovation Laboratory to promote local economic development, improve livelihoods, social cohesion, and local governance in Southern Thailand’s border provinces. This article is part of a series of stories of how we are developing a Social Innovation Platform that utilizes the potential of the food system as a medium to tackle complex local development challenges.

The blog is authored by Apichaya O-In, Project Manager, Social Cohesion for SDGs in Southern Border Provinces at UNDP Thailand, Stan van der Leemputte, Impact and Communication Analyst at UNDP Crisis Bureau, and Hadee Hamidong, Innovation Consultant at UNDP Thailand.

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