Safeguarding food systems and women's livelihoods in Vanuatu

A Port Vila marketplace with fresh food displayed on tables and vendors seated around it

Vendors at a busy marketplace in Port Vila, Vanuatu, rely on access to safely managed WASH facilities not only for hand hygiene, but for continued trading during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic (IWC / Dr. Krishna Kumar Kotra)

When most people think about handwashing stations in marketplaces, they naturally connect their importance to hand hygiene, particularly in the current COVID-19 climate. But as one market vendor in Freswota, Port Vila, explained to researchers from the University of the South Pacific and World Vision Vanuatu, their significance is even greater than that.

In markets across Pacific Islands countries, vendors' access to safely managed handwashing facilities is inextricably linked to their business sales and essential to the life of markets now and beyond the pandemic.

"It will drive in more customers if the place is clean and neat […] some customers like to taste fruits before buying. Before tasting they would ask if there is any water to wash the fruit […] something should be done about this to provide good service to our customers," the vendor explained.

Markets are a key driver of economic prosperity in the Pacific Islands and provide a much needed source of income for some of the most vulnerable members of society. Women make up 80% of market vendors and many other workers in the informal economy rely on them for their livelihoods.

Although the Pacific Islands countries have experienced minimal cases of COVID-19, disruptions associated with the pandemic such as border closures, the economic downturn from the loss of tourism, and transport and market restrictions have exposed vulnerabilities within social, economic, political and local food systems, and have disproportionally impacted women.

The short food supply chains that dominate many Pacific Island country food systems, including Vanuatu's, have proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 induced challenges. Numerous restrictions have been imposed on key markets, stemming from the risks posed due to their high density, often poor WASH service availability, and low capacity to enforce hygiene and social distancing.

The 'WASH, foodways, markets, women and COVID-19 in Vanuatu' project, managed by the International WaterCentre at Griffith University and delivered with research partners the University of the South Pacific Vanuatu and World Vision Vanuatu, undertook research in 13 marketplaces and a selection of agri-businesses in Vanuatu between October 2020 and June 2021.

The research focused on building a shared understanding of WASH-related COVID-19 vulnerabilities experienced across the whole food supply chain – from garden to market – to improve prevention measures against COVID-19 and other communicable diseases in Vanuatu.

Three stakeholder workshops were held in Luganville, Lakatoro and Port Vila, Vanuatu, to present the research findings. Participants included market vendors, market managers, and government and civil society organisation representatives.

Some of the key perspectives echoed by participants across the three workshops included the need for:

  • More regular COVID-19 awareness activities in marketplaces to ensure vendors on different rotations don't miss out
  • Demonstration of WASH measures by health authorities and less reliance on posters and pamphlets, recognising the varying education levels of market vendors
  • Soap to be provided in toilets for vendors
  • Legislation to enforce market-related COVID-19 protocols, meaning adherence is ad hoc and inadequate
  • More systematic monitoring of all markets by the health department, and
  • Market managers stressed that without laws to safeguard WASH infrastructure, such as temporary hygiene stations, they are sometimes damaged or stolen.

These stakeholder perspectives are being fed into the research generated recommendations and will be disseminated to the government, civic society organisations and donors with a final report in July 2021.

The 'WASH, foodways, markets, women and COVID-19 in Vanuatu' project is managed by the International WaterCentre at Griffith University and delivered with research partners The University of the South Pacific in Vanuatu, and World Vision Vanuatu. Research is made possible by funding from the Australian Government through the Water for Women Fund.

Read more about this project here.


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