Understanding Food Purchase Decisions in Low-income Populations

The Importance of the Consumer

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Dr Hannah Theobald, nutrition and country support manager of the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (SBN) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)  is the author of “Consumer Insight for Improved Nutrition: Why consumer research is required to develop demand for nutritious foods among low-income consumers”, published in the ‘Focus on Food Culture’ edition of Sight and Life magazine.

Theobald’s expounds upon the SBN’s vision for more businesses to responsibly leverage consumer insight and data in their production of nutritious foods, particularly for low-income consumers, and its hopes that businesses will develop marketing and communications approaches making nutrition more exciting, relevant and aspirational to the consumer. 

“One third of the world’s population is consuming a poor diet, the world is facing a huge public health and economic challenge,” notes Theobald. “Improving the diets of more than two billion people requires, among other things, engaging food businesses to improve the nutritional content of foods and make nutritious foods more desirable. To reach the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, food businesses need to develop a deep understanding of low-income consumers and their food purchase decisions.”

A bit of background information, the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement was established in 2010 and supports national leadership and collective action to scale up nutrition. The SBN is one of four global networks that support SUN countries, along with the United Nations (UN), civil society and donor networks. It is convened by GAIN and the UN World Food Programme (WFP), but is also further supported by an advisory group comprising senior business leaders. The SBN advocates for and supports business investment in nutrition in order to help reduce all forms of malnutrition through innovation and responsible and sustainable initiatives, actions and operations.

The SBN’s wider remit is to facilitate partnerships and linkages with organizations that provide technical assistance, business development support and access to finance, in order to support business to better address malnutrition in all forms. As such, where possible, SBN undertakes and/or collates consumer and market research and shares findings with its business members at the national level.

In this interview, Theobald shares how SBN advocates and supports businesses to act on the issue surrounding malnutrition. The SBN’s Global Coordinator, Jonathan Tench; Uduak Igbeka, the Team Lead of SBN Nigeria, which is convened by GAIN; and Ralf Siwiti, Programme Manager, SBN Zambia, which is convened by the WFP also contributed to the Q&A session. 

Sight and Life (SAL): Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got involved in Scaling-Up Nutrition Network.

Hannah Theobald (HT): I’m a BSc and PhD qualified nutritionist, and have spent the majority of my career working as a nutritionist in the private sector, mainly focusing on emerging markets. In the last few roles within business I was involved in more corporate social responsibility (CSR) work. I’d been thinking about working in international development for some time so, when the opportunity arose, I took it. I had been aware of and inspired by the work of GAIN and the SUN Business Network for a while. Working on the SBN has been a great way of utilizing my nutrition and business background for social good and sustainable nutrition improvement.

Uduak Igbeka (UI): My background is in agricultural economics. I have been working at GAIN for six years now, focusing on regulatory agencies in industry on a food fortification program before the opportunity to join the SBN team presented itself. It was quite a natural fit, seeing as I had been working closely with business in Nigeria already. I found the opportunity to engage with businesses beyond the food sector exceptionally exciting.

Ralf Siwiti (RS): I am a marketer at heart. My career has taken me from managing relationships in sales to developing marketing communications campaigns for large multinationals in the food industry, as well as non-profit campaigns. My journey with the SUN Movement began with participation as a representative of a well-known consumer goods company at the launch of the SUN Business Network in Zambia in November 2014. Five months later, I was at the helm of this budding project, which has now developed into one of the most successful SUN country networks working to generate private sector investment in nutrition. I am currently leading SBN Zambia into its next phase, which will see it directing focus on making nutrition aspirational for consumers in Zambia.

SAL: What are the SBN’s main objectives?

HT: As the world’s only dedicated, global platform for business and nutrition, we have three main objectives. First, to mobilize business to contribute to reducing malnutrition in all forms. Secondly, we aim to make nutrition more aspirational, accessible, affordable – and available to the consumer. Finally, we are building the case for greater business engagement in nutrition amongst all stakeholders. We achieve this with the support of more than 400 members, which includes both multinational and national companies that are committed to improving nutrition throughout the world.

SAL: How do other stakeholders, who are part of the SUN network, perceive consumer research? 

UI: In Nigeria, the research that was shared with business was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and was originally intended for civil society and shared with them in the first instance. Because formative research is a big part of development, it is perceived that this type of research would help in shaping the development of more nutritious product for target populations in Nigeria.

RS: In Zambia, most stakeholders in the SUN network hold a positive view of consumer research and insight, as undertaken by the national SBN. The country has a widespread lack of data, including that on consumers. As a result, most sectors are eager to learn of the availability of usable data. Consumer insights form an increasingly powerful tool in terms of the implementation of programmes, particularly those relating to behaviour change communications (BCC).

SAL: What challenges are you faced with, to have others − both in and out of the SUN network − accept consumer research and apply the work?

Jonathan Tench (JT): Businesses face two common challenges when it comes to scaling up investment and action on nutrition. First, investment in nutrition is seen to be too expensive – returns on investment can be low if scale is also low and this can be seen as risky by business and investors alike. Second, there is little demand for nutrition at present, especially from low-income consumers, so it is hard for companies to make a case for investing more, as they don’t see a market. There’s also quite a poor understanding of what we mean by nutrition, which in part explains the low demand for nutritious foods. It’s important to do more to raise consumer awareness; we have to educate both consumers and businesses about nutrition.  

There are lots of ways that companies globally address this issue, alone or as part of public-private partnerships, for example around consumer behavior change. We want to encourage more of that type of action and partnership. Businesses can take other actions to raise awareness of and demand for nutritious foods, such as employing social marketing techniques where consumers are taught about the benefits of nutrition. Companies are often very good at marketing aspiration and employ a huge range of marketing strategies, so we’d be keen for businesses to employ these skills to make nutrition more aspirational and desirable.  

RS: The use of the term consumer can sometimes be interpreted as an attempt to commercially exploit the vulnerable. It is often important to highlight the fact that vulnerable people, or so-called beneficiaries of development programmes, are still capable of making choices. The choices they make can be a huge factor in attempts to support them and this is sometimes ignored in development programmes. The sensitization of stakeholders is important in relation to the need, use, and application of consumer insights as, by the nature of most development work, the consumer is often seen as a beneficiary who is vulnerable and must be protected.

UI: Businesses in Nigeria have found the information very useful for identifying product development opportunities. They find the information most useful where a business opportunity also addresses a public health need. Having access to market data through SBN provides access to a resource that many SMEs cannot afford. It helps stimulate innovation, and helps business better understand the consumer.   

SAL: What do you find most exciting and challenging in your work − and what do you hope to see in future?

HT: As a nutritionist from a private sector background, the need to understand the consumer well has been instilled in me. Before joining GAIN and the SBN, I therefore had an understanding of how consumer insight worked and the important role that it plays in product development and communication. It was very important for the network to get involved in this in order to help the Network develop effective consumer awareness campaigns and support business to deliver sustainable nutrition solutions. For example, in Tanzania, we didn’t understand the level of awareness of food fortification. Now that we do, we have a good understanding of consumer’s beliefs and knowledge it will be a lot easier to tailor messages around fortification.