Making institutions viable: a contextualised understanding of bulking in Ugandan food markets

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Sustainable Development Goal 2 envisions to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. These global ambitions assume that most small-scale agricultural producers are included in, and benefit from, agricultural food markets. Development policy and practice aim to facilitate the connection of farmers to markets via newly introduced ‘institutional arrangements’ referring to the introduction of, for example, cooperatives and formal contracts. The literature on institutional arrangements leaves several gaps. First, an exclusive focus on either the origin, initial design or outcomes of institutional arrangements pays less attention to how institutional arrangements actually work and remain intact in specific contexts and how these evolve over time. Second, studies on induced institutional arrangements have a strong focus on enhancing sustainability in high-value markets or global commodity chains. However, a focus on the engagement of farmers with domestic food markets is highly relevant for understanding the conditions of ensuring local food and nutrition security. And third, a strong focus on the introduction of novel arrangements – with the underlying arguments of modifying imperfect markets or filling institutional voids – might overlook market solutions already present within the context, organized by locally embedded actors in the so-called ‘hidden middle’.

This thesis addresses these gaps with the aim to analyse how both locally organised and induced institutional arrangements work, evolve, interact and are embedded in a dynamic context of food provisioning in northern Uganda. The working and evolution of institutions can be studied with the concept of institutional viability, which bridges both structure, or macro, and agency, or micro perspectives on institutions by developing a meso-perspective. A practice perspective is used to study the daily activities of bulking, or how food materials become available for processing and marketing. To understand the complex whole of the daily work of actors in bulking, their role in governing bulking, and the embedding of bulking in socio-material contexts, the practice needs to be studied from different angles. This is achieved with a ‘zooming in – zooming out’ approach, employing a selection of institutional lenses. A historical perspective is used to understand which historical dynamics shaped the contemporary features of agricultural transformation of the sunflower sector in northern Uganda. These transformations included a shift from cottonseed oil to sunflower oil, the end of civil war, and increasing competition for produce by processors and intermediaries (Chapter 2). Within this context, the viability of three types of market arrangements were studied, each with a different institutional lens. Chapter 3 combines an economic history perspective with a practice approach to understand the reinforcement of institutions governing bulking practices of (largely) informal traders. Chapters 4 uses institutional bricolage to understand how institutions governing farmer cooperatives are embedded within their context, and Chapter 5 uses institutional diagnostics to understand how a processor and its intermediaries pivot in contract farming arrangements under influence of external pressures.

I conclude that institutions governing market arrangements become viable if there is space for blending with institutions already present in the context, such as those governing informal trade. Likewise, institutions remain viable - successfully adjusting to external pressures – by articulating with local market arrangements. The collective outcome of bulking practices is defined as ‘ensuring a consistent supply of produce and finance flows’. Ensuring a consistent supply under difficult circumstances is not evident and is the empirical manifestation of the viability of the several institutional arrangements studied. The making of viability is not an easy process and takes time: institutional arrangements developed over at least 20 years. The research identifies four properties of institutionally viable food markets: 1) accommodating a variety of

practices, actors and interests; 2) ordering distributed tasks without external control; 3) achieving social settlements; and 4) blending with proven practices. The latter shows that induced arrangements in food markets do not exist in isolation or fill a void but become viable through blending and articulating with institutions already present in local food markets.

A study of viable market institutions unites rigidity and agency in food provisioning, and has consequences for development thinking about intervening in food markets. Using multiple institutional lenses gave new theoretical insights for the study of agricultural markets in the global South around intermediation, collective action and coordination, and the materiality of bulking practices. In terms of methodology, the institutional viability of bulking was made insightful using a practice-oriented and configurational perspective. The thesis argues that institutional diagnostics can be enhanced by taking practice and ‘configurations’ as units of analysis, and by considering how practice and configurations navigate dynamic contexts. The research has the following implications for development policy and practice. First, development practice should start from what is already present, aligning with locally emerging practices, and this leads to an appreciation of intermediary trade. Second, the research shifts attention from studying whether farmers have access to markets, towards conditions under which farmers are included in the market. Third, the research leads to reflection on the influence of public policy and practice on development processes. Concluding, the thesis shifts attention in development and intervention thinking from an exclusive focus on induced organizational models to the traits and emergent blending of institutions in local food markets. And it shifts attention to actors in the so-called ‘hidden middle’ – hidden partly because of a scholarly interest in either producers or consumers of food at the extreme ends of the agri-food chain – such as wholesalers, processors, organized farmers, and logistical service providers. Studying their daily practices shows their skilfulness, creativity and improvisation in ensuring a consistent supply of produce and finance flows, which importantly contributes to a sustained provisioning of food under conditions of scarcity and volatility.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Leeuwis, Cees, Promotor
  • Vellema, Sietze, Co-promotor
Award date22 Oct 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463439756
Publication statusPublished - 22 Oct 2021


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