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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Interacting with value chain actors: What to do when your research subjects have work to do

Levels of food loss are product and value chain specific. An important first step in determining methods and metrics to evaluate food loss of perishables was to identify the product (or products) and map the value chains. The objective of my fieldwork this summer was to identify a perishable vegetable important in the Indian food system and map the value chains. Tomatoes were chosen because they are: perishable vegetables, good sources of micronutrients (such as ascorbic acid), produced throughout the year in India, and are widely consumed across regions. Working with a summer intern from TERI School of Advanced Studies, we spoke with different actors along the tomato value chain, from farm to retail, to identify the major actors and activities.

Learning how to conduct our work during normal work hours for the different actors proved to be challenging, but also provided important information and observations. Navigating this work during work hours, I learned about different cultural norms, such as bohni time, as well as the challenges and benefits of interviewing actors and observing activities as they are ongoing.

Bohni, the first sale of the day

I first learned the concept of “bohni” during lunch at the TCI-TARINA New Delhi office while discussing different markets around Delhi and negotiation practices. Bohni is a local custom where the first sale of the day determines the luck for sales for the rest of the day. It would be good luck for the seller if the first prospective buyer of the day makes a purchase, and potentially bad luck for the day if the first prospective buyer walks away without making a purchase. This lunchtime conversation proved to be useful in my own work to understand a cultural norm that I would apply during my market visits.

During a morning visit to the Azadpur fruit and vegetable wholesale market in Delhi, I stopped by a vendor selling vegetables on a cart nearby the market. The vendor was just setting up his cart for the day, placing tomatoes into a pile for display. I asked him about where he had purchased his tomatoes from and how he had decided which tomatoes to purchase. After a minute of discussion he asked if I was planning to buy anything. Being the first customer of the day, this was bohni time. Now familiar with the custom, and wanting to contribute to good luck for business that day, I purchased some tomatoes that we would later use in another portion of my project, to measure the ascorbic acid content.

Tomatoes ready to be sold by vendor using open cart (Photo credit: Jocelyn Boiteau)

Interacting with value chain actors during work hours

One of the more challenging aspects of this summer work was engaging with value chain actors as they were carrying out their activities. This was primarily a challenge when interacting with wholesalers, shopkeepers, and vendors during visits to wholesale, weekly and daily markets.

At weekly and daily markets and other vendors, there was an expectation that we were customers. Therefore, when approaching actors, we found it most helpful to give an elevator pitch to briefly explain who we are and our objective to understand the tomato market actors and activities. We tried to respect actors’ time by having prepared brief and focused questions. We gauged their level of availability, speaking with some actors a bit longer if they were willing to give us their time. Actors had limited availability if they were setting up their stalls at the beginning of the day, or when the market was ongoing and they were engaging with customers.

Wholesalers who sell tomatoes in 25-30 kg crates did not view us as prospective customers. They were often able to give us the most time because there were a number of workers hired to carry out the wholesale activities, such as unloading and loading crates. The wholesale operators were more available to speak with us and describe their business operation, where and how they source tomatoes, the activities of their workers, and the different buyers. Interviewing wholesalers, as activities were ongoing, was helpful in that we could ask about specific activities in real-time to better understand the process of moving tomatoes from one point of the value chain to the next.

Observing the tomato wholesale market in Kolar, Karnataka with TERI intern Sindhuja Shukla (left) and Tata-Cornell Scholar Jocelyn Boiteau (right). (Photo credit: Mr. Asgar)

Observing activities along the value chain

Carrying out visits during working hours allowed us to directly observe the activities at different points along the value chain. Through direct observation, we became aware of the nuanced activities. For example, tomatoes at wholesale markets are repacked into different crates. Tomatoes may be sorted out during the repacking process, either collected into a lower grade collection basket or discarded onto the ground. After crates are nearly full from the repacking, the best looking tomatoes are placed on the top layer. These observations enriched our understanding of the activities that value chain actors mentioned. When conducting direct observation it was important to keep our eyes and ears open not only to absorb the ongoing activities but also to make sure we were not in the way of the activities themselves.

The experience of collecting qualitative data through interviews and observations during work hours along the value chain provided important insights that will inform the design and timing of surveys, interviews and other data collection tools. Collecting certain data during work hours can yield important insights into the nuances of activities and decision-making, and can answer questions on-site as activities are occurring. However, because interruptions and distractions are likely to occur while interviewing during work hours, certain data collection tools, such as in-depth interviews, would best take place outside of busy work periods when the value chain actor has time to give full attention. Ultimately, through careful planning, a strong research design will strike the balance of respecting participants’ time and collecting the necessary data for the study.

By Jocelyn Boiteau

Jocelyn Boiteau is a PhD Student and a Tata-Cornell Scholar in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Her research focuses on food loss of perishable vegetables from a food and nutrition security perspective.