By Trent Blare and Jason Donovan published in May 22 2020
Photo by Carolyn Cowan at CIMMYT
Over the last decade, a culinary transformation has occurred around the world. Wealthy and middle-class consumers have increased demand for heirloom food products, including native varieties of commodity crops such as potatoes, cocoa, and maize, due to their unique taste profiles and nutritional value. Now this new market, which started in gourmet restaurants and expanded to supermarkets, is growing among urban consumers in countries where these foods are produced. In addition to the nutritional and flavor characteristics sought out by consumers in the United States and Europe, consumers in developing countries have begun to seek out these products because of their cultural and historical significance.
In Mexico, this food trend has been borne out in the demand for blue maize and other native maize to be used in tortillas, chips, boiled maize, and other products. What was an ingredient found only in food stands and markets in rural villages just five years ago now appears on the menus of traditional and upscale restaurants in the country’s major cities and can be found in supermarkets and neighborhood stores. Due to the newness of these markets, actors in the value chains of blue maize and other heirloom food products know little about the scope of consumer demand, however. Understanding consumers’ interest in these products and willingness to pay more for them would provide insights into designing interventions to connect smallholders with these lucrative markets. Such efforts have the opportunity to conserve native crop varieties, strengthen smallholder livelihoods, and stimulate rural development.
In order to understand Mexican consumers’ preferences and willingness to pay for one of these heirloom products, blue maize tortillas, researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) interviewed 630 consumers in peri-urban Mexico City. The scientists interviewed the consumers in a local market frequented by lower income consumers and in two shopping centers frequented by middle- and upper-income consumers. The interviews included questions on purchasing and eating habits, as well as a more interactive section with a sensory analysis and choice experiment. For the sensory analysis, the consumers scored white machine-made, white handmade, and blue handmade tortillas on taste, smell, texture, size, thickness, and color. In order to demonstrate the authenticity of the product, a local cook made the tortillas on site, ensuring that each of the consumers would have hot, fresh tortillas.
The researchers then used a choice experiment to determine how much more consumers would be willing to pay for blue handmade tortillas than for white machine-made and white handmade tortillas. They innovated on traditional choice experiments by asking the consumers about their preferences in three different scenarios: in-home daily use, in-home special events, and out-of-home consumption. The research team described the scenario to each consumer and included pictures so that the consumers could envision each scenario. By using three scenarios, the team was able to analyze how consumers’ preferences for blue tortillas varied by context. This is particularly important to understand in regard to heirloom foods because these are not typically consumed on a daily basis but rather in special cultural and familial events.
The results revealed that consumers’ eating patterns differed by dish and scenario. Consumers were more likely to use blue maize tortillas in traditional regional dishes and to purchase them from local markets rather than in supermarkets. They also indicated their preference for blue maize tortillas in the sensory analysis in each of the categories, with 69% preferring the blue maize tortillas. Consumers on average were willing to pay 42% more for the blue maize tortillas for out-of-home consumption, and those with a post-secondary education were willing to pay 57% more. However, consumers’ willingness to pay for blue maize tortillas for in-home consumption was considerably lower. Only women were willing to pay slightly more (4%) for the blue maize tortillas consumed at home for daily use, while both men and women with higher education level were willing to pay more (7%) for the blue maize tortillas consumed at home for a special event.
Finally, while consumers preferred blue maize tortillas, the research team found that they have little access to these products due to a lack of knowledge about where to purchase them and limited supply in markets and stores.
Such findings demonstrate that opportunities exist for heirloom products, like blue maize, in the growing consumer markets in developing countries. These markets could be particularly appealing to the smallholders who have conserved these traditional crops. However, consumers face difficulties in purchasing these items. Interventions to connect smallholders with these markets would require a nuanced approach to ensure that heirloom products reach consumers where and when they seek them out, such as in restaurants or at cultural celebrations. The results also demonstrate that consumer research on markets for heirloom foods or other culturally important foods needs to consider contextual and cultural factors to understand fully consumers’ preferences.
This study was funded by Mexico’s Agency for Commercialization Services and Agricultural Market Development (ASERCA) and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize.
Trent Blare is a Markets and Value Specialist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) located in Texcoco, Mexico.
Jason Donovan is a Senior Economist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) located in Texcoco, Mexico.