Trading in raw commodities generates more knowledge than processed food

African mass food markets

For people keen to learn about indigenous entrepreneurship, African mass food markets never disappoint. Also known as territorial markets, these institutions are the heartbeat of genuine knowledge exchange. Like any other institution where thousands of people congregate, African mass food markets are not perfect but they tend to be more dynamic than neo-liberal market systems such as supermarkets and wholesalers that mostly deal in processed food. In fact, traders who deal in processed food like cooking oil, flour, sugar and others often lack knowledge about those commodities in whose value addition they do not participate.

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On the contrary, traders who specialise in indigenous food like small grains, sweet potatoes and indigenous food have deep knowledge about these commodities because they are part of their identity and are involved in value addition. For instance, the traders know about different varieties of indigenous commodities including critical aspects like seasonality, when they are sold, types of consumers and diverse ways of preparing meals.

African mass food markets as part of resilient food systems

What makes African mass food markets an integral component of resilient food systems include the following:

The market is a knowledge system. Traders, vendors and transporters have a lot of knowledge that has been built over time. However, due to lack of clear knowledge-sharing pathways, some of the knowledge may not be shared in ways that benefit most farmers. Building strong knowledge-sharing systems can address predatory behaviour in the agricultural sector by minimising information asymmetry and putting in place new rules.

Production capacity is seen through mass markets. By showing where commodities are coming from, mass markets reveal comparative advantages of different production zones. It is through data on market supplies that production zones that are failing to reach their full potential can be identified.

This can trigger appropriate investments to sustain maximum production. In such production zones, gluts cause much physical wastage as well as economic losses due to suppressed prices.

Enforcing fair trading practices through mass markets — Very few African policymakers realise that gluts negatively affect the national gross domestic product (GDP) by limiting pathways through which resources poured into production can be translated into better sales, thus under-valuing agriculture and commodities. Using data from mass food markets, it is possible to develop a market-guided production system that minimises gluts and reduces waste of inputs.

Using mass markets to empower local authorities — The majority of mass food markets across Africa are under the jurisdiction of local authorities. Evidence from mass food markets can enable municipalities and other local authorities to properly manage cities, towns and growth points through becoming aware of the accurate number of businesspeople, traders and vendors.

This enhances local planning in terms of vending sites, regulation systems and increasing revenue streams. So far, many African local authorities have been operating without proper systems for years.

Through market data, they can begin to see the need to develop new vending sites as informed by vending practices mushrooming everywhere which is a sign of growth and need for space.

Mass markets as drivers of financial inclusion — Properly organised mass markets can act as a collateral system that builds the confidence of financial institutions, input suppliers and other service providers to work with known and registered farmers, traders, transporters, vendors and other market actors. This can address perennial headaches like side-marketing and food losses.

Enforcing food safety and traceability through mass markets — With enough support, mass markets can simplify the introduction of traceability systems which are a key requirement for exports. There is no doubt that mass markets can be ideal pathways for bringing international standards to the grassroots for the benefit of farmers, traders, consumers and other key actors.

For African countries seized with devolution, mass markets speak directly to devolution by enhancing local investment in production zones.

These markets are good at introducing new behaviour among value chain actors in ways that can anchor critical pillars of national food systems.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist. He writes here in his personal capacity.


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