Making a difference through consensus – lessons from African food markets
Efforts to develop African economies and food systems have been expert-driven and instruction-oriented for decades. One of the most enduring assumptions has been that communities and farmers will not go anywhere without experts like extension officers and livestock specialists, among others. On the contrary, most marginalized communities continue to depend on consensus and lived experience than advice from experts.
Harnessing the power of consensus
As demonstrated in African mass food markets, consensus is a powerful resource in building resilient food systems based on indigenous knowledge. Commodity prices, measurements and trading hours are set by consensus in African economies and SME ecosystems. Instead of pushing top-down, expert-driven solutions, governments and development agencies can learn a lot from how African mass food markets and indigenous communities use consensus to build local thriving economies that are able to absorb external shocks like pandemics and droughts.
The value of consensus is visible in how actors in African mass food markets agree on what measurements to use when trading diverse commodities without using weighing scales to determine value based on quantity. Below are examples of measurements that are determined by consensus:
Sack-based packaging: African food markets like Nakawa in Kampala Uganda and Mbare in Harare Zimbabwe use different sizes of sacks to sell a wide range of grains and other foods. Most smaller markets procure sacks from these big markets which also influence measurements for trading commodities in farming communities and local markets.
Saseka and Semia: The use of this sack in Zimbabwe food markets has a curious history. When food traders and vendors tried to break bulk of commodities like butternut and cucumbers from 50kgs into heaps they discovered that the 50kg bag contained less commodities. The traders stumbled on the 62kg saseka/semia which landed itself very well to breaking bulk, heaping and other forms of repackaging done in smaller residential markets. The other influence came from transportation where it was discovered that given that transporters charge per bag and not per entire load, the 50kg was expensive to transport while it contained fewer commodities.
Having looked at all the sacks in the market, consensus zeroed on the saseka which, when carrying butternuts and cucumber weighs 62kg. After counting the number of fruits, the saseka matched expectations of many actors. It also matched the number of sacks that can be loaded on the truck.
Wooden crates: Consensus to use the wooden crate in Zimbabwe’s food markets was driven by communal tomato production. The 8kg wooden box was also targeted at low-income consumers who cannot afford large packages. While in some cases the wooden box is being replaced by a plastic sandak, there is lack of research on the possibility of coming up with an alternative container that can replace the wooden box and of smaller weight. The wooden box is slowly phasing out as more communal farmers engage with traders who are bringing 30kg plastic crates for use as standard measurement. The nature of the product exchange at the farm is replacing the role of the wooden box.
20 litre tins: These take care of volume that cannot be counted. After the 5l the next level is 20l which traders derive from the number of 5l that can get into the 20l, simplifying calculations. However, the 20l tin is highly controversial because it is not the same everywhere. Most 20l containers have commodities worth 18kg. Some have collars while other have lower brims.
What drives units of measurement?
Units of measurement for commodities like sweet potatoes are moving from saseka to 5litre tins. This is driven by the nature of selling – direct to vendors and consumers which forces breaking of bulk. Some vendors are doing semi-wholesaling and take sweet potatoes that are sold as heaps in residential market stalls. Consumers have also become comfortable to buy in 5l tins which they find more affordable.
Why not use weighing scales?
Some commodities cannot be satisfactorily sold through weighing but through quantity like sweet potatoes. While potatoes are also sold in 5l tins to ensure affordability by many consumers, heaping is now a more common way of selling. The increase in heaping speaks to affordable measurements by consumers most of whom cannot afford large volumes but have to live from hand to mouth. There is also some consensus among low-income consumers that when you buy heaped potatoes you get more than buying a single 15kg pocket which is made up of 8 to 9 heaps.
Behind each measurement are units of measurement. To reduce the inconvenience of having to weigh commodities each time someone wants to buy, market actors have simply agreed that as long as a saseka is full everyone is satisfied. There is no need to spend time weighing commodities all the time. If that was to happen, there would be long queues as buyers waited to have their consignments weighed and some quantities removed to ensure the exact measurement. The market has merely converged around some consistency guaranteed through common measurements. As long as market actors know the measurements there is agreement.
Units of measurement are also mostly driven by how you are going to sell. Dozens are the only units for green mealies. Bundles are ideal for leafy vegetables also influence buying at residential vending sites. Number of leaves in a bundle of Covo or Rape is 200 – 220 leaves which are broken down to 16 leaves at street vending sites which also goes down 10 leaves = $1/leaf. Conversely, formal markets want bundles at 8.50grams to 1kg. On the other hand, an indigenous chicken cannot be sold using a scale because it does not weigh much. You have to consider other benefits beyond consumption, like mothering ability and capacity to produce many eggs or resistance to pests and diseases.
There is still room for experts
The main message is not that experts have no role in local economies and food systems. While experts are important, their roles should not overshadow local knowledge and experiences. When roles are clearly defined, experts can focus on what they are good at and examples include bringing scientific excellence to the grassroots by using proven scientific knowledge to determine the nutrition content of specific food like fats, carbohydrates, zinc and other micro-nutrients that are found in food, whose nutrition content cannot be seen using a naked eye.
The whole traditional leadership systems were, to a large extent, built on consensus. Families would seat down and agree on the kind of leader who would take the society forward. Unfortunately, this is being undermined by imported partisan politics. A good example of consensus-based food system is agroecology whose strengths is about going beyond agriculture to embrace biodiversity and natural ecosystems that provide abundant food from Mother Nature for human sustenance. Such food includes indigenous fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, wild meat, honey and fish.
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