How African mass food markets decolonize and moderate the cost of living

One of the legacies of colonialism in many African countries is the notion of coloniality. This refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism and which continue to define culture, labour, inter-subjective relations, knowledge production and food systems. Coloniality is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of Africans as well as in food choices and consumption patterns. 

Cost of living definition in a colonial sense

In keeping with coloniality, the cost of living in most African countries has, for many decades been   anchored on formal wage employment as the main enabler for people, especially urban dwellers, to meet their cost of living in terms of food, accommodation, education and transport. The income was colonially considered one-way and linked to the breadwinner who was expected to be formally employed in order to earn enough income to meet all cost-of-living requirements for entire households.  Since the cost of living was always given, the gap between the cost of living and income earned would widen with the level of income earned by the breadwinner.  This has influenced the rating and classification of consumer classes into poor, low-income, middle-income and high income as measured by the amount of income earned. Up to now, that is the formulae being used as a basis for coming up with minimum wages.

Mass food markets redefining cost of living

The colonial definition of cost of living has not incorporated massive transformations in several African countries where informal economies and informal employment have become major sources of income. Driven mainly, by young agricultural entrepreneurs, these home-grown economies are an expression of indigenous commerce characterized by informal trading, diversified enterprises, trading of diverse commodities within the same households. More household members evolving into income earners instead of depending on one bread winner.  All these trends are moderating the cost of living in significant ways. 

If a trader is trading two to three commodities, these commodities intimately support each other. For instance, at one time tomato trading can earn a reasonable income to sustain household income. Through dynamic self-organization, diversity through aggregation in mass markets, ensures traders and other actors do not slip below cost of living requirements. A related aspect is that mass markets have become seedbeds for family enterprises to trade different commodities in ways that broaden income sources unlike depending on one bread winner.  Where a family is involved in trading food commodities in the mass market, specialization is quite vibrant. The husband can specialize on potatoes, the wife on packaging material and the daughter or son on high value commodities. All these income streams moderate the cost of living for the families.

Fluid income sources as opposed to monthly salaries

One key expression of coloniality is a monthly salary liked to formal employment. While formal employees may have no influence on how much they earn, in African mass markets income sources are so fluid and diverse that it is possible to earn more per week than what a formal employee earns per month. Some value chains can reward traders and farmers rapidly through sudden two-fold increases in commodity prices. For instance, demand can trigger increases in tomato prices in unexpected ways, leading to sudden more income to tomato producers and traders. While this applies to traders, many farmers also benefit by not having to wait for wage employees in cities to be paid at the end of the month. Many young African farmers have become active participants in commercial commodity trading through mass markets and this has broadened their income sources.

By creating space for trading indigenous food systems, mass food markets have also enabled more women to participate in generating income for the households. Traditionally women commodities like indigenous chicken, sweet potatoes and others were not considered income earners. It follows that, besides decolonizing food systems, mass markets are creating more value for women-oriented commodities. The more income, the better the living standard for households.

Need to close knowledge gaps

All these issues are happening without much documentation and support for mass markets such that there are still evidence gaps. For instance, to what extent are mass markets contributing to education which is one of the most fundamental costs of living? What would have been the situation with African literacy levels if there was no smallholder farming and mass markets?  Answering such critical questions requires investment in evidence generation which, unfortunately, is not happening in most African countries still obsessed with colonial industrial models.

Urban consumers are a critical segment of the supply chain because, without space and time to produce most of their own food, food is their major cost of living. Without mass food markets, urban consumers will not be able to get food from farming areas. The demand for food has been increasing in most African cities in response to population growth.  This has invited aggregation of food to the extent that any increase in demand for a given supply results in increasing prices for commodities.  

Where systems of moderating and regulating supply and demand are missing, more demand pushes food beyond the reach of poor urban consumer who cannot afford. Consequently, expensive commodities become more like luxuries for poor consumers. To moderate some of these situations, mass markets play major roles including financing the production side as well as keeping farmers always in touch with the markets to match supply with demand. Many youth traders are also involved in aggregating to ensure the cost of food is reduced through economies of scale.  Another powerful moderation role played by mass markets and traders is developing self-organized systems for meeting the needs of different consumers through grading of commodities in line with choices and affordability levels of diverse consumers. Out of food   diversity emerge several substitutes that also moderate the cost of food. For instance, consumers who cannot afford potatoes have a wide choice from other tubers. Those who do not afford squash butternuts can get pumpkins.

Comparative advantage pricing

More importantly, African mass food markets ride on comparative advantage pricing to set prices based on high producing and supply areas. If a high producing area is compared with a low producing area, the low producing area will have comparatively high prices. By bringing the two together, mass markets ensure consumers in low producing areas benefit from commodities coming from high producing areas. Using the Zimbabwean example, Masvingo consumers benefit from buying potatoes from Manicaland than if they were going to buy local. On the other hand, Manicaland farmers benefit from selling to consumers in low producing areas like Masvingo than selling locally where everyone has potatoes. Consumers in low producing areas save by buying from high producing areas. Where they would locally get potatoes at USD15/pocket, they get it at USD10 and farmers in Manicaland earn USD10 instead of USD3/pocket. This interchange of comparative advantage trend which comes from aggregation does not happen in formal markets like supermarkets.

Benefits of direct trading between producers and consumers

Another very important cost of living moderation aspect comes from more direct trading between consumers and producers. Mass markets enable consumers to choose who they want to buy from. In the farmers market, consumers can buy directly from producers. On the other hand, farmers also have a choice to sell directly to consumers and cut off middlemen who would have benefitted from a mark-up which should be direct income for farmers. By buying directly from farmers, consumers also forego a mark-up that would go to the trader.  However, traders are key in ensuring consistency in supply. For instance, consumers and farmers who come late or at different times, find the commodity available in different packages which meet different consumer budgets.

Importance of understanding supply chain pathways

The best way African policy makers can recognize and support mass markets for their critical role in moderating the cost of living is putting in place good infrastructure and other key services including data collection. The cost of living should not just be linked to minimum wage. Policy makers should assess how much traders are earning. If people are spending USD5 for transport to buy perishable commodities that translates to USD150/year transport because their infrastructure is bad. What about other costs such as school fees, transport for the family, health and other aspects?  Understanding such details is fundamental because trading businesses have become a major of food items for most African households and a big portion of traded items subsidize food requirements in ways that moderate the cost of living.

A critical part of the solution is clearly defining supply chain pathways chains for different commodities. Such definition and mapping should cover production, logistics the movement of commodities and in which pathways), destinations (markets that are aggregating and distributing diverse commodities, consumers (different types of consumers for diverse commodities), actors (who are the actors along supply chain nodes and how many youths are participating?). Which other actors are found in the food system? How synergized are the systems and practices at production nodes (government, NGOs, private sector and community knowledge, individual systems like collective efforts such as cooperatives). Currently, most of these details remain fragmented and siloed. / /

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