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African mass markets not only about pushing commodities

Opinion & Analysis
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist

CONTRARY to formal markets which are mostly about transactions, African mass food markets are not just about pushing commodities to consumers but education. Many urban consumers would not know how to prepare some indigenous vegetables and wild potatoes if mass markets did not exist. Dominant in almost every African city, mass food markets are centres of knowledge exchange.

Commodity deliveries in mass markets

Farmers who frequent African mass food markets have more to learn about markets and consumption patterns than those who sell their commodities through formal systems like supermarkets.

Knowledge on the most common transport through which the bulk of commodities are delivered to the market including the behaviour of transporters is acquired in the market. For instance, depending on commodities and distance to the market, the most common trucks range from one tonne to 30-tonne trucks.

However, smallholder farmers with low volumes of commodities such as small grains, legumes and indigenous chickens often use public transport like long distance buses. Many traders use public transport to go and look for commodities like water melons in farming areas and when the consignment is ready, they call the transporter who is often hanging around the market.

Knowledge on right type of packaging

In most cases, the market determines the type of packaging for most commodities. It is in the farmer’s interest to master different kinds of packaging and measurement for different markets. For instance, companies that manufacture potato pockets are often informed by mass markets which move huge volumes of the commodity. In Zimbabwe, Mbare market influences the types of packaging used across the country. More than 60% of the potato pockets are sold at the Mbare market as well as other types of sacks. The same pockets used for potatoes are used to pack onions, butternuts and garlic, among other commodities.

In fact, there are now specialist traders on packaging, including plastic polybags used to pack chilli pepper, okra and other commodities.

Sack-based packaging: Mbare sells huge volumes of different sizes of sacks that go throughout the country. Although there are companies which produce sacks, Mbare handles more than 50% of the 50kg bags in circulation, all types, some new and others re-used. Companies that import bran, flour and feedstock often dispose of the sacks at Mbare market from where other markets buy.

Wooden crates: These were driven by communal tomato production but are gradually being replaced by plastic crates. The 8kg wooden box is also targeted at low-income consumers who cannot afford large packages. However, the wooden box is slowly being phased out as most communal farmers engage with traders who are bringing 30kg plastic crates to the farm as standard measurement at the farm. All these trends are picked in the mass market.

Units of measurement in mass markets

One of the major reasons why weighing scales are less used on African mass food markets is because some commodities cannot be satisfactorily sold through weighing but through quantity like sweet potatoes. In Mbare market, units of measurement for commodities like sweet potatoes are moving from big bags called semias to 5-litre tins. This is driven by selling direct to vendors and consumers who prefer breaking 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 as it is affordable to buy in five-litre tins. 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 proof that vendors and consumers who heap potatoes get more than when they buy a single 15kg pocket.

Units of measurement are mostly driven by how you are going to sell. Dozens are the only units for green mealies. Bundles are ideal for leafy vegetables, they also influence buying at residential vending sites. Number of leaves in a bundle of Covo vegetables is 200-220 which are broken down to 16 leaves at street vending sites which also goes down 10 leaves = $1/leaf.

Meanwhile, formal markets want bundles at 8,50 grammes to 1kg and leafy vegetables have to go straight to supermarkets. To avoid the inconvenience of having to weigh commodities each time someone wants to buy, market actors have simply agreed that as long as a semia 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. The market has merely converged around some consistency guaranteed through common measurements. As long as market actors know the measurements there is agreement.

Twenty-litre buckets are used for volumes that cannot be counted. After the five-litre the next level is 20-litre which traders derive from the number of five-litre tins that can fill the 20-litre, simplifying calculations.

However, there is controversy around the 20-litre tin because it is not the same everywhere. Most 20-litre containers have commodities worth 18kg. Some have collars while other do not have collars which means they take few commodities.

There are also some commodities like indigenous chicken which cannot be satisfactorily sold using a weighing scale. Depending on different uses and preferences, farmers and consumers have had to consider other benefits beyond consumption, like mothering ability and capacity to produce many eggs or resistance to pests and diseases. These are some of the critical dynamics and knowledge systems perfected in African mass markets. Strong relationships have been built between farmers, traders and transporters to satisfy diverse classes of consumers.

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

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