INSTEAD of continuously depending on Western criteria to value their economies, African countries and influential institutions like the African Development Bank should develop relevant criteria for valuating African economies. Unless that happens, they will not escape the narrow definition of economic growth which does not translate to better lives for all citizens. An assessment of national economic growth should fully capture what is happening in African mass food markets and cross-border trading because these represent unique indigenous African commerce.
Characteristics, principles of African commerce
Consistent with ubuntu and other African values, indigenous African commerce can be characterised by social aspects that are often missing in Western neo-liberal commerce. Some of the principles of indigenous African commerce expressed through mass food markets include the following:
Trust and relations — In indigenous African commerce, trust is a powerful intangible resource based on relationships built over many years of co-existence. Such trust does not really need written documents compared to Western commerce where relationships between financial institutions and ordinary people are solidified through opening bank accounts, filling forms and providing details like residential addresses before credit is extended. Such credit can be in the form of commodities. Relationships and trust are more important than a written contract.
Totems, origin, gender, age and proximity to one another strengthens collaboration. That is why there is more collaboration than competition which is different from Western commerce where stiff competition often leads to collusion and fixing of prices or artificial shortages.
Religion and partisan politics are not allowed to derail commerce within markets. Farmers, traders and other actors belong to institutions of their choice but such affiliations do not extend to the market. This shows that indigenous commerce has a unique way of handling religious, tribal, political and other conflicts without disrupting markets which are recognised as apolitical and sources of living for everyone. If this was not the case, African mass food markets would be seed beds for violence and animosity based on religion, tribe and partisan politics.
Social aspects dominate elements of leadership more than economic aspects. When it comes to business everyone is equal and leadership respects everyone. For instance, the selection of leaders is less linked to type and size of business. The market chairperson is accorded adequate respect although s/he may be trading in small volumes of commodities. When that leader goes out to represent the market in meetings with policymakers like local authorities, they represent everyone irrespective of business size. Unlike Western commerce where size of business is used to cluster businesses into different chambers like Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce for small to medium businesses and Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, indigenous African commerce does not set economic boundaries by business size. Indigenous commerce is based on the belief that in the practical world businesses do not have boundaries as seen by how large businesses sometimes act small.
That is why indigenous African commerce does not impose boundaries among micro, small and medium because actors have realised that one cannot meaningfully classify a business as being small, medium and large without a thorough understanding of the social and relational responsibilities associated with each business. One can only classify something as micro after fully considering all aspects ranging from social to economic because one trader can have a business with a capital of US$500 and taking care of his family of three while another trader may operate a business with a capital of US$5 000 but supporting her immediate family of six as well as extended families in rural areas. In this case, classifying these traders using their capital without taking care of their social, relational and communal obligations can be misleading.
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Business knowledge is a public good — just like in any community where a farmer with 100 cattle and the other who has three cattle exchange the same knowledge, indigenous African commerce has no selective knowledge conferences for big and small traders in African mass markets. In line with ubuntu ways of life and knowledge exchange, no idea is small, bad, large or better. Knowledge from a youth, a woman or a differently abled person is the same.
Identity is silent in terms of where one comes from, language, gender and age. African mass markets are just like a community where no one is segregated by tribe or other forms of identity. That is how African mass food markets become enriched with knowledge and traditions from all corners of the country and beyond. As part of adding value to how businesses are run within indigenous commerce ecosystems, some of the innovations result from diversity brought by farmers, traders and consumers. However, a major limitation is the absence of documentation of what farmers or traders learn from their peers coming from other parts of the country so that it becomes clear how knowledge exchange adds value to individual and collective indigenous commercial enterprises. This is typical in communities where the food system has been broadened by people visiting other communities and bringing seed.
Exchanging knowledge and seed is an integral part of indigenous commerce. African mass food markets have diverse seed sources coming from everywhere compared to a few formal seed companies promoting a few varieties in Western economic systems.
Promotion through achievements — whereas in formal institutions someone rises up the ladder maybe through performance and qualifications, in indigenous commerce promotion is seen through a trader’s household achievements. These can be in the form of supporting education visible through children graduating from college, purchasing assets like houses and many other social and tangible achievements.
Indigenous commerce actors are not motivated more by making profit for investing in capital markets to earn millions. These actors see more advantages in immediate investments like US$200 into school fees and acquiring tangible assets like livestock and tools that enhance their trade. The money is continuously invested in developmental areas like uniform making, building materials and even saving money for religious events like visiting Mecca, in the case of Moslems.
Where the formal Western commerce says business should grow using loans, African indigenous commerce, as expressed through mass food markets, ensures the business grows through internal investments and networks. If someone runs out of capital, they can use relationships and networks to rebuild, for instance, borrowing stock from other traders and farmers to resume trading. In this case, there is no loan but relationships facilitate the growth of both the farmer and the trader. As the trader expands the market and grows their business, the farmer’s business also grows.
Indigenous commerce business models are often invested back into the ecosystem, comprising African mass food markets, cross-border trading and many other undocumented commercial avenues. Indigenous commerce discourages externalisation of resources like money as opposed to Western neo-liberal commerce where actors can easily externalise proceeds instead of building local economies. In indigenous African commerce, financial inclusion initiatives are embedded in the social fabric.
- Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist