How and why relationships move more food than markets

As containers of knowledge, African agricultural markets continue to inspire, clarify and reorient our awareness. Latest evidence gathered by eMKambo shows how and why the movement of food from farming communities to urban markets is based mostly on relationships as opposed to money. Agricultural markets are not just an endless parade of stories and examples but enlightening ideas that spark immense possibilities. Energizing and empowering agricultural transformation cannot be achieved without seeing and sharing the whole picture. It is through making sense of things together that value chain actors can see the whole ecosystem and start honoring their collaborations.

The role of relationships in market penetration

Agricultural commodities do not just penetrate formal and informal markets in a linear fashion. A new commodity begins with entering households where relationships foster adaptive consumption. People in different households share food, seed and other commodities via relationships expressed through gratitude for either paying a visit or hosting a traditional event where relatives come together. From households, appreciation of commodities moves to communities, cities and eventually, to the market. Associated knowledge is also transferred through relationships, emerging from households. This knowledge transition can happen along gender lines – father to son to son-in-law or mother to daughter to daughter in-law. Knowledge can also transfer through age – old to young people in a community or through peer to peer food and knowledge exchange.

Although these knowledge patterns are fundamental to the regeneration and sustainability of agricultural ecosystems, they are easier to take for granted. They remain largely unnoticed to modern commercial mindsets which are becoming used to linear processes like value chains. The movement of agricultural commodities from households to extended families and to communities cultivates local markets from which external markets can obtain what is available in particular communities. Adaptive consumption takes place from households all the way to markets. That is why most African agricultural commodities are associated with their original sources in terms of production communities.

Relationships as anchors of local markets

Visitors enter new markets through relationships and that marks the evolution of new relationships. Labour markets are also prevalent in most agricultural communities and such services are paid for through commodities whose value is agreed upon by the community. Where a farmer was supposed to go and look for money from a bank or borrow from elsewhere, labour payments are made in the form of commodities. This reduces pressure from the national monetary system because cash is not involved in every transaction. In most African countries, cash circulation is concentrated in urban centres and that means rural communities have less cash in circulation. Why should everyone who wants to eat food be forced to look for scarce cash when local commodities can easily substitute cash in ways that smoothen the exchange of valuable services and commodities?

Relationships also play a critical role in building various food baskets riding on visits such as rural to rural and rural to urban, all the way to the market. As producers get into markets they build relationships through totems, home areas or through networks built by someone already in the market for a long time. These relationships drive agricultural transformation. Given different ecological regions that characterize many African countries, there are many cases where farmers from drought prone areas migrate to high rainfall areas, leaving behind many of their relatives. Eventually, those left behind create a market for commodities produced by their relatives who will have migrated to high rainfall areas. Seed, crop varieties and livestock breeds are exchanged through visits and these create a market in areas of scarcity. Relatives in high producing areas also function as a food reserve for their relatives in low production areas. In most cases, commodities kept for relatives do not find their way to the formal market.
Vegetable farmers at Mbare Farmers Market

Rather than making conclusions on the basis of food that gets into formal and informal markets, it is important to find ways of figuring out volumes of food exchanged through relatives from one community to another. This practice has an impact on the functioning of formal and informal markets. Where markets will be expecting consumers to come and buy, relationships will be satisfying more than 70% of consumers’ requirements. When conducting visits, most people carry a farmer’s eye. A livestock farmer is on the look-out for good livestock breeds and same with a crop farmer. Famers visiting their relatives like sons, daughters or in-laws in new communities use their local relatives to access good breeds and crop varieties from new communities. A community usually develops its own market in the local community. Through relationships, some commodities penetrate areas where they didn’t use to exist. For instance, Avocados from Makoni find their way to Chivi districts of Zimbabwe, same with mangoes and other crops making in-roads into new areas.

Unfortunately, instead of supporting these natural and organic processes of food and knowledge exchange to unfold and continue, financial institutions and development organizations tend to intervene superficially when relationships and local markets can do a good job. Rather than spoon-feeding farmers and forcing them into narrow value chains, development agencies and financial institutions should carefully examine and support relationship-based food demand and supply models. They can also usefully support exchange of commodities between commodities to avoid situations where food leave communities to urban areas and then back to adjacent farming communities where they are mostly needed. Besides tracking and accounting for local food movements, such efforts can open new markets for diverse commodities looking for a market during long periods of the season. Community to community commodity exchange will prevent cases where commodities are pushed to urban centres before the market’s absorptive capacity has been ascertained.

Reviving the power local markets

While local markets have existed for centuries, their recognition has taken too long. Many African communities are getting concerned about how their indigenous food and knowledge systems are being lost to scientifically-produced foods, at the expense of the naturalness of our food systems. This is also destroying the social fabric which was built through people congregating around local beer, mahewu and cultural practices in which food was a glue. However, the proliferation of ICTs is now making it possible for communities to capture the power of informal distributed markets that function through households, extended families, clans and communities.

Lack of markets is provoking all these questions. Following a bumper harvest in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, local communities are stuck with tons of commodities while local people continue to consume commodities from other countries or urban centres. For instance, many communities have tons of small grains like finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum yet industrially-produced opaque beer flows from urban centres to rural business centres when local resources badly need value addition into local beer and other products. This practice is also sweeping away the little cash available in rural communities back to urban centres. The good thing is that communities are beginning to revive their relationships through which to sell commodities. ICTs are empowering these processes to by-pass formal markets. This is also releasing pressure from formal and urban informal markets which can no longer cope with the influx of commodities following a bumper harvest. Commodities shared through these relationships include pumpkins, sweet reeds, vegetables and livestock breeds.

Using relationships to build resilient socio-economic strategies

Embedding rural economies and enterprises into the money economy has weakened local communities where commodities were previously used to obtain knowledge, skills and services like labour. Unfortunately, a few commodities being produced under contract farming models cannot be used as currency in cases where money is not available. For instance, a farmer cannot pay for labour through bales of tobacco because workers prefer money even if it is not readily available. On the other hand, farmers are compelled to put their best resources (soil, water & time) to a few contracted commodities.

Models that were built through relationships should be revived so that commercial models can ride on these. Most SMEs that are now producing agricultural tools like ploughs and hoes acquired their skills from indigenous knowledge systems. This knowledge has moved to growth points and urban centres. Modern grinding mills were inspired by traditional grinding stones, mortar and pestle whose evolution can be traced to gender-informed traditional value addition practices. All this knowledge is on the verge of extinction, in the name of modernization. It should be captured and recognized as an economic driver for rural industrialization and development.

The writer can be contacted on the following details: / / Website: / eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

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