How consumers use their buying patterns to signal priorities

As buying patterns signify ordinary people’s priorities, developing countries should invest more in finding pockets of opportunity from micro-markets than pursuing mega deals. In most African countries, much of the overlooked growth is within open food markets from which the majority get food and income. An outside observer may see open markets as chaotic economic but these environments are characterized by order and a distinct buying pattern.  For instance, when food vendors get into the market with their baskets early in the morning, they first go for tomatoes, followed by leafy vegetables, then onion. All these are necessities.


Then the buying pattern swings to wild fruits, followed exotic fruits. By then the baskets are becoming heavy but the buying process is not over until lemon, avocadoes, banana and cooked dried groundnut are picked from one of the two farmers’ markets where apples are also picked. The basket is then taken to the Matatu/Kombi station before buying route goes to oranges and then cabbages. If the budget is still not exhausted, the buyer goes to the dry retail markets to pick Maputi, matemba, soya chunks and Madora to complete the food basket.

Prices are also determined by the buying pattern

Besides communicating buyers’ priorities, the buying pattern also sets prices for most commodities especially when vendors get into the market in huge volumes.  Buyers who come in individually may not know and own the buying price. The buying pattern also shows how the farmers market brings together demand and builds it outside the market before opening. By the time the market is opened, demand will have already been consolidated as people from different areas congregate at the market. At a given day, 400 to 500 vendors flow into the market and, as mentioned above, they start with buying tomatoes before moving to leafy vegetables. The previous day’s prices influence the amount of money or budget brought to the market each day. Impulse buying is kept to a minimum. If the vendor finds a Sandak of tomatoes going for $80 instead of $75, she forgoes other commodities which may not be necessities. To avoid risks associated with introducing a new commodity to permanent consumers, vendors concentrate on what they know to be on demand.

Emerging characteristics of the market

While social class and income also tends to determine pricing of commodities, the evolving customer classification in open markets comprises the following:

  • Walk-in customers who come into the market where there are options to buy straight from the farmers’ market or from wholesale traders.
  • Wholesale markets in which bulk is broken and commodities are properly graded.
  • Vendors from high density residential areas who have market stalls where they live.
  • Road side traders and vendors – some with trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables.
  • Push-cart traders moving around selling vegetables and fruits.
  • Food basket packers – this group is increasing and comprise small food distributors.

Benefits of staying informed about buying patterns

Staying connected with buying patterns is critical in understanding how prices are set when buyers congregate around commodities in ways that influence competition between different commodities. More than 60% of the pricing is set when commodities come together in one big market.  Other benefits of being constantly informed by buying patterns include improved knowledge sharing. For instance, when one buyer asks a question everyone available benefits from the answers provided. Relationships are also built intuitively in the market as buyers move together from one commodity to another, leading to decision for collective purchasing and then sharing, increasing affordability.

Smart decision-making is also cultivated. Buyers learn a lot from the behavior of other buyers through the price negotiation process. On the other hand, it is difficult for a single buyer to benefit from mob or collective price setting techniques. Buying patterns also classify commodities through ways in which markets classify all commodities and determine how they are arranged in the market as well as how measurements are arranged into areas for Sasekas, buckets and numbering (counting). This is critical for minimizing confusion and chaos.  Slow moving commodities also have their buying pattern and often their prices can stay the same for up to a month while horticulture commodity prices change daily, calling for dynamic pricing.

For planners, making sense of buying patterns simplifies decisions on how to set up market spaces according to commodities. Farmers, planners and nutritionists also need to be aware of these critical issues. Although open markets continue to carve a unique identity in the global economy, the demand for exotic high value horticulture commodities continue to be largely influenced by up-market consumers. Others sources of influence include events like weddings, parties and catering as a service.  Catering service providers have been trained in the English way of preparing meals, incorporating exotic vegetables. Very few indigenous vegetables and fruits are finding their way into the catering curricular, thus spreading their nutritional benefits.  / /

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Who really sets prices in the open market?

No matter how many times this question is answered, it continues to be asked again and again.  One of the reasons is that the answer may be correct but unbelievable. As in all other markets, rules of supply and demand influence pricing of agricultural commodities in open markets that are powerful ecosystems in developing countries.  In fact the major determinant of price is supply with demand only responding to supply. In big urban food markets like Mbare in Harare, when the market opens at 5am in the morning, it takes a few minutes for sellers and buyers to see that today there are more tomatoes than yesterday.

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The farmer or trader whose supply coincides with a shortage starts setting the calling price based on the previous day’s price. Another sign of a shortage is the concentration of many buyers around one consignment or heap of tomatoes or potato and this also influencing the price. Some of the buyers pull away from the crowd and approach the seller independently, offering prices. Through a silent auctioning mechanism by buyers and sellers, the day’s prices are quickly agreed upon and trading gets underway.

From the calling price to the actual final price

In all open mass markets across Africa, there is a distinction between the calling price and the final price. The calling price is what the farmer, trader or seller expects to get while the final price is what the commodity finally fetches. In the marketing process buyers resort to several negotiation dynamics like referring to yesterday’s price trends. They can begin negotiations by saying, “yesterday’s prices were lower for the same quality, why are you demanding a higher price today? Your quality is also lower than yesterday and your crates are not full.”

There is also an element of ganging up among buyers. For instance if a new buyer comes along and finds other buyers standing alongside the commodity but not buying, the new buyer gangs up with those standing in order to push the final price down. This ganging up ends up re-setting the price. Another name for this practice is demand response to supply.  While some buyers just stand near the commodity, others buy a few commodities in protest. In addition to complaining about many things related to the commodity, some buyers use comparisons.  They can say, “This same quality of commodity is going for a lower price in the other market and supermarkets.” Some of the buyers go to an extent of verbally abusing the commodity owner or seller. “You are better off taking my offers and going home early than wait for prices to rise when your commodities at the farm have no one attending them.”

Farmers and sellers use the same technique

On the flip side, farmers and sellers also use the same tactics when they find the market in short supply.  The farmer or seller observes the way buyers stampede for commodities and tap into such levels of desperation by buyers to pretend that s/he does not want to sell. As a result buyers bid and increase their offers.  Ultimately this is also how actual prices are determined and set.  This process can be complete within a minute when a commodity is in short supply but can stretch for 30 minutes to an hour if there is a glut. Loaders, off-loaders and those who carry commodities to waiting trucks also respond to the price of the commodity such that if the price increases they also increase their costs correspondingly.

Additional tactics used by buyers on farmers

Even if they may have struck relationships with farmers, buyers keep a bag of tricks. They send part payment and packaging to the farmer so that the farmer starts harvesting butternuts or other perishables. The buyer makes a point of arriving to collect the consignment with a truck when the farmer is packaging or has already finished packaging. At that point the buyer opens the conversation by undermining the quality of the commodity (“Aaah why is this commodity different from the last one?  You have to lower the price for me this time.”)  After a few uncomfortable exchanges, the buyer ends up getting the commodity at a price he determines.  He knows that the farmer cannot start looking for another new buyer when the perishable commodity is already harvested and packaged.

Need for regulations and policy interventions

Dynamics and processes mentioned above show the extent to which linking farmers to the market is not enough unless the entire processes and hidden behavioral economics tricks are fully understood. Ideally farmers should know distances from where they are farming to the market and the cost of moving commodities to the market. They should also strive to be aware of the margin earned by traders from each commodity and consignment. A pricing index and farmers’ diary comprising information related to distances to the nearest markets as well as all critical cost elements should be developed especially for smallholders who often struggle to find usable market information beyond just price.

Circumstances under which price information is critical for farmers include:

  • When a buyer shows up on-farm and the farmer needs to make a decision to sell at the right price.
  • When the farmer has not done his/her costing and wants to use the market price as a guide. This is very common among many farmers.
  • When the farmer wants to sell locally and has to compare with prices elsewhere.
  • When the farmer wants to conduct barter exchange between different commodities. The farmer has to know the monetary value of the two different commodities being bartered.

A major challenge in most developing countries is that it is difficult to regulate the production and supply of rain-fed agricultural commodities. Regulating production and supply is easy with irrigated production. You cannot tell farmers to grow fewer groundnuts or tubers which may be the only ideal commodities in particular areas and farming seasons. One can regulate the production of cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes whose production can be controlled to some extent in response to the market. It does not make sense for government to set the same prices for commodities whose yields can be very low in some areas due to rainfall patterns, soil types and other factors.  / /

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How capital determines the structure of agriculture and food systems in Africa

How capital determines the structure of agriculture and food systems in Africa

Although finance will not solve all challenges facing developing countries, the structure of African agriculture is largely shaped by the way capital flows into this fundamental sector. In Zimbabwe, for instance, more than 55% of the entire capital devoted to agriculture goes to tobacco with all other commodities competing for the remainder. That situation is not by chance. High tobacco production is directly linked to financing mechanisms. Contractors release money to individual farmers without considering collateral issues because the finance is secured by the crop itself.

The power of structured markets

Tobacco financing mechanisms are also secured by the way the market is structured.  Side marketing is minimal because tobacco is linked to a grower’s number. Before the planting season each farmer submits estimated production statistics and expected yields. When the marketing season begins, a farmer who delivers more tobacco than initially estimated will have to convince the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) that all the tobacco is from his farm.  Loan repayment is also guaranteed through an efficient stop order system managed by the TIMB. This is how and why tobacco draws much of the agricultural funding from banks. Viability and profitability to the small scale producer is assured.


What about other commodities?

Other commodities including indigenous foods do not attract much capital because profitability and loan repayment is not assured due the way they are marketed and where they are marketed. Some of the commodities like maize and wheat are government controlled in ways that standardize cost structures as if farmers in different farming areas and rainfall regions incur the same costs. Farmers in Masvingo and Mhangura have different rainfall patterns but they receive the same payment ($726/ metric ton from the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).

Some of the crops like soya bean and sugar bean are contracted by specific private buyers who tend to dictate prices instead of allowing farmers to negotiate prices in correlation with costs of production in different production zones. This compromises viability. In additional, a big proportion of tubers, pulses and grains are sold through open markets where forces of supply and demand determine prices in ways that are not based on costs of production in different areas.  If sugar bean, onion, groundnut or tomato supply increases, prices drop drastically. The same happens if there are no takers. All these dynamics do not take into account cost structures.

Other commodities depend on big traders whose take up depend on uncontrolled markets and can stop taking in the event of gluts. Another way in which capital flow is affected by lack of clearly outlined markets is where commodities like sugar bean are mostly bought by commodity brokers who cannot be considered a market since some of them either stop buying when their orders are satisfied or have no permanent presence in the market. Consequently capital flow into commodities that pass through commodity brokers is low as financiers do not have guarantees of repayment.

As a result of all these issues, banks are crowding their financing in tobacco at the expense of other commodities which have more important economic, health and nutritional as well as food security significance. The capital market does not think subsistence crops have a definite market. To fill some of these gaps, there is an increase in financial arrangements involving institutional borrowers like processing companies who are expected to hedge risks as off-takers.

Dangers of concentrating finance in one commodity

Besides limiting opportunities, pouring all funding into one agricultural commodity is at odds with intentions by the financial sector to create and support long-term social, economic and ecological well-being. Unless properly deployed, financial inclusion overlooks economic injustice resulting from all banks financing tobacco as if the whole country is suitable for producing the crop. Environmentally-conscious financing should explore new ways of investing in agriculture and rural development without perpetuating monoculture, resource extraction and inequity. At the moment, very few financial institutions in Africa see a clear link between their financial modelling, climate change and economic justice.

 The place of literacy in cultivating a new sense of wealth creation

Low financial literacy levels in most agricultural and rural communities also prevents capital flows into marginal areas and commodities. Agriculture is considered a profession for people who have failed to do sophisticated things in life. Most farmers are not able to prepare a project proposal or complete a loan application form.  As a result, banks are consistently funding the same people. This is worsened by a tendency by development financiers and policy makers to insist on rural development and agricultural financing passing through banks.

Besides the fact that banks are located in cities, bankers are not good at identifying opportunities but identifying risks. Most banks will get interested in you when you have already made your money not when you want to use them to create wealth from scratch. Innovation should see more cases where finance goes straight to the grassroots without passing through banks. Meanwhile, what policy makers and development agencies may think is a financial problem could be about a primitive sense of wealth creation. That is why soft assets like knowledge and skills are increasingly being considered part of development support.  / /

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Small consistent incomes are better than random high yields

Rural households that receive regular small incomes tend to have a better standard of living than those earning a once-off payment from a single commodity like cotton, cocoa or tobacco. Levels of malnutrition and poverty are often higher among communities that depend on high yielding monocrops than those surviving on diverse agricultural and non-agricultural activities. For ordinary people, fishermen and farmers in developing countries, it is better to earn $100 per month from diverse income streams than earn $12000 once a year from one commodity. They don’t want to be millionaires.


Importance of addressing contradictions

One of the contradictions that should be addressed through the right policies is the fact that rural areas continue to produce much of the food but they suffer from malnutrition more than cities. There are more development agencies in agriculture and rural development focusing on rural smallholder farmers but agriculture development remains stubbornly very low. The thrust for modernizing African agriculture continues to marginalize smallholder farmers whose incomes have remained low for decades. In addition,colonial collateral systems conspire against smallholder farming systems.

Instead of basing policies on income diversity, most African countries promote one-size-fits-all agricultural policies which ignore the reality on the ground where orphaned agricultural commodities are more reliable for ordinary people than high yielding commercial commodities that consume a large chunk of the agricultural budget. For instance, commodities that are produced with sophisticated irrigation technologies contribute less to people’s incomes than those produced using rudimentary technologies.

Silent income revolution

While government policies are promoting high yielding and export crops, the majority of farmers and economic actors are not interested in earning foreign currency but generating and managing their own incomes using local currencies. The idea of a market for ordinary people is certainly different from how government people define a market. Whereas government tries to use price as an incentive for farmers to produce, local economic actors including farmers would rather work with local demand and diversity of commodities which ensure resilient incomes and food systems. These economic actors are shifting from focusing on productivity to incomes, especially in the face of a changing climate where high yielding crop varieties are failing to reach their maximum productivity levels.

Income-focused trends at local level are challenging production-centric policies and strategies being promoted by governments and development agencies. When policy makers begin to focus on improving incomes at the grassroots, they will shift from production-centric infrastructure systems to a market-centric infrastructures that ensure smallholder farmers and other grassroots economic actors have full access to reliable markets. This will certainly inspire a new sense of wealth creation where farmers and rural entrepreneurs do not have to sell their commodities through intermediaries all the time.  In order to understand the new thrust, government will move from only collecting crop production data to collecting income data at local level.  That can reveal gaps between production and income. Yield data is meaningless without income data.

Indigenous vegetables as income sources

As communities diversify their income sources, indigenous vegetables are finding a space in most African informal markets. However, while policy makers are directing resources at exotic hybrids, the production of indigenous vegetables has remained largely informal. These vegetables are mainly ground growers and therefore exposed to mud and dust. Highly informal production leads to contamination by many impurities including soil that may not be removed adequately in the cleaning process. Harvesting is merely picking with no basis for grading because they are not produced with commercialization in mind.

Indigenous vegetables also go to informal markets where mass consumers do not often emphasize on traceability and quality. After picking there is not much hygiene in the processing stage.  Since the market and consumption has not been formalized there is no feedback to producers. Whereas in the production of exotics like peas there is emphasis on thorough grading, indigenous vegetables whose sizes are bigger than peas should become a commercial crop so that farmers can be educated properly to, for instance, raise the crop and mulch so that there are minimum impurities from the ground.

A unique selling proposition for indigenous vegetables is that they are very easy to commercialize. They grow on their own during the rainy season with no need for irrigation, fertilizer or chemicals. They can be considered authentically organic, the direction in which the world is going.  Some don’t even need seed, for instance, Nyevhe and Mutsine whose seed like dormant in winter and germinate naturally with the first rains. During the dry season, these vegetables ensure consistent incomes for many households.  / /

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Various shades of shrinkage and identity theft in the market

Every time farmers inquire about prices of commodities in the market they are often looking for the highest price. However, unless there are serious shortages, in both formal and informal markets, it is rare for farmers or suppliers to sell the entire consignment at the top price. In almost all agricultural commodities sold either through auction systems, open markets and formal institutional markets like retailers, 50% of commodities may fetch the top price, 25% the medium price and 25% the bottom price. In all developing countries, very few farmers are aware of these invisible market dynamics.


Different shades of shrinkage

As the process in which commodities become less or smaller, shrinkage of commodities is a major reason for different price ranges irrespective of grades and quality. Shrinkage is the main reason why traders who frequent farming communities buying commodities vigorously negotiate for lower prices on-farm because they have an idea of shrinkage levels that happen from field to fork. Depending on commodity, shrinkage can constitute more than two percent of the commodity volume and value.  Some of the shrinkage is theft-related in the selling process and during overnight security, especially in the informal market. During selling, miscounting contributes to shrinkage. For instance a farmer can mistakenly pack 24 heads of cabbage in a customer’s sack instead of 20 heads or 125 cobs instead of 120 cobs. This is very common because the marketing process is very fast and prone to errors that eat into a farmer’s profitability.

Some of the shrinkage is related to product replacement to customers. For instance when a customer sees that a cabbage she has bought from the farmer has defects, the farmer has to replace with a good one. In Zimbabwe, a cabbage variety called Star 3301 has been notorious for breakages which has caused farmers to lose through replacements in the market. Unfortunately, seed breeders do not breed for some of these market-related factors but focus on breeding for high yields.  They also often don’t even breed for taste.

Theft-related shrinkage

In the retail trade, shrinkage is a euphemism for shoplifting. In African food markets, commodities mostly affected by replacement shrinkage and theft-related shrinkage include cabbage, green mealies, water melon, leafy vegetables and butternuts. The same applies to potatoes whose pockets are easily stolen either in transit or in the market during over – night storage.  As a challenge, shrinkage happens across all markets including formal and informal. In formal markets like supermarkets and food chain stores, shrinkage is often in the form of slow turn-around and slow selling which reduces quality and freshness such that some commodities become unsaleable.

In the past few years, African farmers have started complaining against an unfortunate reluctance by formal markets like supermarkets to pay for what is not sold which they consider returns to the supplier. On the other hand, informal markets do not have returns policies but thrive on relationships which ensure everything is sold and in most cases, traders are willing to take the bulk of the risk. Although shrinkage is worse in perishable commodities, it is also prevalent in dry crops like pulses where, besides theft, reassessment leads to some form of shrinkage. Where a trader buys soya bean or groundnuts from farmers for supplying to formal companies like processors, the processor may want to reassess quality and quantity, leading to renegotiation of the final price downwards to the trader’s disadvantage. Strangely, the processing company will not pass on the benefits of reduced prices to consumers.

Identity theft in the market

Identity theft is common in both formal and informal food markets. For instance, due to the nature of potatoes, more than 90% of potato farmers are not willing to participate directly in the market. In the majority of markets, the potato value chain has established channels of selling through the trader who has space in the market for stocking the commodity and has a way of dealing with theft in the market. Since farmers are often in and out of markets depending on commodity production cycles, they do not have  permanent stalls for stacking potatoes. As a result, once the farmer has sold the potato to the trader on-farm, the commodity can no longer be identified with the farmer or source. It now assumes the trader’s identity. In the eyes of the consumer, the farmer becomes invisible because s/he is not available to interface with consumers.

Packaging as identity

At least the informal market tries to preserve the identity of the farmer or source by selling commodities in the original packaging in which the commodities come from the farm into the market. Supermarkets and food chain stores do not sell commodities in the original packaging. They ensure potatoes are first of all cleaned by wholesalers. The farmer sells to a wholesaler who is told by the supermarket to re-package in attractive packaging with labelling showing the identity of the supermarket. The wholesaler is told by the supermarket to pack into 5kg, 10kg and 2kg but mostly in 2kg plastic packaging.

Ultimately the same potatoes from the farmer are sold in a new identity through a different packaging. The supermarket or food chain store does not add much value beyond cleaning or washing and re-packing for distribution in a new identity. The consumer does not see the farmer who is the original producer. This is how branding becomes more powerful than knowledge applied by the farmer to feed the nation. On the other hand, an Iophone or Lenovo laptop is identified with the original inventor even if it seats somewhere in remote villages of Nyeri and Musambakaruma. If food is identity it should be marketed accordingly. Although it is not an illegal practice, companies that stick their logos on unsuspecting farmers’ commodities and market such commodities as if they are the original producers are not different from con men.  In the knowledge economy, the fact that there are no laws against such a practice does not make it ethical and right!  / /

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To sell or not – decision making challenges in unstable economic environments

A majority of African farmers tend to make decisions based on their experiences, expectations and fears, especially in an unstable economic environment and changing climate. At the beginning of each  marketing season, a question in every farmer’s head is “Should I sell now or later?”  Since the future is unpredictable from both an economic and climate perspective, farmers are taking long to make decisions.  Most farmers are unwilling to sell in a hurry as they try to make sense of the fluid economic and environmental situation. This presence a challenge for processing companies who are end up not being guaranteed of surplus.


A catch 22 scenario

A farmer might be pushed to sell quickly in order to buy inputs before the price of inputs surges. In almost all African countries it is now known that input prices are always on an upward trend.  Where the farmer decides not to sell immediately, s/he will be expecting commodity prices to appreciate more than the past year given that the competitive environment is very thin due to climate change induced drought. Uncertainties on the next season may also compel a farmer against selling now in order to counter the rising price of food, for instance in Zimbabwe and other countries in East and Southern Africa.

Another issue is currency.  Due to currency uncertainties and rumors in countries like Zimbabwe, farmers may wonder: “If I sell now, what happens to my income if the currency changes?” This decision-making crisis is worsened by the fact that farmers do not have attractive savings or investments in which they can invest their earning from agricultural commodities. To sell commodities worth USD10 000 a farmer should have reliable and valuable uses. A smart farmer cannot keep the money in a bank where tomorrow the value of the money may be less by 25% due to inflation.

Consequently, farmers would rather store wealth in tangible commodities like grinding mills or livestock.  Most farmers are selling agricultural commodities to get something they can use immediately. If there was reliable information on who is selling what and who wants to buy what, a swapping economy would simplify some decisions and reduce pressure on cash. For instance, if somebody selling soya bean wants to buy a tractor while the tractor owner wants to invest in soya bean production, the two would easily meet and transact.

Re-imagining a new role for government extension

African agricultural extension services should be empowered to assume new roles in facilitating decision-making among farmers who are struggling to make sense of a dynamic and complex environment. Since the dawn of industrial agriculture in Africa, extension officers have been assisting farmers to produce the same agricultural commodities for decades. There is no longer any new knowledge on producing such old commodities. To stay relevant in a changing environment, agricultural extension officers should acquire new skills which include gathering fluid data using modern technology, interpreting evidence for farmers and facilitating aggregation of commodities at community level as well as guaranteeing fair trade.

Government extension officers can only protect farmers from unfair market practices if they have accurate data. Where private companies want to buy more than 100 tons of groundnuts from one community, extension officers with data on their finger-tips should easily mobilize such commodities in appropriate grades. They can also prevent cases where farmers compete to supply commodities to one buyer in ways that knock prices down. Most of the data should be collected at farmer level because every farmer knows where his/her commodity is going. Relying on production data alone for decision-making explains the poor state of our agriculture system. Production side data on its own is not enough. It needs to cover end to end along entire value chains.

The role of extension services in building rural finance models

Lack of data is a major reason why developing countries are failing to come up with robust rural finance models. If local extension officers have data from Chimanimani district of Zimbabwe or Taveta in Kenya showing that US$20 000 worth of bananas leave each of these districts daily for Harare and Nairobi, it becomes easy to build rural finance models in these districts.  Such data should be captured at source together with what remains for local consumption because a farmer knows better where s/he takes his/her commodity. This evidence will assist ministries of agriculture in negotiating resources from the fiscus and accurately predicting harvests in ways that also help farmers to make accurate decisions. Using data, the government can organize production to minimize unpredictable price fluctuations.

When extension services departments are able to collect and analyze data at local levels, they become reference points for financial institutions keen to work with specific value chains. Evidence-based farmer characterization can show farmers at different income levels ranging from $100 to $20 000 and such information can be used to craft appropriate collateral systems for different farmers. Most smallholder farmers do not have a banking history because much of their trading happens in the open market where data is often not recorded. Once a farmer’s local production records are consolidated with his/her market records that should automatically constitute collateral. Extension services can authenticate these facts.

Policy makers should not use price as a carrot

Most African governments are not using data to guide farmers what to produce. Instead, they are using price announcements as a carrot to lure farmers to produce a crop. Ideally, data should be used to convince farmers to produce diverse crops and livestock by showing gaps in food security and commercial opportunities.  Better prices can then be offered to incentivize farmers and control numbers.  In this case, data gives direction so that there are no gluts and shortages. Once farmers show interest to produce certain commodities it becomes possible for floor prices to be set.  That is how policy makers can re-allocate resources. Currently bumper harvests come with costs in the form of post – harvest losses.

In the absence of data, development agencies end up spending resources and time conducting baselines when agricultural data should be on the finger-tips of the ministry of agriculture like an exchange rate.  Unless farmers know the value unlocked by their commodities in the market, they cannot price such commodities correctly on-farm. That is why informed conclusions have to come from both the market and production side. Comparing market performance with production performance can only happen if there is fluid collection of data. Price is no longer the main decision-making determinant for farmers.  If that was the case, farmers would rush to deliver maize each time government announced a price.  / /

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How marketing systems in developing countries penalize poor farmers

Whether it is potato production in the highlands of Rwanda, cassava production in Northern Mozambique or sweet potato production in Gokwe South district of Zimbabwe, the marketing season presents the same headaches for farmers. While production is now much easier, profitably moving commodities from farms to markets remains a nightmare that cannot be solved by price information or ICT platforms alone.

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Processes through which farmers continue losing money

Several visible and invisible costs are incurred by farmers when moving butternuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes and many other commodities from the farm to the market. The following steps reveal the extent to which the movement of agricultural commodities from field to fork does not favor poor farmers:

  1. Transport to move commodities from the farm to urban markets. Most transporters are based in cities where the farmer has to go and identify appropriate transport, thus incurring costs of going to look for transport.
  2. Cost of empty bags and tying strings – like transport, these are also often found in the city.
  3. Cost of food for the farmer on the way to and back from fetching empty bags, tying strings and transport. Farmers often ignore this cost yet it actually chews into their profit.
  4. Communication costs (phoning and texting) – farmers spend a lot of money calling the market.
  5. Labor costs for loading at the farm and off-loading at the market.
  6. Vehicle entry fee into the market. Depending on size, a two toner truck can pay at least $4 while a seven toner truck pays $7.
  7. Selling space fee in the market ($6 or more).
  8. Cost of security overnight if commodities arrive for selling tomorrow or if there are left overs.
  9. Cost of sales assistant who helps the farmer to sell in the market while the farmer collects money from customers and puts it in the bag.
  10. Cost of food for the farmer and sales assistant during eight hours in the market (5am – 1pm).
  11. If commodities are leftover for selling tomorrow, transport cost for the farmer and sells assistant who have to travel to and from a relative’s residential place in the city.
  12. Cleaning fees for the space which might be too dirty for ordinary cleaning services.

Depending on distance, the above costs can be highly prohibitive for most farmers who live more than 100 km from the market. In addition to fetching transport, empty bags and strings from the market in the city, farmers are expected to pack commodities according to grades, standards and volumes acceptable to the market. Such knowledge is often missing in farming areas. The farmer should also know how to properly tie up the bag in the way the market expects for long distances or final destination.

Selective treatment of farmers and the power of relationships

The transporter has more confidence in the trader or middlemen than the farmer because he deals with traders regularly, thus the transporter often takes advantage of farmers by over-charging especially where the relationship is only once-off.  Transport hired by the farmer tends to be more expensive than if hire by the trader or middlemen. A major reason is that middlemen or traders are good negotiators who have also built good relationships with transporters, among other actors. They also know distances to most production zones while farmers do not have such knowledge and that comprises farmers’ pricing and negotiating power. Farmers are also often asked to pay cash upfront to the transporter before the commodity leaves the farm.

On the other hand, the trader pays after selling. In fact, when the traders goes to buy commodities on-farm, he summons the transporter to come once the consignment is ready.   Transporters also tend to over-price in order to justify or hide behind cost of vehicle maintenance. Most of the transport is highly localized in cities and cannot go outside as the owner wants to monitor it and also prefer local roads so that vehicle maintenance is kept to a minimum. Rural roads are very bad such that they increase wear and tear. To justify these challenges, the few transporters willing to go to rural areas tend to over-price farmers with the costs being passed over to the consumer.

While farmers may not be sure about different commodity grades and quality specifications in the market, traders often have such details on their finger-tips. Absence of knowledge about grades and standards makes it difficult for famers to negotiate the cost of transport because low grade and high grade commodities use the same amount of fuel on the road. Another challenge is that the farmer has no guarantee of getting selling space and if s/he finds the market full s/he is forced to off-load in order to sell the following day. Off-loaders at the market also tend to over-charge farmers than traders with whom they have a long-term relationship.  As if that is not enough, most first-time farmers in the market do not know customers so their commodities sell slowly unless they hire a sales assistant. Farmers coming to the market for the first time also do not know where to get health food and water so they end up buying expensive food where as traders get food from caterers on loan and pay end of day or after some days.

Conventional marketing systems favor regular participants in the market

Both formal and informal systems of marketing agricultural commodities in African countries favor traders and a few farmers who are always in the market building relationships with transporters, food caterers and every actor. Marketing costs are so random that there is often no clear basis for charging. For instance, security people in the market have their own criteria for charging fees. It is very easy for farmers to throw away a lot of money in the process. When selling is not completed, marketing can continue to the following day and this means the entire process can take more than three days. Strangely, most farmers want to complete the sale within a day. They lack patience to sell a commodity that will have taken at least three months to grow.

 Middlemen or traders do not make money on fair pricing but it is the farmer who has to adjust the price downwards. Unfortunately, the farmer cannot succeed in persuading input providers to reduce the cost of inputs. In any case, the farmer will have bought inputs before producing commodities and cannot go back to negotiate with input providers for a reimbursement. Meanwhile, African governments remain stuck with marketing institutions that have become irrelevant to the new dynamic context. If you hear the so-called Agricultural Marketing Authorities advertising their activities you would think they have solutions for most of these challenges that have been confronting farmers for decades yet those institutions are only interested in levying value chain actors including the poorest of the poor.

The majority of smallholder farmers cannot produce enough surplus that can be profitably taken to distant markets in the city. This is where aggregators become very important. In the absence of an aggregator or efficient transport system, farmers in distant areas end up selling locally at a loss or resort to barter trade. All farmers want to sell on time in order to get into production cycles of other commodities. Since traders/buyers do not often come on time, farmers end up taking lower prices in order to run with the next production cycle but they will be under-cutting themselves.  / /

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