Surfacing the transformative power of Indigenous Commerce

As a knowledge entrepreneur in Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector, eMKambo ( / ) has found itself dancing between two worlds. We don’t have a real name for such a dance but it’s definitely not Kongonya. It is what we have chosen to call Indigenous Commerce. It is a combination of formal and informal economic activities and worldviews. Not entirely formal or completely informal. Depending on commodities being exchanged, it is sometimes 75% informal and 25% formal. From this observation you can see that thinking in terms of clear boundaries between the formal and informal economies is a myth and highly naive. The indigenous commerce space represents a healthy fusion of formal and informal economies.

Principles of Indigenous Commerce
As a practice, Indigenous Commerce has a set of principles and values which include: Barter Trade; Trust & Relationship Building; and, Local Knowledge Pathways.

Barter Trade – It is clear to everyone that you can’t find sufficient United States dollars or South African Rands in every corner of Zimbabwe. Yet agriculture commodities continue to flow from those areas to urban people’s markets which now control 60% of the food traded in the country. Given cash shortages, the bulk of this food travels on the rails of barter deals and embedded relationships. Barter deals are at the centre of how the value of agriculture commodities is exchanged from farmers to traders and finally to consumers. Some direct relationships between farmers and final end-users are also anchored on elements of barter trade. Besides addressing cash shortages, barter shortens the transaction process. Through barter deals, a commodity looks for another commodity that matches its value within the market, for example, a crate of tomatoes for a bucket of groundnuts or three buckets of maize for a goat.

Trust and Relationship Building – Through Indigenous Commerce, farmers and traders know that the quality of your relationships determines the depth and amount of opportunities you get. Relationship building starts with the value an individual attaches to his or her commodity. Whoever buys that commodity should pay an equivalent of the trust and value the seller has on his/her commodity. The seller’s trust in his/her commodity is transferred to the buyer. From the other end, consumers and traders transfer their expectations to the producer. In this way, Indigenous Commerce is able to match values and expectations from both ends. The situation is different in an entirely formal agriculture economic mindset where a farmer is encouraged to calculate his profit or price before going to the market and when s/he faces competition in the market, s/he remains stuck in those figures, leading to enormous frustration. For instance, a farmer can say, “I want 25% profit even when the situation doesn’t accept that figure”.

Most traders specializing in tomatoes, potatoes, goats, eggs, chicken or butternuts have built a niche market based on relationships and trust. Although this knowledge is not documented, it informs them how to stock or re-stock (re-order levels) at different times. While formal companies and NGOs tend to draw static suppliers’ lists, a trader’s list of suppliers is woven with relationships. Relationships explain why someone continues to specialize in groundnuts for decades even if there are opportunities in high value commodities like cabbages or butternuts.

In one way or another, farmers, customers and traders go further to discuss how they are related through totems, e.g., Moyo or Shumba. People who are sensitive about totems tend to buy from those with whom they share surnames – Mhofu to Chihera. There is also something about place of origin, e.g a trader from Masvingo’s pen name in the market can be Masvingo which means people from Masvingo may want to give him first preference. Before talking about money, farmers and traders talk about relationships and places of origin. Sometimes accent can help such that if a consumer identifies with the accent of a trader, s/he may be swayed to buy from that particular trade, for instance, Wasu to Wasu.

Local Knowledge Pathways – When acquiring commodities, traders use their personal knowledge and instincts to determine volumes that can be bought by their consumers. They don’t rely too much on cash flow projections but resort to their instincts and knowledge of business. In the words of one trader: “If you don’t know how to do a cash flow, don’t try because you will fool yourself into believing you are making a profit when you are not.”

On- the- job apprenticeship is a fundamental component of Indigenous Commerce. Most tomato traders were once tomato farmers who have perfected their art through learning from production up to the market. Conversely, in the formal economic frame, formal qualifications are considered more important than practical wisdom gained through action. Someone can enrol at University to study agronomy even if s/he grew up in urban areas with no exposure to practical farming. It becomes worse when this person becomes a policy maker when s/he doesn’t have practical agriculture wisdom. A trader who grew up farming can be a better policy maker than this person. Zimbabwean businesses and parastatals are collapsing because they do not take some of these issues into account.

The majority of traders in the people’s market have inherited their businesses from their parents and are now practically teaching their children how to run these businesses. One of the values these children are acquiring is how to give a discount. They now know that when a customer buys tomatoes worth more than a dollar you give a discount in the form of one extra tomato. This Mbasera principle common in indigenous commerce is a form of discount prevalent in all people’s markets. A customer who buys 10 oranges for a dollar and gets one extra as Mbasera to make them 11 has a10% discount, meaning he buys orange for less than one rand. Mbasera as a way of thanking originates from Indigenous Commerce.

While the formal economic mindset wants to see evidence of businesses growing in a certain direction, Indigenous Commerce emphasizes both growth and sustainability as well as meeting social needs. Modern investment analysts have not been trained to see how an indigenous business is growing. For instance, they have no capacity to value investments in social things like education. A trader practicing Indigenous Commerce can finance two children up to university, making an investment worth more than US$20 000. Returns can be seen through the children’s well-being. A trader can make this investment for decades but, in the eyes of modern commerce, his/her business is not growing since it can’t be measured through number of employees and physical assets.

Indigenous Commerce has sustained itself for years because knowledge sharing is open and free unlike in modern commerce where private companies in the same line of business can have entirely different fortunes. While one company is folding, another one in same line of business is thriving. This problem is caused by unwillingness to share knowledge and success secrets. Due to robust knowledge sharing, you don’t see a whole Indigenous Commerce industry collapsing like what has happened to Zimbabwe’s manufacturing sector. A strong knowledge sharing culture based on trust and relationships enables Indigenous Commerce to absorb severe economic shocks. What one trader knows the other doesn’t know. However, success comes from combining what they all know. What is not known has been completely discarded. Traders don’t just do things to impress formal financial institutions and their associated ways of validating knowledge just for the sake of trying to obtain a loan. The formal economy’s emphasis on receipts, company registrations, PAYE and other blockages is a big sign that nobody trusts anybody in the formal economy. Therefore it can’t function alone.
In Indigenous Commerce, knowledge is returned with knowledge. No use of cash to buy knowledge. Everyone learns from others resulting in a rich knowledge ecosystem which does not involve monetary compensation or formal training. Indigenous commerce fosters authentic Communities of Practice where everyone is interested in the continued existence of knowledge as a common resource. Creative judgement is based on storytelling.

Towards a collective view of nutrition
The strength and inspiration of Indigenous Commerce doesn’t just end with practical knowledge but also extends to a collective view of food and nutrition. The following visual shows a sympathetic and reflective way of understanding food in the people’s market.



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