Units of measurement and packaging have an enormous influence on the value of agriculture commodities in all markets including people’s markets. Many farmers lose or gain depending on packaging and units of measurement used in the market. While it may seem easy to determine the value of meat by using a weighing scale, most farmers feel short-changed. eMKambo often runs into arguments between cattle farmers and butcheries where some meat parts end up being sold using subjective measurements. For instance, weighing a head of a beast will certainly favour the farmer but the butchery owner would rather have an agreement which doesn’t use a weighing scale. Again, most farmers have no clue regarding beef grades such as Super and Economy.
The situation is not better in the horticulture and field crops side where commodity value is determined through a mixture of modern weighing scales, taste and visual appearance, among other parameters. Consumer preferences also add to the complexity. Some consumers prefer buying commodities in kilogrammes while others prefer boxes or punnets. Some of the key questions in every farmer’s head include: What is more profitable selling agricultural commodities in larger units of trade or in smaller units? For example what is more profitable, selling tomatoes using the plastic crate (sandak) as a unit of trade or using the wooden boxes? How else can I sell leafy vegetables besides in bundles?
Insights from farmers and traders
From a recent survey by eMKambo, there are diverse preferences in terms of units of measurement and packaging, depending on type of commodity. A number of farmers are not even sure about the origins of units of measurement used in Mbare Agriculture market, for instance. According to one farmer, using wooden crates to pack tomatoes is an age-old practice that was started by early farmers who began trading in the 1950s. Since then, the wooden crate has become a standard unit of trade. However some farmers think using a much smaller crate will give them better returns than the standard box. Mr Spencer Muchenje, a farmer from Domboshava said it is more profitable to sell tomatoes using the wooden crate as a unit of trade than using the plastic crate which is much larger and has a superiority complex for most consumers with little disposable income. Using wooden crates also ensures tomatoes are quickly re-sold in high density areas, allowing vendors to come back for more rather than grappling with large volumes in plastic sandaks.
On the other hand, some traders in the wholesale market prefer to buy tomatoes from the farmer using the plastic crate (sandak) as a unit of trade. For these traders, using plastic crates is more profitable since they are a preferred unit of measurement for supermarkets, restaurants and other big institutions. However, some wholesale market traders find it more profitable to break bulk and sell commodities like tomatoes in heaps of +/-10 tomatoes depending on the prevailing tomato price. They say a number of consumers prefer these heaps that are usually cheap and sufficient for consumption at home for three days or less.
For onions, the standard unit of trade has become the 10kg pocket. An onion farmer who spoke to eMKambo said if it was possible farmers would break bulk and sell onions as singles because it is more profitable than selling in pockets. “When you sell as singles, a pocket gives you $3 more compared to selling in a pocket which gives you just a $1 profit,” said the farmer. From the consumer’s point of view buying onions in singles and in pockets is just the same but to the farmer it is not.
Regarding leafy vegetables, Jongwe, a covo farmer from Bindura said leaf vegetables have always been known to be sold in bundles. Sometimes they only way to realise more returns is reducing the bundle size and maintaining the same price per bundle on shortage days. Mr Ndarowa, a leaf vegetable trader said it is more profitable to sell leafy vegetables in smaller bundles. While a bigger bundle may go for $4, when he breaks the big bundle into smaller bundles he comes up with approximately 10 smaller bundles which he sells for 50c each, realizing $5. Ndarowa is convinced selling leafy vegetables is kilogrammes leads to heavy losses for farmers.
The standard unit of trade for sugar beans is the bucket. Bean traders in Mbare wholesale market obtain beans in tonnes and sell using buckets as the unit of trade. On the other hand, many consumers prefer buying beans from the market using tea cups as the unit of trade. To consumers, this is way cheaper than buying a whole bucket. Using the bucket as the unit of trade is only profitable to the consumer who resells in high density residential areas.
For commodities like zviyo, mapfunde, mufushwa, chimera, mhunga, it is rare for a consumer to buy a whole bucket. Consumers usually buy these dried grains and vegetables in smaller quantities e.g metal cup or the 5l gallon. However retail market traders say it is more profitable to sell in larger quantities like buckets.
For squash butternuts, traders use the 50kg Ssseka or Kwekwe bag as a unit of trade when buying from farmers. They however do not use the same unit of trade when reselling to consumers and supermarkets. Instead, they repack into pockets that weigh approximately 7.3kg. Some traders further break the bulk into smaller packets of $1 and $2 each. Some consumers prefer pockets while the majority prefers butternuts in smaller packs of $1 and $2 containing three to four butternuts depending on the butternut size.
In Garikayi market of Masvingo, packaging is one of the most important determinants of agricultural commodity pricing. While both traders and farmers package their commodities in different sizes and units, traders prefer to buy commodities packed in small units since bigger units are expensive. Farmers in Garikayi market prefer selling their produce in large quantities such as boxes, crates, 50kgs and 90kgs because they will be able to sell large quantities at fairly high prices. Traders who sell sugar beans say it is more profitable to sell to household consumers using tea cups as a unit of trade. One 16.9kg bucket of beans translates to approximately 65 cups of sugar beans. The price for a cup is usually pegged at $1 for 2cups and this price rarely changes. After selling the whole bucket using cups a trader gets a return of $32.50. A trader who sells using a bucket as unit of trade earns $25-$27.
In Mutare’s Sakubva market, consumers prefer buying maize grain in kilogrammes because most metal buckets and gallons would have been tampered with by some traders so that they carry less produce than expected. On the other hand, 60% of consumers who visit Sakubva market said they prefer buying produce in heaps since it allows them to select products of preferable quality as compared to the already packaged produce. The tricky part in buying already packaged produce is that there might be low quality products in the non-visible areas of the pack.
In BUTA markets of Bulawayo, some consumers purchase commodities for re-sell while others buy for household consumption. The former prefer produce packaged in 50kg bags so that they can break bulk while the latter do not mind what form of packaging is used since the produce is bought for immediate consumption. Other household consumers prefer buying in kilogrammes. Both farmers and traders in Bulawayo said it is more profitable to sell in smaller units of trade.
In all the markets, most of the farmers who spoke to eMKambo indicated a strong desire to know how much wholesalers earned after buying from them. This can give them an idea whether they got a fair deal from retailers and wholesalers. However, all farmers said each market has its units of trade according to different types of produce sold in each particular market. In most cases, farmers are forced to use those units. On the other hand, large producers can sometimes determine the units of trade and influence prices.
Transporters usually charge per unit when transporting commodities from smallholder farming areas to agricultural markets. The bigger the unit size, the more it costs to transport. However, some transporters charge per kilometre travelled. Some transporters told eMKambo it is more profitable to charge transport costs per unit when travelling shorter distances while for longer distances using kilometres travelled is more profitable. On the other hand, farmers prefer the vice versa.
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