In African countries where agriculture is a major socio-economic activity, policy makers and development agencies seem determined to move economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing. The whole discourse around value addition suggests a strong desire to get rid of informal marketing of agricultural commodities and convert all commodities into manufactured products which can be bought and sold in supermarkets or exported as finished goods. While that sounds logical and sensible, there is evidence showing that such a transition will not by-pass the informal economy.
Lessons from South Africa’s middle class trap
What the South African economy is going through is an important indicator of the fact that a distinct development approach unique to African contexts should not ignore the informal economy. By embracing the Western model of economic development, South Africa has become locked into a middle class trap without realizing it. The country is now being forced to develop agriculture as a second economy because the current industrial system has no room the majority of people to participate as economic actors. Inequality, poverty and unemployment are increasing due to deep structural challenges imposed by the Western model of economic development. The domestic market is too small for the level of industrialization that has been provoked in South Africa.
You cannot be a successful manufacturing country when the domestic market cannot afford what you are producing. Due to insufficient local buying power, South Africa has reached the limits of its industrialization. It is now trying to use the supermarket model to break out of structural economic challenges. That is why South African super market chains are spreading their wings into neighboring African countries and as far as East Africa. In an aggressive effort to broaden demand for products from its sprawling industrial sector, South African supermarkets are getting into countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and other countries where local companies cannot compete due to poor supply chains.
Besides triggering resentment in the business circles of neighboring countries, the super market model is not sustainable because the middle class in those countries is too small to sustain levels of production in South Africa. The supermarket model focuses on meeting the needs of the middle class who earn more than $4/day. On the other hand, the majority of African consumers earn less than $1/day. That class does not go to supermarkets but resort to the informal market. No wonder the informal market is expanding in many African countries. Manufacturing is a good idea but once it puts finished products beyond the reach of the majority of consumers, it stops contributing to economic growth. It becomes big business without growth or employment creation and that is not sustainable at all.
The importance of fully understanding domestic markets
Assuming developing countries are determined to move completely from raw commodities to manufactured agricultural products, it is critical to fully understand the domestic market before exploring foreign markets which tend to be highly competitive and antagonistic. You cannot talk of value addition without an accurate sense of how much stocks are available in domestic markets per given period. Every country should strive to know the local demand for each of its commodities ranging from horticulture, field crops and livestock. Such intelligence should be disaggregated according to population, buying power, class, age, gender, consumer taste, consumption patterns and other important factors. Where consumption of particular commodities is going up or down or remaining stagnant, reasons should be teased out in order to inform socio-economic decisions.
Diversifying sources of evidence
While much of the practical socio-economic wisdom is now within the informal economy, economists and financial advisors in developing countries are still reluctant or unable to learn from this important sector. They prefer sticking to text book knowledge which, unfortunately, is being borrowed from the West where the context is different. Like all truth, knowledge from the informal economy is likely to be ridiculed first, violently opposed and then finally accepted as self-evident. One of the reasons this knowledge is being ignored is because it flies in the face of what is considered common sense in academic and policy circles. Having invested a lot of resources into what they think is knowledge, it is difficult for formal knowledge systems to accept that reliable knowledge can be found in unexpected places like informal markets. However, developing countries do not have the luxury of letting such important knowledge languish in obscurity when it can provide the much-needed solutions.
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