In a rapidly changing knowledge economy, it no longer makes sense to continue characterizing farmers in developing countries by the size of land on which they produce agricultural commodities. Informal agriculture markets provide various ways through which African farmers can be characterized beyond the smallholder, communal, commercial and other forms which are becoming inadequate. For instance, a farmer’s participation in the market can better suggest the extent to which s/he is business-oriented than can be expressed through the size of land s/he owns.
A smallholder farmer who consistently participates in the market is more commercial than one who owns a large commercial farm but does not regularly participate in the market. Factors that can be used in categorizing farmers include: seasonality of production practices; frequency of market participation as well as commodities and volumes supplied to the market. Additional elements include market outreach (in which other market does the farmer participate, e.g., food chain stores, local markets and others? Payment method is also another important attribute. For instance, some farmers pay their labour using commodities.
Characterizing through collective surplus at community level
At community level the best characterization is around collective surplus – how much surplus does the community produce for the market? In a community, it can be a mistake to characterize individual smallholder farmers through their individual production because high volumes of commodities by an individual farmer may not translate to surplus for the market. For example, if a family is large, subsistence consumption can exceed 80% due to the presence of more mouths to be fed. On the other hand, a small family can produce three tons and consume one ton with the rest going to the market.
An ideal characterization approach can begin with identifying major commodities produced in a particular community. A quick survey can reveal how much of each commodity is produced and how much exists for the market, especially when aiming to set up a warehousing facility at community level. Defining farmers by size of land excludes important factors like passion, experience, knowledge, household size, taste, household income and others. No farmer can produce every commodity and become a champion. One farmer can be good with groundnuts while another can be good with livestock. Consolidating diverse characteristics at community level can reveal investment opportunities in particular farming communities. While climatic conditions can be given by nature, a good climate does not make farmers in a favorable climate commercial producers.
Characterization around value chains and networks
When characterizing from the market vantage point critical steps include identifying varieties and volumes of commodities that leave from a particular farming community straight to the urban farmer’s market where breaking bulk happens. What is the proportion that goes into the wholesale market for eventual distribution to other markets in bulk? If, for instance, 60% of butternuts travel from Harare to Bulawayo, there is justification for setting up a reliable commodity exchange to support this movement. In most informal markets, the wholesale market fulfils the role of aggregation, handling and rationalization with other markets. In all value chain nodes and networks, there is need for consolidating knowledge. Tracking volumes flowing into markets provides a framework for building consumption patterns, connected with prices. A key question can be: For the past six months, which 10 commodities were moving together and competing in the market and which commodity, upon its entrance into the market, disturbed a necessity like a tomato?
In most informal food markets, vendors tend to be the biggest group that buys from farmers for onward selling to end-users. On the other hand traders with permanent stalls purchase commodities in bulk and often deal directly with communities. Farmers bring bulk produce into the farmers’ market where bulk is broken. Where buyers bring commodities straight from production areas, this volume is stocked in the wholesale market for other informal or formal markets like processors. Bulk purchasing does not happen from the farmers market for commodities destined for high density areas.
On the other hand, individual consumer choices comprise food baskets. The market pulls together a food basket from bulk commodities coming from diverse farming areas. As it breaks bulk it mixes and matches commodities according to diverse consumer needs including nutritional factors. This mixing and matching role needs to be understood as it influences consumption patterns. For instance when the consumer budget gets strained, some commodities are sacrificed. This is how commodities are given weight in terms of whether they are necessities or luxuries. Many farmers have learnt to stop producing commodities like lettuce, carrots, peas and fine beans in large quantities because they are sometimes considered luxuries not necessities. However, necessities like tomatoes are rarely substituted fully because they participate in the preparation of many relishes.
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