Mass food markets – the Facebook of African food systems

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BY Charles Dhewa
WHEN you want to understand African food systems, visit African mass food markets in major cities. This is where most food is mobilized in various parts of each country. Although each community may have its own local market, the products in this market are not as diverse as those found in the mass food markets of major African cities such as Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, Cairo, Kinshasa, Lagos, Accra, Bamako, Dakar, Harare, Maputo, Johannesburg and many more.

Knowledge in action

To a very large extent, African mass food markets are the real Facebook African food systems, not supermarkets or malls that are often filled with processed foods that have lost their cultural roots and identity. Due to the colonial experience, some farmers and consumers were socialized to view formal markets like supermarkets and processing companies as the only markets. These farmers have never witnessed an African mass food market in action because they are used to handing over their produce to parastatals or marketing boards and waiting for payment. No questions asked about ratings, competition, volumes for that matter, value-added opportunities or anything. Seeing the market in action is like witnessing knowledge in
stock.

Using data and evidence to build resilient food systems

It is impossible to build resilient food systems without systematically collecting data from diverse production areas and mass food markets that handle more than 70% of food for the majority. Instead of focusing on a few value chains, African policymakers should use data and evidence from mass food markets and diverse production areas to build comprehensive food baskets.

Paying attention to data and evidence will ensure that production areas always cater to markets in a way that ensures supply does not cause gluts or shortages. In most cases, demand does not change quickly. Each household consumes a particular volume daily. However, competition between farmers or food producers who cater to the same consumer often results in huge losses for farmers. This is why the coordination of supply and demand is essential.

Farmers tend to blame traders or middlemen for bad prices, but this amounts to shifting the blame because traders are often not the ones who consume, but only respond to the buying capacity of customers. Merchants cannot offer higher prices than they expect from consumers. What is important is matching the what, who, when, where and when questions regarding food production and supply. This cannot be done without data on who produces what, where and when. A solid framework for building resilient supply chains using data and evidence is very important for policy makers, as there is a limit to which farmers and communities can make sense of the data and use existing evidence to make useful decisions.

The first step is to collect data from production, all along the supply chain (logistics – what is transported from where to where?) and to collect data from the demand side or markets in terms of volumes demanded by different markets as well as quantities that can be absorbed by each market without causing gluts that lead to losses for farmers or shortages that push prices beyond the majority of consumers.

Markets also want to know how much is produced there? How much is supplied to the different markets? Unfortunately, for both the formal and informal sector, most African governments lack systems or pathways to accurately and consistently inform all actors in the food system. When markets have no idea what is being produced and where, it becomes difficult for them to operate effectively.

The interest of transforming the Ministry of Agriculture into a giant switchboard

In order to creatively match supply and demand in food systems, the Ministry of Agriculture of each African country should be converted into a giant distribution board whose main role becomes to consolidate statistics on what is passes through various production areas in real time, including product volumes flowing to different markets. , input requirements as well as how resources are
used.

The main activity of the Minister of Agriculture or the Permanent Secretary should not be to visit the field every day, but to make sense of what comes from the thousands of field days that take place every day across the country. If ministers and permanent secretaries are to visit every farmer who is doing well, it will take them more than five years to complete this exercise because there is no shortage of successful farmers worth visiting.

The main mandate of Ministries of Agriculture should shift from supervising farmers to assessing the contribution of different products and markets to rural development and economic development at the national level. Key daily questions may include: How much is generated in markets and returns to support rural production? Capturing volumes and prices of different commodities in markets and consolidating statistics in real time can easily show the quantitative contribution of markets and commodities to gross domestic product and rural development in terms of education, financing of health services, inputs, energy and technological investments.

The extent to which mass food markets change the livelihoods of rural communities can be revealed by data on the incomes circulating in these markets. For example, what is the contribution of the baobab tree to rural livelihoods? To what extent do mass markets contribute to building the resilience of urban populations? These markets are those that source and distribute food to the urban population and also ensure diversified nutrition that is affordable for the majority of rural and urban consumers.

Collecting data to inform day-to-day operations of the Ministry of Agriculture should not be seen as a donor-driven project, but integrated into government revenue so that it is part of the new normal. When the Ministry of Agriculture begins to function as a giant switchboard for the entire food system, all actors in the food system become accountable. The current situation where entrepreneurs have to do their own thing, NGOs do their own thing, parastatals do their own thing, farmers’ unions do their own thing and individual farmers do their own thing, makes it very difficult to organization of agricultural and food systems. Yet all these diverse players are saving the same consumer and the same market.

Most development agencies often compete to support the production of the same products unrelated to what the government and contractors are doing. More importantly, their interventions lack data or evidence to justify why they should, for example, promote the production of exotic chickens or goats in communities where native chickens, goats and guinea fowl naturally do very well. These organizations would make a difference by cultivating the outside market for native foods rather than contributing to more gluts.

Understanding who produces what, where and for whom requires the Ministry of Agriculture to put in place an integrated system for collecting, interpreting and sharing information across the agriculture and food systems sector. A culture of data collection and sharing needs to be cultivated from political to local level. Farmers and rural communities have a lot of information but don’t know who to share it with. If you ask them, they know when all their cattle were born, their acres, and several other intricate details that may only need to be collated and turned into reliable flowing records with the support of extension workers. This should be an important new role for African extension workers who do not teach farmers how to grow maize or prepare the land as if farmers are not able to do it themselves or seek relevant knowledge from of their peers.

Making sense of climate change through mass food markets

The impact of climate change can also be observed through African mass markets. When production areas that provided particular products like yams and native rice cease to be a source of these products, it is a sign that production has declined due to climatic variability. Policy makers can use this information to save products that may be at risk of extinction. With globalization becoming more aggressive, traditional practices do not remain the same. Many changes are happening, noticed and unnoticed across Africa. Some of the changes are associated with the increasing loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems that are the basis of indigenous knowledge in many African communities. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation also mean the loss of indigenous knowledge systems. Mass food markets are part of the solution by blending food and knowledge from various sources or communities, creating entirely different knowledge systems. Given the high levels of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss in many communities and production areas, most communities will depend on mass markets for their food.

  • Charles Dhewa is the CEO of Knowledge Transfer Africa and the founder of eMkambo. He writes here in a personal capacity

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