Flexibility Equals Survival


In many parts of Africa, a highly flexible system of town and village marketplaces, staffed primarily by women, maintains, a trickle of income, consumer goods, and food with remarkable resilience through stresses of political upheaval, economic crisis, and seasonal and extended drought. This network of small-scale traders - who visit the most remote villages and service the smallest part-time producers, buying and selling locally grown food - provide a lifeline to rural and urban poor communities.

Just as a diversity of species enables an ecological system to meet a variety of needs, the diverse economic relations sustained by these trading networks adjust to economic stresses better than do more rigid, monolithic systems. Skills and knowledge passed on from earlier generations and polished during a life-time gave one trader the confidence to state calmly, "Whether goods are scarce or plentiful, we can always make some money - if we know the right price." Even when larger firms are unwilling or unable to operate, African women traders keep open the option of survival and the hope of prosperity for themselves, their families, and their communities.

One such marketing region in West Africa centers on Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, in the midst of the moist forest zone. This is a key farm region for food and for Ghana's major export crop, cocoa, and Kumasi Central Market is key to the nation's food distribution, with a commercial hinterland reaching north to the savannah and south to the coast. It is the largest single market in Ghana, with over 15,000 traders, 70 percent of them women and 70 percent local Asantes, especially those trading locally grown food. Traders going to and from Kumasi Central Market stimulate farm production throughout this hinterland by providing dependable retail and wholesale outlets at steady prices.

Even subsistence production here is intimately linked to small-farm production of commercial food and export crops and imports of consumer and producer goods. Since well before the sixteenth century, cultures like the Asante have grown up in a context of local and international trade. By collecting goods in small quantities, traders support food processing, craft work, and growers of secondary and off-season crops. The resulting diverse economy can better resist adversities that affect any one source of income. Duplicate marketing channels that may seem inefficient actually maintain alternatives ready for a quick response to changing conditions. As Boston University anthropoligist Jane Guyer has shown, more rigid food trading systems respond less effectively to both immediate crises and historical changes, leaving both city and countryside more vulnerable.

The Ghanaian marketplace underlies food security for both town and country. Traders manage the physical flow of goods and bargain the prices at which most consumers get food, cloth, and most other basic goods, while stores cater mainly to higher-income groups. As breadwinners, urban and rural women traders secure food for themselves and their families. Through these actions for profit, they take on major responsibilities for encouraging food production, stabilizing the daily flow of food throughout the year, and keeping food available when and where hungry consumers needs it at a price they can afford. Quantity, reliability, and access are precisely the three prerequisites for food security, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.


Dry-season changes in trading strategies indicate the strengths, weaknesses, and relative advantages of the food system. Local citizens put these same strategies into practice in times of famine. Supplies of the most popular Asante staples (plantains, yams, and cassava) and fruits and vegetables sharply fluctuate with the season, due to their rapid spoilage and short harvest periods. Even grains and bean suffer high losses from insects and mold, reducing the profit when stored to speculate on later high prices. Traders, farmers, and consumers all take steps to smooth our these predictable annual variations.

Spreading the harvest among many crops and places is the fundamental tactic. Consumers vary their diet from month to month to take advantage of foods that are in season, while traders stabilize their income by ensuring a steady flow of goods. Traders who stay in Kumasi cultivate a wide range of contacts to keep arrivals coming from different areas. Those who collect yams from farming districts to bring to Kumasi maintain contacts in four or five districts that tend to harvest at differing times. One middle-aged trader could list her annual series of supply towns and continually contacted villagers she knew to determine when farmers expected to harvest. When yam supplies ran out during the rainy season, she switched to selling "water yams," a related tuber that matures at that time.

Asante forest-zone farmers may plant a variety of crops with consecutive harvest seasons, so they always have something to eat and sell. High off-season prices encourage people to plant crops they can harvest early or late. They use the money to buy food from other districts, perhaps getting a more balanced year-round diet than they could grow themselves.

The effect on tomato production is dramatic, since the price of this highly seasonal and perishable item bought daily for soup rises tenfold in the annual dry seasons. In districts with year-round streams, these handsome returns justify the back-breaking labor of carrying a bucket of water to irrigate every two plants each day. Farmers specialize so intensely that they rely on market purchase for much of their family diet. Tomatoes must be harvested daily and reach the city within 24 hours, so the system relies on the constant availability of small-scale buyers.

When supplies become scarce, traders not only offer higher prices but put more effort into the search for goods. Awura Amma, a Kumasi vegetable buyer, made day trips to markets in her home district during the rainy season. As the harvest dwindled, she stayed out for several days at a time, visiting more locations and buying at farm homes in less accessible villages. She willingly bought small, irregular amounts of lower-quality, lumpy, and wormy produce that she would have passed up when supplies were plentiful.

The search also absorbs more people during the dry season, and Amma met more competition in her home village. Kumasi retailers come looking for supplies rather than wait idly for travelers to arrive, and villagers or migrants with a few local contacts find that the high prices make it worthwhile to bring small amounts of goods to town. This high labor input brings every shriveled okra onto the market but also creates higher price differentials between the farm and the consumer.

Yet the constant travel eventually gave Amma chronic health problems, so she now concentrates more on selling onions, which Kumasi draws from a wider area more steadily throughout the year. Traders unwilling or unable to travel might increase their labor input by processing goods. In Kumasi, even the queen of the orange traders sits peeling oranges for her relatives to sell as snacks when no trucks are arriving. Egg-sellers who normally sell by the dozen turn to hard boiling or frying the few they have to sell at a higher price. Rural traders and farmers turn to food processing even more often, which also reduces waste of scarce goods in transport. Since cassava spoils a day or two after harvest, it must be sold to Kumasi traders directly by the truckload from remote farms. When road conditions or hard soil prevent this, rural cassava traders and farmers grate, press, and toast the cassava to make gari, which keeps for over a year.

Many traders shift commodities to bridge the supply gap, ideally to one that has an opposite harvest season yet supplies the same consumer need. Orange traders in their off-season sell most of the pineapples in Kumasi. Thus, traders can use the same collegial and customer relations, although they may need separate supply contacts. This reduces the cost to distribute each commodity, which need not support a trader for the whole year.

Consider Madame Adua, a prosperous trader who shuttled weekly between her husband in Kumasi and her children in her hometown, which specialized in tomatoes. When tomatoes were plentiful, she bought in the local market or made arrangements with neighboring farmers, including her sisters. During the off-season, she bought cassava in the same area. Unless she was pregnant, she also spent the planting season in her village, hand-irrigating a tomato field to catch the early high prices.

Other traders switch to sewing, craft work, and other non-trading work during the season when their usual occupation is unprofitable or too risky. Wealthier traders take time off to visit family, attend funerals or other ceremonies, and attend funerals or other ceremonies, and attend to house building or other business interests. Some loan money to farmers to buy fertilizer or hire labor for weeding and harvesting, enabling them to plant more land. Borrowers agree to sell lenders the crop later, and they share the risk of crop failure or price drop. Chronic debt seems rare, partly because loans are small, less than 10 percent of the value of the expected harvest.

Trading itself is important in the off-season for many farmers, and the trading system supports other dry-season occupations. In northern savannah districts with a long dry season, trading by both men and women can contribute a sizable part of the family income to buy food from more productive districts. Migration for trading, wage work, or share-cropping also assumes that those left behind will buy food with the money migrants send or bring back.

Rural women might also invest their profits or remittances in small enterprises - making shea butter, peanut oil, fermented locust-bean paste, and mats and weaving - that can be important to a family's survival between harvests. These activities depend on small-scale traders to buy the products and sell consumers goods in small quantities. Thus, the flexibility and diversity of the system keeps many rural communities viable even under severe economic and ecological pressures.


In 1983, drought complicated by political factors triggered severe food shortages. Traders deployed their dry-season strategies. Intensified search began earlier than usual, because supplies ran out sooner, and extended into the next growing season as the drought lasted. In Kumasi and other cities, consumers joined the ranks of traders combing villages for food. Food supplies remained better in rural areas, and urban families sent their children to home villages when possible. Far from hoarding food, traders sought desperately for some to sell, although its appearance on the Kumasi market risked pandemonium. Food price controls were on the books but weakly enforced to encourage farmers to market whatever they had left.

Farmers tried to start their dry season activities earlier and to elaborate them. As prices rose, northern farmers sold their meager harvests of grain and other preferred foods and bought cheaper foods, such as gari. This was largely imported from southern forests, showing that the system could still draw food from less affected areas. Labor migration began earlier and lasted longer than usual, although the poor harvest in the south reduced the opportunities for farm work.

Personal accounts from Damongo, a northern district capital, tell how secondary occupations became primary to survival. The major grain harvests - maize, millet, and sorghum - were a total loss, as were green vegetables. This freed women from the burden of weeding, so they devoted their energy to the erstwhile part-time dry-season sideline of gathering and processing wild produce. They gathered shea nuts for shea butter and locust beans for fermenting into a seasoning paste, seeking out more distant stands of wild trees that they usually neglected in the press of farm work, camping out for several days in large groups. They began to process the nuts and beans immediately, instead of waiting until after harvest. Market demand stayed steady, so the income helped feed families the next year.

A few Damongo area farmers had planted cassava, a relatively new crop and the only one to survive that year. After they harvested it, local women made gari, which they started eating regularly for the first time. This dramatic demonstration of cassava's drought resistance encouraged men to plant it and women to include gari-making in their regular cycle of income-generating tasks. Women formed a cooperative that bought a tractor to haul cassava to their homes from farms. In the better years that followed, they sold gari to schools and other institutions, displacing southern gari producers.


These experiences confirm that the flexibility built into a diversified market-place trading system strengthens an economy's ability to resist and recover from conditions that could cause famine. Taken together, the choices of individual traders shift labor and capital toward the farm when it is needed and toward currently available foods.

Easy entry into trading and easy transfer between trading roles are the commercial conditions that permit this rapid adjustment. Even when political attacks on traders brought marketing to a stand-still in 1979, drying up city food supplies almost entirely, these features allowed open trading to resume with dramatic promptness when policies relaxed.

That women are the majority of both food farmers and traders in Asante has led to fears that their enthusiasm for the latter threatens food production, but rural Asante women have told me they can't easily expand their farms. Although Asante women have told me they can't easily expand their farms. Although Asante women claim land through matrilineages, their brothers and uncles still tend to get access to larger, more fertile land. Moreover, farming requires capital to pay for laborers, inputs, and family food until harvest, and women must also often buy land rights if family land is scarce. Men more often have savings from wage labor, inheritances, or family or government loans, and they can count on their wives to raise food. Gwendolyn Mikell and Christine Okali have shown how this inhibits women's cocoa farming, and women have also said it constrains their food farming.

Labor demands on women also restrict the size of their farms. They must cook for their families, using their own harvest if necessary, and also for farm laborers on their husbands' farms. In addition, Asante husbands can ask wives to help tend their crops without losing ownership - but not vice versa. By contrast, trading gives a wife daily or weekly income under her full personal control and makes her unavailable to help on her husband's farm.

Under these circumstances, removing constraints on women's farm enterprises would more likely lead them to expand their farms, rather than discourage the women from trading. Some village women have used trading itself to overcome these constraints, reinvesting profits in a larger farm. After all, Asante men moved rapidly out of trading in the early twentieth century under the influence of price incentives and public supports for cocoa farming.

Still, such policies would be more effective in rural areas than in cities. In Kumasi Central Market, most market women were born and raised in the city. Visits to rural hometowns are frequent enough to keep strong social links with relatives but not to establish claims to land.

Compared to other forms of integration into the global economy, a flexible marketplace system gives farmers and consumers some autonomy. It sustains a diversified rural economy through which farmers and traders can satisfy demands within the country and overseas. It delivers to small-scale farmers and producers their immediate needs, from sources near and far, under terms that leave them with some capacity to abandon commercial production when those channels no longer provide enough income or goods. This withdrawal threatens urban food security on occasion but protects overall food security in the long run.

Nevertheless, although traders can soften the effects of economic and ecological crisis and speed recovery, they have little influence on the underlying causes. Along with farmers and consumers, in the long term they are vulnerable to worsening price trends and economic policies harnessing them to the world market. They are flexible enough to achieve a relatively secure existence, and even occasional wealth, but not enough to transform the terms of production or trade beyond limits set by other aspects of the economy that drain away land, capital, and other resources to promote exports. Their frenetic activity can only use more effectively the resources and products generated by the small farmers and urban workers that international policy makers relegate to increasingly marginal and polarized positions.


Naomi Chazan and Timothy Shaw, eds., Coping With Africa's Food Crisis, Lynn Rienner, 1988.

Jane Guyer, ed., Feeding African Cities, International African Institute, 1987.

Megan Vaughan, The Story of an African Famine, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Women's Worth

Country: Mozambique

Project: Marketing a Surplus

A community-based credit system, supported by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), allows farmers, many of whom are women, to buy seeds, fertilizer, and supplies to boost production.

In 1991, when UNIFEM loaned 32 farm families in the Matuba village of Machel $6,500, villagers formed seven solidarity groups, with an elected leader for each. The project arranged for technicians to hold workshops on developing irrigation channels and improving farming techniques. The village farms adopted a system that includes managing and protecting the channels, intercropping maize with butter beans to maintain the balance of nutrients in the soil, and using pesticides conservatively.

With reliable irrigation water and money for draft animals, women quadrupled their harvest in 1991 and took a surplus to market. The average market income per family was $800 - enough to repay the loans and continue the program the next year.

Machel women are now looking into further loans to improve animal husbandry and buy a maize mill. Amid the poverty, military conflict, scarce government support, and droughts affecting the region, the project allows women better household and economic security.

Contact: UNIFEM, 304 East 45th Street, New York, NY 10017

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