By Charles Dhewa
Unlike formal markets that tend to promote a narrow selection of commodities easy for commercialisation, African mass markets are a true expression of a country’s food diversity. To the extent they are more associated with social class, middle class in particular, formal markets like supermarkets do not often stock indigenous food which are key staples for the majority.
Conversely, since the majority are not able to buy commodities from supermarkets, they depend on mass markets including road side markets and street markets. This means food fortification initiatives that focus on commodities sold through formal markets do not reach the majority. For instance, it still remains difficult to fortify wild fruits and indigenous chickens or vegetables that are an important part of African food systems.
Keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value
As in any other active community, information and knowledge within informal markets is kept within the ecosystem. Knowledge sharing pathways within actors in the ecosystem and with actors outside the market are constantly developed and sharpened. All actors in the mass markets have become aware that keeping knowledge and information fluid maintains its value. The fact that the market functions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year minimizes chances of knowledge and information getting stale since it is constantly freshened up. Again, in these dynamic markets, knowledge and information is not boxed into publications the way formal markets depend on physical books and manuals.
The knowledge in mass markets is consistently shared through fluid nodes and there is a tacit recognition that knowledge and information cannot be counted using number of words or paragraphs due to its fluid nature. In terms of adjustments to customer needs and prices changes, everything operates as a flow. Nobody seats down to gazette prices. All processes such as price setting and movement of commodities stay fluid. This is enabling mass markets and SMEs to grow faster than the formal economy is some African countries. Emerging economy are embracing the importance of limiting bureaucracy.
Equality, trust and relationships
In the mass markets everyone is equal, trust and relationships are created through mutual understanding. Factors underpinning relationship building are based on the common ground, objectives and interests. For instance, traders who specialize in tomatoes have strong relationships with their peers and the same applies with transporters, youth, women, caterers and push cart guys. The entire basket of relationships is kept fresh and holistic. All these kinds of relationships are missing in formal markets where relationships and trust are forced through policies and operating procedures. The boss is the boss and has to be respected even if s/he is not knowledgeable while conditions of service stipulate one’s salary including payment dates.
The same distinctions characterize rural and urban areas. In rural communities relationships are anchored on values, norms, cultures and customs flawlessly. That is how local and indigenous knowledge is passed on to the next generation. In addition, communities have built their own literature such that although market actors may come from different backgrounds and histories, the market remains a single institution where all experiences are fused together.
Open knowledge society
Being open markets where knowledge, skills and backgrounds inter-mingle, mass markets do not rely on written down entry and exit requirements. If you decide to retire you simply do so. There is no system that can be manipulated like what happens in formal institutions. There are no retirement plans so information and knowledge remains fluid. The fact that the market interacts with all facets including the rural folk, means the knowledge is kept relevant, fluid and flawless unlike keeping it in books and manuals where it can be frozen in ways that can see it being over-taken by events.
Traditional norms flow into the mass market from diverse areas. The market also interacts with formal institutions like hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. However, it interacts less with academics and policy makers which is why academics are often going in their own direction looking for literature review as they cannot connect with fresh evidence without looking to the past. The mass market also interacts less with development organizations whose interventions continue missing the mark. Instead of engaging with the market to understand how farmers are coping with drought and climate change, some development agencies prefer literature reviews.
On the other hand, contrary to relying on literature review, the mass market is good at empowering socio-economic actors to use their judgement and intelligence in creating tight feedback loops that expose them to consequences of their actions. Every African mass market is a knowledge-enabled, connected and collaborative institution, functioning like an adaptive nervous system rather than a rigid skeleton of roles and structures like the formal market system. Value chain actors in the mass market are able to manage complexity by allowing everybody to take ownership of issues and contribute to solutions.