By Charles Dhewa
The formal education system in developing countries has not taken time to explain and justify colonial measurements that continue to be used in attaching value to agricultural commodities.
Consequently, smallholder farmers wonder why some commodities are measured in kilograms and liters. In the absence of meaningful explanations, consumers and farmers surmise that these measurements were mainly introduced to support money as a medium of exchange by simplifying figures.
There is also a feeling that these measurements were adopted for conversion purposes like from kilograms to metric tons, from millilitres to litres, from acres to hectares, from metres to kilometres, and, so on.
Importance of democratising measurements
Failure or reluctance by science or formal education to clarify what is behind most measurements has fuelled the growth of informal open markets where almost everyone understands measurements in use. Informal open markets recognise the fact that communities have a lot of knowledge and value which should not be ignored by conventional forms of measurement. In these markets, value is not about kilograms but the extent to which commodities exchange value – “If I trade a bucket of small grains, will I be able to go and buy two chickens?”
Behind every transaction in the people’s market is some value attached and that value cannot be adequately expressed through kilograms. It is more about satisfaction – “are you satisfied with the value of the commodity or not?” Where there is a struggle around satisfaction when using conventional measurements as a point of satisfaction for two actors (seller and buyer), the meeting point is the satisfaction point for all actors, not the measurement. If a farmer can use one handful to define a bundle of vegetables and the customer is satisfied to pay, it means both are satisfied. Any other measurement becomes meaningless.
Measurements in relation to the rate of transactions
The fast rate of transactions in informal open markets is a major reason why these markets cannot wholly depend on colonial measurements like kilograms. Putting all commodities on scales can be too time-consuming to a point of grinding the marketing process to a halt.
Imagine 5000 people trading more than 100 different commodities within a small space and trying to do business within four hours. If scales are used in these situations it means half the time is spent focusing on unit of measurements. Even if farmers use scales on the production side, verification at the point of trading becomes a frustratingly slow process.
It is more about value than volume and weight
While measurements may seem important, commodity trading is more about value. It is more about how the farmer values his/her commodity and how the customer values the commodity brought by the farmer to the market. That is why for every measurement there is always interest in physical factors like number of bananas within a crate not just kilograms, which can mean anything. It is satisfying to talk in terms of heads of cabbages consumed by a family of six than kilograms of cabbages consumed by the family per week.
Trading in most rural settings uses observation and other human senses like lifting a chicken to feel its weight unlike using kilograms. This confirms the importance of value. For instance, it’s not possible to compare a cork and hen. A cork may weigh 10 kg but a hen that weighs less may be more valued because it produces chicks and eggs. Although kilograms tend to be used in livestock markets, observing a steer, bull, goat, pig or sheep is more satisfying in concluding deals than relying entirely on kilograms.
Conventional measurements like kilograms and litres can be valuable when used to compare commodities of the same size, same products, same quality and taste. If you slaughter two beasts, they may have different tastes due to age and other factors. This means using kilograms may not produce the correct comparison because kilograms are not identical for the two beasts. The same applies where two chickens are slaughtered, taste and quality can be very different due to various factors.
The power of traditional measurements that embed both economic and social benefits
Informal people’s markets have become adept at using traditional forms of measurements that embed both economic and social benefits. To a large extent, these markets have tended to be consistent in terms of units of measurements such that they have resisted being pressurised to use kilograms or other forms of measurements. It also appears the open market has collectively decided to use packaging as a form of measurement. For years they have been using wooden boxes, 20l buckets,50 kilogram bags for commodities in transit, baskets, plastic sandaks and dozens. Also in greater use across most open markets is counting, bundles, observation and many others.
Irrespective of measurements, what has remained important is staying in tune with market forces – supply and demand. Whether a box of tomatoes is 5kg or 15kg is not important. Most of these measurements in the open market have not changed for decades. Except in rare cases, commodities in the informal market are not distributed in kilograms but packaged into 20l buckets, sasasekas, baskets, truck loads, push-carts and many other bulky measurement. Correspondingly, prices fluctuate within those units of measurement that have become standard across all people’s markets. Temporary packaging has greatly become accepted as a unit of measurement such that when prices go up the units are adjusted accordingly.
People’s markets as valuation institutions for satisfying different actors
One question from smallholder farmers is: Why should we use kilograms for consumed commodities when manufactured commodities like tractors and scotch-carts are sold on value? A farmer can decide to either part with $1000 for a scotch-cart or spend the money on something else. The open market does not care about moisture content which can see a 20kg bucket of maize weighing less at one time and triggering serious disputes. There is also a strong view that conventional measurements like scales can easily be manipulated. A buyer can manipulate a scale or machine but you s/he cannot manipulate a bucket which can be observed and seen by naked eyes.
If a commodity can easily be put in a container, why would another measurement like kilograms or litres be used when they do not lead to another value like nutrition or a superior grade? Farmers think that kind of double-measurement does not add value. Why should a kilogram or a litre be the only major expression of a commodity’s worth? The quality of a soccer player is not measured by height or kilograms but intrinsic gifts like dribbling skills, mental fortitude, speed and many other factors.
Challenges in translating satisfaction into business viability
While open and informal markets have found creative ways of using value as a satisfactory intersection for traders, consumers, buyers and farmers, there is still a hanging question. How do we make sure value as satisfaction is economically translated into viable business? This question has to be answered from the social and economic perspectives. One of the reasons it has remained difficult to commercialise smallholder farmers is because satisfaction with agriculture is not just about money. For the majority of African smallholder farmers, meeting the needs of the immediate family, extended family, relatives and the community is a fundamental motivation into agriculture.
That is why most transactions in rural communities are not much of trading but giving. If a cork is slaughtered for you as a visitor, the economic value of the cork is not a major consideration. If you are given a bucket of groundnuts, the giver does not convert the bucket’s value into dollars and cents. From an economic perspective, the farmer who gives you a bucket of groundnuts will have incurred losses because s/he cannot recover costs of production. How do we compare an economic loss due to giving with the social benefits of giving? If the value of a goat that a farmer has given to his daughter-in-law is $50, the satisfaction of giving can have more value than the $50. The same if a cork worth $10 is slaughtered for a visitor, the visitor’s appreciation can be more than a Chicken Slice box worth $30. If you bring groceries worth $200 to your mother, the social benefit you earn can be far more than $200. The only challenge is when farmers try to use economic benefits to sustain their production and productivity. For instance, a traditional form of discount (Mbasela) is a social benefit-driven discount, but can be considered a loss from an economic perspectives.
Importance of examining the socio-economic landscape
Farming communities always live with a trade-off between trying to satisfy the customer or relatives and satisfying economic benefits. That is why it is important to invest in understanding the landscape in which farmers exist and how they arrive at decisions to leave surplus for the market.
Before thinking about surplus for the market, the primary focus for most farmers is social benefit. If you are trader coming from marginalised communities, you cannot take everything to the market and leave the community starving. That is why, business champions from marginalized communities tend to be rare.
The moment you start becoming a champion, the social pressure for giving starts increasing. As a way of navigating this dilemma, many profit-oriented enterprises like some food chain stores or processing companies try to stay outside marginalised communities, especially communities from which company owners come from. They are trying to run away from social pressures which may end up compromising profitability.