People who have travelled with me know that I am a sucker for markets. I find it painful to drive past one and not stop. We’re not talking about supermarkets, shopping centres, outlet malls and Walmarts. We are certainly not talking about vending machines – product dispensers without human interaction. Flea markets and garage sales might count, but the ones I find the most fascinating are the rural markets found in the countries in which IDE works; those places where food stuffs, grains, spices, cooking oil and kerosene, livestock, chickens, jewelry, clothing, essential hardware and local hooch change hands.
I can think of no place to learn more about what is going on locally: what is being produced, what people are consuming, how much purchasing power exists, what is the quality of things available for sale, what local diets consist of, what tools people need, local modes of transportation, what is a commodity and what is a treasure, what people value and how much they will pay for it. One learns a lot about the local gender dynamics – who’s doing the trading and who is making the decisions and who has the cash and who is shrewd. In times of stress, desperate or vulnerable households sell livestock or jewelry or tools and productive assets. This also happens in the marketplace, and astute observers can also spot these indicators of livelihoods under pressure.
Robust markets need both producers and consumers, and ideally, a lot of people who are both. It is discouraging to smallholder farmers to bring their produce to market to find out that there are no customers for their products and/or that these customers are only prepared to pay low prices. It is equally discouraging for consumers to come the market to find out that what they want isn’t there and/or that prices of the staples they need are higher than last week. It is common to rue higher food prices, but surely higher prices are good for smallholder farmers. More than that, pricing is a critical measure of what is going on, in particular, the balance between supply and demand, and the seasonality of tomatoes and the impact of local festival celebrations.
For sure, markets are places of opportunity. It is fine to grow food (for family consumption) or to sew clothing or manufacture some other product; it is only in the marketplace that one converts these to cash. It is the marketplace which is the source of revenues which create other options – better health, education, housing and so on.. It is the marketplace in which the “sweat of one’s brow” converts to tangible value. It is in the market place in which hopes convert to reality – rewards are best but sometimes there are disappointments.
Some of our talk about markets is nonsense. The notion of a creating sustainable market is probably in that category, unless one means that the space for producing and consuming will sustainably exist. The reality is that the demand and prices for commodities is not constant; it is dependent on purchasing power and supply and other income sources and populations and seasonal factors. The notion of “pro-poor markets” is probably oxymoronic, unless we mean that markets are places where the poor may finally realize the opportunity to get ahead by selling what they have produced. For sure, market access for both producers and consumers is key.
Markets are dynamic community places; it is easy to see, and fun to observe, the breadth and pleasure of human interaction, the conversations and laughter and conviviality – neighbours visiting with neighbours – negotiations underway and deals being made, often rather quickly but sometimes more protracted and measured. Markets are places where you find men, women and children, mostly all carrying something to the market in the morning, and carrying back something else late afternoon. And at the end of the day, it is the human dynamic about markets which I find personally so energizing. I am looking forward to my next stop.