Agriculture Business Climate Community Development Food

Correcting the underrated value of studying African mass food markets

Food market

Writes Charles Dhewa

It is not enough for research conducted in African countries on food systems to end up in academic journals. In most cases there is often no clarity on who benefits from such research and intended uses of the findings. Unless African governments study mass food markets intentionally, policymakers will continue finding it difficult to appreciate the contribution of these markets to socioeconomic development.

When properly studied, mass food markets can be a source of rich intelligence on the contribution of agriculture and food systems to employment creation, nutrition security and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the same way, formal industries submit their various sets of information or data like sales, number of employees for the purposes of taxes, exports, imports, and other details should see the contribution of mass food markets being captured and expressed. That cannot be done through academic journals that often speak to a particularly narrow audience.

Potential for continental knowledge exchange

Once every African country invests in studying its mass food markets, it becomes possible to build robust knowledge-sharing platforms, for instance, through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Such platforms can bring food supply actors from different countries to share valuable lessons in ways that benefit the entire continent. For instance, farmers and traders in Ethiopia or Kenya can learn from their peers in Southern Africa and West Africa. Being the most affected both positively or negatively by how the market functions, these actors may be facing similar challenges of which others may already be generating solutions. Any support coming to address some of their challenges should ensure these actors are part of the processes so that the right challenges are prioritized and addressed.

Some of the experiences and lessons worth sharing through organized knowledge exchange platforms include the kinds of support being given to mass markets by other countries and how other governments are recognizing mass markets. More importantly, countries can adopt and utilize the continental study frameworks for in-depth assessments of all their national mass markets at different levels. Such platforms can bring together key institutions like local authorities, agriculture, commerce, finance, health as well as development agencies, and the private sector.

Toward home-grown value assessments

When studies from mass food markets are shared at sub-regional levels like ECOWAS, EAC, SADC, and equivalent North African community level like Maghreb, these bodies can then take these findings to continental and international platforms like AfCFTA including financial platforms like AfDB, Afreximbank, World Bank and others. Such efforts will provide an African way of accounting for hitherto neglected contributors to sustainable and equitable development.

So far, African countries have been using a Western-oriented approach to assessing sources of contributions to sustainable and equitable development. For instance, they focus on contributions by minerals like Gold or diamonds which are not sustainable as well as contributions by a few value chains like beef, cocoa, cotton, and tobacco. Ways of expressing contributions have suggested crops and institutions that bring foreign currency are more important than crops and institutions that feed the nation, generate employment, and create livelihoods like various food systems and territorial mass markets whose contribution is yet to be fully recognized.

That African mass markets are major institutions contributing to sustainable and equitable development is no longer questionable. However, these institutions face various challenges that can be addressed through external and internal support if properly studied. Study findings can be used for resource mobilization – developing proposals supported by evidence to address some key challenges like infrastructure development, and building the capacity of market actors like traders, committees, and farmers. Resources can also be mobilized for coordinating and organizing supply chains to reduce economic and physical losses in African food systems.

What is also emerging is that African mass markets are powerful institutions with a lot of undocumented knowledge much of which can be useful in providing development pathways for African economies. For instance, indigenous commerce that dominates mass markets can enable African economies to come up with unique systems of collecting, processing, and sharing knowledge that typifies home-grown solutions. Another key issue is entrepreneurship development. Lessons from studying mass markets can be used in tapping into undocumented business models that have enabled African mass markets to survive for centuries, even during shocks like droughts and pandemics like COVID-19. If some of these business models can be supported at scale, they can be pillars for transforming African economies in line with Vision 2030 or African Union Agenda 2063.

Mass markets as expressions of African identity and food sovereignty

Lessons from studying mass markets can also be used to give African economies and their markets an African identity as well as build pathways for achieving food sovereignty. Examples of such lessons were drawn during COVID-19 where some countries that had previously relied on imported foods through formal markets were forced to depend on their territorial mass food markets in response to persistent lockdowns. By positioning agroecology against other agricultural practices, mass market studies can also provide entry points for advancing agroecology. That way, mass market studies provide a baseline for seeding agroecology on the African food systems landscape. Within the context of mass food markets, agroecologically-produced commodities can be another unique identifier of an African product and the message should not just end at consumers. It needs support from the government, development agencies, the private sector, and many other stakeholders.

Transforming education systems through mass food markets

Mass market studies can also present opportunities for African education systems to recognize the importance of these markets as powerful alternative learning institutions and knowledge platforms whose value remains untapped. For the curious, every African mass market is a university in itself. Curricula can be reviewed through contributions from mass markets. Just like universities are registered through the Western systems, there should be a way of recognizing and formally institutionalizing African mass markets as legitimate indigenous learning institutions. The same way individuals or leaders are given honorary degrees should see champions who have worked in mass markets for decades being recognized for their knowledge and practical expertise.


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About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende