The role of informal agriculture markets in aligning agriculture with people’s nutritional needs

Whether granaries are full or empty, people’s markets (informal agriculture markets) play a critical role in Zimbabwe. More than 75 diverse agricultural commodities circulate in informal agriculture markets such as Mbare (Harare), Bulawayo markets, Sakubva (Mutare), Garikayi (Masvingo) and Kudzanayi (Gweru) daily. While, as a country we have become accustomed to talking and thinking in terms of strategic grain reserves, informal agriculture markets indicate we should start talking and thinking in terms of strategic food reserves. This change of narrative will mean food reserves takes a holistic approach to food (maize, small grains, tubers, chickens, eggs, pigs, cattle and a wide range of horticulture commodities flowing into people’s markets daily. At any given time, Mbare agriculture market handles agricultural commodities worth more than US$20 million. This figure includes food in warehouses dotted around the market. What happens in such a market should not be swept under the economic carpet if agriculture is to remain the engine of economic revival and growth.

While there has been too much emphasis on production, market development has received scant attention. In most cases, farmers and policy makers look at marketing as just finding a buyer. Yet this is just a small part of the issue. People’s markets show that market development should look at developing appropriate infrastructure such as warehousing and timely transportation as well as the whole market ecosystem that encompasses deal-making and matching supply with demand. Through the people’s market, Zimbabwean farmers are now learning to co-design food systems with traders and practice market-based agriculture which means producing according to the quantity, quality and frequency determined by the market’s capacity to absorb commodities. Farmers who haven’t embraced such a dimension of precision agriculture are still to take farming as a business.

The globalization of food markets is becoming a permanent threat to Zimbabwean agriculture with imported food threatening to up-stage local food systems. Properly organised people’s markets can address some of these challenges by pointing to evidence gaps in terms of what food is coming from where. Through local farmers’ markets, Zimbabwean farmers are seeing the merits of cooperating rather than engaging in cut throat competition. If solidarity doesn’t emerge from markets,  smallholder farmers will remain vulnerable to the global market place. Alliances across local farmers’ markets are the true seeds of agricultural resilience. It’s not enough to have your own small seed and food fair as a community. Gokwe farmers need to imagine how their local market connects with local markets in Mutoko, Chipinge, Esigodini, Nkayi, Hwange, Beitbridge and Bikita, among others.

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Most local markets are replacing big organizations as main sources of agricultural legitimacy. Searching for agricultural efficiency and economies of scale should see farmers organizing themselves at people’s markets. With an increase in awareness about the merits of organic food, local markets are set to provide such food in large quantities if properly organised. Very few people can afford buying organic food from supermarkets. The majority of urban and rural consumers associate people’s markets with reliable nutrition baskets. A vendor who goes to Mbare market in the morning is likely to go home with a balanced choice of nutritional foods for her family and her local consumers.
Given the diversity in the volume and variety of food in circulation, people’s markets ensure resilience by cultivating strong relationships between farmers, traders and consumers. As an innovation and knowledge broker, eMKambo ( is knitting collaborations between these groups and translating their experiences to policy makers, financial institutions and development partners. This role has seen eMKambo dancing between two, three or more worldviews. Building alliances between farmers, traders and local authorities is critical in ensuring institutions become more responsive and be able to handle competitive pressure and knowledge spill-overs.

Turning agriculture rhetoric into reality

One way of turning agriculture rhetoric into reality is to collect and analyse data from each district, indicating the volume and value of commodities flowing from districts versus amounts and types of inputs flowing into those districts per particular period. This intelligence should be linked with the level of malnutrition in the districts as a way of aligning the district’s agricultural output with the nutritional needs of local people. This calls for cooperation between agriculturalists, farmers, nutritionists, village health workers, private companies, NGOs and policy makers. We can’t continue measuring agriculture by the amount of export earnings alone. We need to look beyond using GDP as a lens into agriculture. Developing local farmers’ market where one can take stock of a district’s output is a powerful entry point into understand the true value of agriculture in a particular district.

Value addition businesses at district level should be anchored on correct data regarding the total volume of commodities that can be produced versus what is set aside for household consumption and surplus for the market. People’s markets can trigger agricultural tourism where visitors pay to come and taste local food while learning from a particular district’s food culture. By integrating local food into food coming from elsewhere, the people’s market can correct nutritional imbalances. Bringing people together around the concept of food, is one critical way informal markets establish a strong sense of identity and knowledge sharing culture.

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