One consequence of land reform has been the growth of informal produce markets. This has occurred in every town. Vegetables, grains, oil seeds, fruits and more are piled high, sourced from diverse locations in the rural hinterlands. Although divided across multiple traders and involving a complex array of actors in the value chain, this is big money.
eMakombo, an agricultural information service, monitors the value of cash exchanges in Mbare market in Harare, the largest in the country. Across a huge range of agricultural products, they calculate that these market exchanges amounted to US$30m in 2014, with tomatoes accounting for an astonishing US$12m. A recent eMkambo Vibes briefing observes:
The true performance of agro-based economies like Zimbabwe can be seen through people’s markets (the so-called informal agriculture market) where the volume, variety and velocity of commodities and hard cash are more than formal markets.
Speaking of Mbare, the briefing notes:
The market serves all income levels and all sectors of the economy including mining, manufacturing as well as processors, input suppliers, food chain stores, transporters and government institutions. It also creates post-harvest employment around activities like harvesting, grading, transportation, off-loading, marketing and repackaging for end-users. From harvesting up to when the commodity is in the hands of consumers, employment creation is tenfold. We start with two employees loading the truck and at the end of the chain 20 people will have been employed. Although this form of employment may not be formal or monthly, it is hourly everyday employment which ensures household income and sustenance. To that end, the market distributes wealth.
In our work on local economic development, and as demonstrated in the films we have produced on three commodities – tobacco, beef and horticulture – such informal markets are essential, with new value chains thriving, generating employment and wealth among a wide group of people.
eMakambo’s market information service which includes a call centre, SMS price updates and a website with a range of market information is an incredibly useful addition to Zimbabwe’s growing agricultural economy. Tapping into the informal dynamics of market development is essential, and making use of mobile phone technology and other means of transferring and sharing information is vital.
Of course with such flows of revenue, the growth of agricultural markets brings attention. Councils want to regulate them and extract fees. Politicians want to control them. Regulators feel the need to insist on all sorts of requirements. And criminal gangs see the opportunities for rent seeking and extortion. Markets are inevitably intensely political sites.
For example, Mbare market in Harare has become a battleground in the past years, and a focal point for the struggle between ZANU-PF factions and between ZANU-PF and the opposition. The notorious criminal youth gang, Chipangano, has been involved in racketeering on a massive scale, and was linked to a purge of the political opposition in such areas. Insistence on ZANU-PF cards from vendors, and protection payments and extortion were common-place. In the rampant rush to accumulation that characterises Zimbabwe’s corrupt politics, rumours of senior politicians being involved in controlling urban markets, attempting to wrest control from MDC controlled councils were common, especially prior to the 2013 elections.
While the intensity of this struggle for control of market revenues is more subdued in other towns and cities, politics and money are always close neighbours, and patronage networks never far away. The success of agriculture, and so informal markets involving large numbers of people and huge revenues, inevitably attracts a new political economy, one that too often has unsavoury elements, involving violence, intimidation and crime. Yet despite the harassment, violence and the political manoeuvring, Mbare market’s $30m cash revenue flows remain seriously impressive; a bright spot in an otherwise depressed economy.