A tale of two markets

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of posts by students from Michigan State University in the U.S. and LUANAR University in Malawi who participated in the Frugal Innovations Program of the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

By Kevin Mills

To say the culture is different would be an understatement. Today was my second full day in Malawi and the first experience within the markets.

Yesterday we were able to meet with the LUANAR students, get to know each other, and familiarize ourselves with where we were staying. I was not quite sure what to expect, but so far nothing too extraordinary has happened. We lost power last night – just a circuit breaker – when we walked out to investigate it, one of our neighbors in our dorm, Aaron, just said “Welcome to Africa.”

Unsurprisingly, the main roads are better than our Michigan roads, but many of the buildings we have encountered that house businesses on campus appear quite a bit run down. The drive in from the Ufulu gardens to Lilongwe, and then to campus, lent a great deal of insight into the way of life among the Malawian people.

When we were studying informal markets, my understanding was that it was localized to the food industry. However, almost the entire country seems to run on either informal market interactions or subsistence living.

Additionally, I was surprised that a country that seems to have so little from a Western perspective, could have such a great deal of pollution and trash. This may be because, at least from driving along the road, it seems that most Malawians live, work, and do business along main thoroughfares. Truly, this may be a testament to the importance of infrastructure on how people live their lives.

Between the baying of the feral dogs, cackling of the hyenas, and the mosquito net, I managed a decent night’s sleep with only a little anxiety. What exactly had I gotten myself into? Do I still want the Peace Corps position I applied to not even two months ago?

On our second day we spent time in class discussing how we will go about our research within the markets. I found this slightly odd since we had not yet been to the markets. How does one go about researching something when he has yet to receive a basic background and hands-on knowledge?

Tsoka Market was probably the first major culture shock I have experienced in my life. Western Europe and brief interactions in the urban centers of cities do not do much to affect me. Tsoka was bustling with narrow, dirty thoroughfares and sellers hawking items. Everyone wondering aloud to my LUANAR counterpart, Maxwell, who these white people are and what they were doing here. Some, not bothering, to wonder why we were here, just shoved platters of strawberries, beans, or paintings into our faces, knowing full well that we have money to pay for it.

While the produce in Tsoka looked terrific, it was brought to my attention that the water source for much of the produce was the banks of the river, on which the market overlooked.

Our next stop were the supermarkets, which were comparable to ours. Many of these markets contained foodstuffs imported from outside the country. One of my LUANAR counterparts, Christie, wondered why she saw imported frozen peas when Malawi produces loads of peas. The answer is that free trade can now flood the markets with cheaper foods, similar to the Mozambique tangerines that an engineer named James gave me this morning.

Neoliberal doctrine has dictated that these developing countries operate through free trade in order to get foreign direct investment and loans from the IMF and World Bank. The West was built on trade quotas, tariffs, and subsidies to protect and grow domestic industries; but now it demands that developing countries do not follow the same path to development, in the name of development?

How are these countries supposed to develop when two aspects of the innovation framework – market formation and creation of legitimacy and counteraction of existing market forces – are stifled?

Lastly, we went to the Central Market in the old part of the city. The existing infrastructure led it to stand out in stark contrast with Tsoka. Most of the shops were built up, with solid stone, brick, or concrete walls. The fish sector of the market had concrete platforms as its tables. It was apparent that if any infrastructure needed to be added, or the layout of the market needed to change, it would be extremely difficult without interrupting the existing market functions.

Tsoka by comparison, which consisted of many stands that were made of wood, seemed more malleable to change and accepting to potential infrastructure. The Central Market had meat, whereas Tsoka did not. The inner cook in me wanted to scream. Meat was not being kept chilled and flies were prevalent throughout their areas.

This seems to be the problem faced: How does Malawi bridge the gap between the two types of markets in order to provide better food safety and access, but also in order to help grow its agriculture-centered economy?

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