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 Jodie Zhu
After reading so much about the informal markets, today we finally made it to Lilongwe food markets. We visited the new town market Tsoka and the central market in Lilongwe old town, and three local supermarkets, including the People’s, Shoprite, and Chipiko.
According to the LUANAR students, food vendors originally sold their products along main roads. The Lilongwe government then created a market space and organized the street vendors in order to avoid danger, and that the marketplace is nowadays what we call the wet markets or the informal markets.
Both Lilongwe government and private households rent spaces or stations to the vendors for market trading. Apparently the government rents the vendor station at a lower cost than the private parties. Both markets that we visited have stable vendor stations and most of the vendors stay at the same spot on the market for a long time.
The market space rent has not been raised in the past couple years. We need to, however, confirm with the venders or the market masters if the rent is the same throughout the market. One guy that we talked to has stayed on his spot for over ten years already. Even though he seemed to be in a relatively disadvantaged spot, he did not want to switch his trading station. Besides, vendors near the market entrance get more customers because customers tend to rush into the market, buy needed products and then leave.
Secondly, we have noticed that food processing function is not fully developed in the informal markets. However, those vendors that do participate in food processing seem to benefit more from the market. An example is fish trading. We found out that fish suppliers could benefit more by either drying or smoking or putting oil on the fish when the fresh fish is starting to go bad. Putting oil on the fish makes the fish look fresher, but my group members also expressed concerns over basted fishes. They mentioned putting oil on the fish covers molds, deceives customers and could even lead to food poisoning.
The fresh vegetables and fruits do not benefit much from food processing.
The markets also do not have many restrooms.
Then we discussed infrastructure at the local market and noticed that neither markets have power. The Tsoka Market also does not have a water supply. We thought that it would be nice if the market infrastructure could be improved with water for washing the food and electricity for food storage.
In the coming week, when we do interviews, we could ask the vendors and see how they would like the ideas of having electricity and water. Or we could ask if the lack of water and electricity is a top issue for them. That way we would not leave a wrong impression as if our research would build up infrastructure, or keep their hopes too high.
This has been an issue before. LUANAR professors mentioned that lots of research has been done on the markets. The vendors are getting exhausted. They thought that researchers did so much work, but did not bring much changes to their lives. These were shocking facts to me. I wish that I could have the chance to read what has been done in the market beforehand.
The markets also do not have many restrooms. Restrooms charge money. Some relieve themselves by the river, the water that is also used for food cleaning.
Vegetable vendors here do not use weight. Instead, they estimate the volume of the fresh vegetables, and pile up the amount of one dish in piles. My guess is that the customers could choose to buy any of the piles that please their eyes. It appeared to be quite innovative to me. U.S. markets weigh the products first and sell them by pounds.
Despite the fact that the informal markets have little quality control, their products appear to be fresher than that at the supermarkets. This was sort of shocking to me. Then I thought about it. The informal markets have lots of vendors that sell a same category of produce. That competition could very well motivate the vendors to keep their products fresh. On the other side, these vendors have the ability to adapt to new innovations.
Or they have to adapt to innovation. Let’s say when one of the vendors start to prepare their food in an innovative and better way and get more customers because of that, the other vendors are very likely to follow and mimic the innovations above.
As for the supermarkets, I have noticed that a corporation called Central Poultry controls the major supply. I wonder if CP could monopolize the market.