Chicago and Malawi market speculators have much in common

A farm-to-table event on Chicago’s Southside.
A farm-to-table event on Chicago’s Southside.

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 Devin Foote

Given our context of study here in Malawi, I have thought a lot about the farmers market movement in the U.S. over the past decade and how it has, I believe, driven growth in the number of regional farmers and overall awareness of local culinary specialties reappearing on American menus.

Why it has been on the forefront of my mind might be that the Malawian markets are as nearly opposite as the American or European model of fresh markets which are highly regulated, and as a result see a much greater level of oversight and functionality except for the occasional neighborhood or rural market.

Regardless, if that has actually improved the earned incomes of farmers in the states is a separate matter; as it is here in Malawi. Much of the innovation system we are looking into is a by-product of the rural farming sector. The equation is fairly simple: no produce, no market, no food for the people.

Yet one astounding fact remains in the Lilongwe markets that once existed in markets like Detroit. If there are only middlemen hustling produce in urban centers, who exactly is looking into increasing livelihoods of rural producers? Like in any system where an exchange of goods is taking place, the seller is seeking to maximize profits to the greatest extent. Without a direct producer involved, market vendors are encouraged to buy at the lowest possible price and sell at the highest.

As we learned today from Dr. Jessica Kampanje this is typical in commodity markets in Lilongwe where maize (corn), soy, legumes, etc are kept in storage to make the most of price swings. This was most recently witnessed in 2008 when Malawians felt the shock wave of food price spikes in commodities yet the commodity traders made out with excessive margins. So not only did commodity traders trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange like Goldman Sachs make off with margins so high it warranted an SEC investigation so too did the speculators in Malawi while millions of people went hungry.

Yet much of what we have focused on thus far in the practicum is the ecosystem of informal markets and working to apply a working definition of an innovation framework in the Lilongwe setting. With regard to the example above, we American students are walking examples in Lilongwe markets as our Malawian counterparts are often asked to convince us, Azungu, to buy their product often at double the price.

If I were a social worker conducting a needs assessment my list would be excessively long and growing by the day while my commitment would be waning. All the while, our Malawian colleagues have been very welcoming and committed to solutions they see as necessary from their lived experience. I look forward to continuing to learn from them as well as the market actors we continue to interact with.

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