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People’s Food Markets as Sources of Multiple Knowledges


One of the benefits of continuously observing and learning from informal African food markets is an opportunity to update knowledge and see inevitable trends before everyone sees them. In a recent interaction with informal markets in Zambia and Zimbabwe, eMKambo discovered that these markets do not just classify agricultural commodities into luxuries and necessities. There are more than 15 classifications including the following


These are highly perishable commodities and have to be handled gently. Related knowledge is also perishable in ways that mimic the commodities. Examples include leafy vegetables, tomatoes, milk and beef. Unfortunately, informal markets lack appropriate infrastructure for handling perishables.



These can stay longer before getting bad and examples include small grains.

Fast movers

These are quickly sold in the market and examples include some of the perishables.

Slow movers

As the name suggests, these stay a bit longer in the market due to various reasons including the fact that they might be considered luxuries from a household budget perspective.

Value-based commodities from an economic perspective

This category includes high value low volume commodities like peas which are sold in kilograms as compared to high volume commodities that are sold in other measurements like buckets, pockets, baskets and crates.

Value-based commodities from a nutritional perspective 

Due to their nutritional benefits, commodities like garlic and ginger fall in this category.

Volume-based commodities

This group includes potatoes where volume determines profitability.

Multi-purpose commodities

These have several uses including value addition options. Examples include tomatoes that can be processed into tomato sauce, be used in burgers and fast foods.

Mono-use commodities

These commodities are difficult to translate into several uses. Examples include wild fruits which are yet to be value added as well as sweet potatoes and some legumes like peas whose value addition options are still limited. Such commodities are often quickly out-competed in the market due to lack of multi-purpose uses. A tomato tends to dominate the market because it touches most forms of relish and can be processed into other products. On the other hand, while peas is a high value commodity from an economic and consumer class perspective, it does not present many value addition prospects. Same with butternuts which may have nutritional value but lack value addition opportunities.

Micro climate-driven commodities

These are found in specific micro climates and are unique to that area. There are areas where avocados grow naturally and others like Taveta in Kenya where tropical fruits like mango are produced when other areas do not have such commodities.

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Religion-influenced commodities

Examples include pork or piggery. Some religious sects do not want to be associated with pigs while some communities associate pearl millet with witchcraft. This affects market penetration for these commodities unlike a tomato which is consumed by 99% of the people irrespective of religion. Some consumers insist on getting halal meat which means farmers have to fulfill those requirements for such customers.

Social class-driven commodities

Examples are cauliflower, lettuce and baby marrow which are often associated with the high income, westernized consumers. Ordinary low income consumers cannot use cauliflower as vegetable relish as they consider it a luxury.

Seasonal commodities

These can only be available in a particular season.

Seasonality of commodities and the human body

Farmers, traders and consumers also mentioned that the seasonal availability of most local foods is tied to the needs of the human body. Vegetables and fruits that grow in summer are linked to the human body’s nutritional requirements in summer. The human body also requires specific foods in Autumn, Winter and Spring. Chillies, sugarcane and fruits that do well in winter are consumed in winter to keep the human body warm.  The respondents concurred that, perhaps the main reason why some diseases like cancer, diabetes and others are becoming common in African communities is that local people’s bodies are revolting against a new tendency to feed them with food irrespective of seasons. When a food is provided during the time it is out of season, it becomes a poison to the body, according to one elderly farmer in Chimanimani district of Zimbabwe. While some diseases are being attributed to climate change, availing food out of season might be the reason for unexplained itching, fever and wounds which take long to heal.

Food security should not just be about availing nutrition in a pack or refrigerating food so that it is available throughout the year.  Every food has its season when it is supposed to save a purpose. The majority of African smallholder farmers and herbalists are still convinced that the best way of preserving local crops and herbs is preserving forests and ecosystems where they are naturally found. Trying to uproot and grow herbs everywhere ignores a lot of hidden natural factors that connect with roles of each food or herb in the human body.  In a rapidly changing climate, it is critical to explore different ways in which crop varieties and livestock breeds can be preserved.  It doesn’t help to improve crop varieties and livestock breeds for the market at the expense of seasonal connectedness and nutritional benefits.

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How informal markets contribute to the preservation of biodiversity

By pulling commodities from diverse areas, informal markets provide a barometer on the agro biodiversity in different communities.  Building a community gene bank assumes all varieties can be kept in buildings yet some are better off in the wild. Through showing where particular crops, fish, herbs and livestock are coming from per season, informal markets signal environments that should be preserved if nutritional supply is to match demand in a sustainable manner per season.  Focusing on a few selected commodities like maize, tobacco, sugarcane, coffee, wheat, dairy and beef ignores the entire ecosystem that is fundamental for the future of food and bringing humanity back to nature.

While artificial structures like modern gene banks are getting all the resources and attention, informal markets that are fulfilling a much wider nutrition role are not being supported. Many local African commodities lose their value when stored in artificial environment like gene banks.  Natural environments are more ideal for most foods which provide natural remedies.  Crop and medicinal genebanks can store some crops and wild varieties but not all of them. Directing most of the resources to a few food security crops like maize is meaningless if a nutritional imbalance results in the majority of people frequenting hospitals due to ill-health that could be avoided by prioritizing different kinds of foods that form a local nutritional balance. Doing agriculture well will reduce the health bill for most developing countries.  When a country has a big budget for the ministry of health that is not a good sign as it means the majority of the people are not productive due to ill-health, which might be averted by smart and curious investment in a balanced food system.

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