Why open air market offers Kenyan farmers best bet
Before the technological revolution, farmers utilised three basic inputs — land, labour and capital — to produce products to sell.
Whether the product was raw, processed, or changed and improved, all it took was a face-to-face meeting to close the deal.
I think the most-efficient food market in Kenya, despite growing use of technology, is the simple roadside stalls in every town and village, and the carts that you see on every walkway in the city.
Market stalls and carts are replenished every day with fresh produce. Consumers can drive or walk up, buy whatever they see and know that the produce is fresh and straight from the farm. There are no surprises in store for the buyer; what you see is what you get.
The produce is not prepared; it is not value-added; it is not meant for further processing or storage. It is meant for immediate consumption. There are no middlemen to slow down the sales process; every hand the product passes through before reaching the consumer’s mouth is a market inefficiency.
The consumer does not have to find a parking place, get out of the car, go through security into a store, and pay up to twice the amount for the privilege of buying a brand name or shopping in a branded store.
More importantly, roadside stalls or open air markets employ hundreds of thousands of men and women supplying them with a “ready and steady” income.
These markets are critically important whether they sell food, beverages, tools or clothes.
There are four impediments to the sustainability of this form of direct sales.
- Sidewalks: Sidewalks are imperative for any bustling urban centre to improve foot transport. But every sidewalk built takes another cart vendor off the street or moves them to less desirable or less accessible areas. There’s no room for both. City planners need to incorporate carts and simple sales stalls.
- Shopping centres: As the middle class grows in Kenya, there’s more transactions of larger sizes and people have more choices and easier access to a larger variety of goods than buying from stalls and carts. Both sales traditions can and should exist together.
- Industrialisation: Since the country is made up of smallholder farmers, aggregating their produce efficiently becomes difficult. Kenya needs to bring two million farmers out of subsistence to commercialisation or they will be left behind as industrialisation takes over.
- Stalls and carts: This lifeblood of the food system needs to be upgraded, strengthened and transformed to meet consumers where they are — in hair salons, offices, workplaces. Some have called these part-time vendors “hustlers”. I disagree. They are merely the new form of the street vendor. Respect them, use them, buy from them. It’s market efficiency in action.