Liberian Markets: Part 1

Recently I had the oppotrunity to go to Liberia and talk to market traders there about the trading and the information access problems they are faced with. I went to daily markets in Buchanan and Morovia — the Red Light, Nancy Doe, Waterside, Ralley Time.  Liberian markets are very informal! They seem to be propelled by people’s ingenuity, flexibility, resourcefulness and resilience.

Even widely accepted meaurement scales do not apply there. By this I am not referring to the diferential use of empirial or metric measures. The accepted measurements scales among Liberian traders are units of packaging. These include bags, cartons and buckets at the wholesale level. And cups, LBD 5 sachets and LBD 2 sachets at the retail level. Different vegetables and grains are transported in reused bags from other products. Depending on the commodity those might be 10kg or 50 kg bags. But people generally agree on the conversion of units. For example, the people I spoke to agree that 6 cups of bird eye chilli pepper are equivalent to 1 bag. And that 100-120 cups of rice are equivalent to 1 bag of rice. The cups I saw were mostly reused open cans from other products such as for example an open can of 425g which was previously a can of mackarel being used for the measurement of chilli pepper cups. Can anyone help me with other similar excamples? Is approximately 425g the agreed size? I noticed also that traders might use slightly different sizes of cups and make the appropriate price adjustments relative to the size. Traders told me things like “This cup is LBD 50 and this (another cup which to my eyes looked hardly any different in size) is LBD 60.”

quantities

Essentially, all the measurements in Liberia seemed to be eyeballed. That’s why I took so many photos! For me, Liberian markets pose a fascinating and rather perplexing case of measuring without any reference to quantifiable measurements or scales. I expect that there are many similar cases around the world. Are you aware of the problems this might cause when buyers and sellers are trying to comunicate with regards to an exchange? I would love your comments on the matter!

The possible reality

The benefits of market improvements can seem abstract and intangible. Although I have the mobile market dream and I dabble in abstraction, I also appreciate the real and very concrete way in which technology could change market transactions. Below I present my vision of what these improvements could amount to. The photos used were taken in rural Mozambique. The associated names and stories are products of my own imagination.

Individuals: Mafuane, 15

She is young and keen user of her mobile. She uses it to send text messages to friends who have moved away from the village and to record the contact details of new people she meets. She enjoys listening to the ring tones that came with her model and hopes one day to be able to buy a mobile on which she can listen to music, take photos and videos. Mafuane used to spend long hours waiting at the road which passes through her village, trying to sell tangerines from her mother’s farm to people travelling on chapas and buses. Now she is able to help her mother find buyers for the tangerines using her mobile. She sends information about the quantity of available tangerines, the price per kilo they are willing to accept and the deadline by which they need to make the transaction. Sending the information is free so Mafuane’s mom does not mind. Usually within hours she receives a call from buyers driving down the road who are willing to buy her oranges at a price higher than her stated minimum. This allows Mafuane to spend more time on schoolwork, helping her mother and taking care of her younger brother.

Rural Communities: Ramakeele, 27 and Phumzile, 34

Ramakeele and Phumzile are a family who own a small farm away from main roads. They grow bananas and cassava. Since they could not afford to take their produce to market they used to sell it to intermediaries or transport it to the roadside where they spent a few days trying to find willing buyers. Since they have been able to use their mobile to sell their produce they have been spending a lot more time working on their crops and caring for their children. They have received better prices because they do not have to compete with all
the farmers at the roadside. They are much more aware of the current prices of agricultural produce and what the market wants. Consequently, they have noticed the demand for soy and sugar cane because they are used for the production of biofuels. Ramakeele and Phumzile are considering planting some sugar cane next year and gradually switching to the production of higher value cash crops.

Regional Markets

Buyers at regional markets have noticed changes since the network operator introduced a mobile market system. They find that the produce on offer is fresher and the variety is greater than what they were used to, while the prices they pay have not changed. Some restaurant and hawker stall owners have been able to establish direct links with producers in the countryside, thereby ensuring the quality of their supplies. Individuals have been using the trading system while travelling through the countryside or when they have had to cater for big events such as weddings or holidays.

What is the MMD4D blog?

Welcome to the MMD4D blog!

This initiative is aimed at highlighting market design issues occurring in the context of efforts targeted at the introduction of ICTs to the benefit of people living in less developed countries.

I hope that academics, NGO activists and technology practitioners will find the material in this blog worthwhile reading. I intend to include sections focusing on academic findings in the area of market design, sections detailing the technology needs and opportunities established in the course of NGO projects, and sections featuring technological developments likely to enable mobile trading.

I am sure that my efforts would not be exhaustive, so please comment, contribute references and resources.

Mobile Market Design for Development