Women Mastering Trade Rules

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Market trading is a vital lifeline for most people in the South. Plenty of delights usually await people in the market, where live animals, herbs and spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and life’s necessities compete for customers’ money. The formal and informal food sector plays a crucial role in empowering women and providing food to the poor. Women are often those mostly responsible for selling fresh products and street food, and running small catering operations. By being a vendor and getting food at a lower cost, they are able to contribute to their families’ food security.

Trading and selling in the marketplace can be one of the best options for poor women. By trading, women gain economic independence, learn vital business skills and enjoy the social benefits of interacting with others. But the highly individualistic nature of market trading has its downside: traders must do everything themselves and a day not spent at market is a day’s income lost. They also can only buy in small quantities, and usually pay a higher price. Or don’t know what the competitive price is, so are in a weaker bargaining position with wholesalers.

Making market trading more efficient has huge advantages, the primary one being more money for the trader.

Women market traders in Nigeria are improving their efficiency and income with mobile phones. Rural women market traders in the Obiaruku market are using mobile phones to call their suppliers, access information like commodity prices, and contact customers. A survey of the traders found 95 per cent thought mobile phones had a big impact on their business. This has included fewer trips to suppliers, a quicker way to get help when they have been robbed, and opportunities to top-up incomes by selling airtime, handsets or mobile phone accessories.

In Nigeria, mobile phone use has shot up at a rate of 25 per cent a year. A recent study found that out of a population of 140 million, 12.1 million now have mobile phones and 64 million use mobile phones through street-side phone centres. Phones are also helping women market traders to keep tabs on price fluctuations – giving them an advantage when bargaining with crafty – mostly male – suppliers. A weak bargaining position is a common problem: In Ghana, for example, product producers are forced to sell through “market queens” who take advantage of the lack of price transparency and do not always pay producers fairly (De Lardemelle, 1995).

In the Madurai region in southern India, women market traders are using a system called CAM. It allows them to record all their business transactions. CAM uses a Nokia 6600 mobile phone to record daily transactions. This includes small loans, buying livestock, or operating tiny retail businesses. The phone’s camera takes pictures of bookkeeping forms to identify and track all documents. The phone then asks the user to input numbers to the data fields. At the last key, the data is sent via text message to a central server. According to Tapan Parikh, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information in the United States, the most successful technological solutions work because they include village leaders, customers, NGOs, and others in the design process. “This is the only way to ensure long-term sustainability and benefit,” he said.

In Soweto, South Africa a simple solution to a chronic problem for women market traders has emerged. After seeing hundreds and sometimes thousands of women selling their goods in the marketplace, it became clear they all had one thing in common: they closed on Mondays. They did this because they needed to go to the wholesaler to buy their goods. And they mostly did this by piling into taxis to get there. It hurt the profitability of their businesses in many ways: there was the cost of the taxi, the fact they could only buy small amounts to squeeze in the taxi, a day’s business was lost, and the lack of a discounted, bulk price.

But the solution to this problem is a bright one: the women place a bulk, wholesale order with a go-between who works with a computer out of a former shipping container. He logs the orders into his computer and sends one big order. The wholesaler is happy with the big order, and delivers it and gives him a 15 per cent discount. This is his profit. The women pay the same price as before, but do not have to pay for the taxi and the goods are delivered directly to them. On top of this, the women can stay open on Monday and make more money!


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