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!

Published: May 2008


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© David South Consulting 2022


Indian Entrepreneur Brings Dignity to Poor Women

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Driven by the revelation that his wife was torn between spending money on milk for the children and buying commercially manufactured sanitary napkins, Indian innovator and inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham embarked on a long and intensive journey to find a solution. His achievement – a simple machine – is bringing dignity to poor women and providing them with a much-needed income source.

This is a story of a man who was considered crazy for his persistence and made many personal sacrifices to achieve his goal. The innovation is both a technological and a business solution. Muruganantham has come up with a simple machine to manufacture affordable hygienic sanitary napkins for poor women. It works by turning the pulp of pine wood into the flat, white sanitary pads ( commonly used by women during their monthly menstruation. The machine’s simplicity means it can be expanded easily to other communities and is designed to fit well with the way women’s cooperatives work and help them earn an income.

Muruganantham sees it is a business model that “can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society,” according to his website.

The manufacturing process produces the sanitary napkins in just five steps. This simple intervention is revolutionizing women’s health in India by giving them an alternative to using found and unhygienic rags every month when they menstruate.

It took Muruganantham four years of research to create a patented machine that sells for between US $1,332 and US $5,330. It can make 120 sanitary pads an hour. Each one sells for 10 rupees (US 18 cents). By comparison, the multinational company Procter & Gamble sells its product for 30 rupees (US 54 cents) a packet.

Two multinationals dominate the marketplace for sanitary napkins in India: Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, with the Stayfree and Carefree brands.

Muruganantham’s machine was awarded the best innovation national award by the former President of India, Prathiba Patil, in 2009.

Like many innovators and inventors, his work at first was little understood by others and meant he had to plough a lonely furrow. But his persistence paid off and is now receiving attention from countries across the global South.

Apart from its technological simplicity, the idea is to make it easy for women to form cooperatives and businesses to boost their incomes. India has seen the concept of so-called Ladies Self Help Groups (SHGs) ( become more popular as a source of income. One of the problems they encounter is finding a successful business to undertake. The machine invented by Muruganantham is being seen as a good business model for the SHGs to follow. The key is the simplicity of operating the machine, the growing and stable market for the product, and its affordable and competitive price.

Typical businesses that can be set up using the machine can employ 10 women.

Muruganantham set up his main business, Jayaashree Industries (motto: ‘new inventions… small is beautiful’) (, after his education was disrupted due to family problems and he took up a job in a welding shop.

At first, he had a difficult time convincing people of the utility of the machine. He enlisted his wife to help with the marketing of the new napkins to nearby women. He says the advantage of his business model is that it turns the making of the napkins into a sustainable, grassroots activity. It provides an essential commodity for poor women at an affordable price, removing middlemen and using a simple, non-chemical technology.

It also cuts down on expensive transport costs by keeping manufacturing local.

Over 225 machines have been delivered to 14 Indian states and also to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh.

And while Muruganantham is focused on making the machine a success, he is already looking forward to working on his next big invention. The only question is: what will it be?


1) Women’s Health: A website packed with facts and advice from the UK’s National Health Service. Website:

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© David South Consulting 2021


Development Profile: UNDP In The Southern Gobi Desert | May-June 1998

By David South, Blue Sky Bulletin (Dalanzadgad, Mongolia), May-June 1998

Development Profile: UNDP in the Southern Gobi Desert

In late May UNDP visited its environment and poverty projects in Omnogobi or South Gobi on the border with China and in the heart of the Gobi Desert. The aimag (province) is home to 45,000 people spread over a territory of 165,000 kilometers. It is a harsh environment where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter and shoot up to plus 40 in summer. What is striking about the capital of Omnogobi, Dalanzadgad, is how well things are working. It is a garden capital – despite being in the desert the central boulevard is covered in trees – and trade with China has brought a prosperity for some herdsmen, many of whom buzz around the town on Planeta motorcycles. The offices of the Malchin television company are hidden by a bouquet of white satellite dishes – it is not an uncommon sight to see a ger with a satellite dish in South Gobi. 

“Dishing up development news on Mongolia”: a UNDP Mongolia Communications Office poster campaign from the late 1990s. Photo: David South.
In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.

“The transformation of Mongolia from a largely rural nomadic society of herdsmen to a community dominated by the increasingly ultra-globalized city of Ulan Bator, where almost a third of the population lives, is nothing short of astounding.” The New Mongolia: From Gold Rush to Climate Change, Association for Asian Studies, Volume 18:3 (Winter 2013): Central Asia

Der Spiegel is a German weekly news magazine and is one of Europe’s largest publications of its kind. It chose my photo taken in the Gobi Desert for its profile of the Internet revolution in 1998.

English translation: “Total communication: the seventh continent – 
The cell phone society was just the beginning: Experts see a new continent emerging in the spheres of the Internet. The information elite live here, surrounded by PCs, pagers and power books. The multimedia industry is becoming the key industry of the 21st century – with serious consequences for society.” (

Electricity in the air – 85 women discover the Women’s Development Fund

The Mongolian Human Development Report singled out South Gobi for having the highest poverty incidence in Mongolia (41.9 per cent). While this ranking is hotly debated by locals who say it is a statistical anomaly resulting from their low population, there is no question life is hard in the Gobi. 

In a crowded room in the Governor’s building, 85 of the poorest women in Dalanzadgad have gathered to hear about an innovative UNDP-initiated fund. The meeting, organised by the NGO the Liberal Women’s Brain Pool, is introducing the Women’s Development Fund. Many questions are asked as to why some of the women were passed over when the local government started distributing poverty alleviation funds. 

With the assistance of the British Government who donated Tg 12 million, these women are getting a chance. The Women’s Development Fund was founded in partnership with the Poverty Alleviation Programme Office to take account of the unique role women have in the prosperity of families. Support is key and the women will be assisted by community activists as they develop their project ideas and begin to implement them. In early June they started to receive funding for their projects. 

Note: This story was part of a series highlighting life and the state of human development in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert after the publishing of the country’s first human development report in 1997


© David South Consulting 2020

Archive Blogroll

Women scientists prove potency of Mongolian beverage

By David South, Blue Sky Bulletin (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), Issue 10, February-March 1999

Horse mare’s milk, drunk by Mongolians for centuries, has been proven by a team of women scientists to be as healthy as many Mongolians believe. In a UNDP-funded project, women scientists from Mongolia, China and South Korea are exploring new ways to generate income through science. A joint Mongolian/Korean team confirmed the national wisdom of using mare’s milk for treating stomach and intestine inflammations, as well as tuberculosis, liver diseases and cancer. They say the frothy white milk is packed with nutrients and vitamins.

The UNDP-funded Subregional Project of Northeast Asian Countries on Gender Equality through Science and Technology started last March. A team of Mongolian women scientists in the project made the discovery when they explored the bio-chemical composition and immunological activity of Mongolian mare’s milk.

Mongolians have used mare’s milk as part of the traditional diet for centuries. During holidays many urban Mongolians drop in on their rural relatives for a drink of the elixir, saying it will help them to alleviate stress and to heal some chronic diseases. There are even cases of foreign tourists believing mare’s milk is the elixir of life, and will make them younger.

The researchers confirmed that the drying process of mare’s milk does not adversely affect its nutritional value, including proteins, lipids, vitamins, lactose and fatty acids. The mare’s milk was processed using spray drying and lyophilise methods. The research is making it possible to better preserve mare’s milk in the off-season.

The main goal of the project is to find new ways to generate income for poor women. In the case of mare’s milk, rural women will be able to turn to local manufacturers who can preserve the milk. The researchers say the South Koreans expressed keen interest in producing dry diet from mare’s milk.

The Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter provided timely and valuable updates on Mongolia in the late 1990s. In particular, it was able to highlight urgent health needs for a population undergoing extreme crisis resulting from food supply disruptions, loss of income, social distress (alcoholism, family breakdown etc.), sexually transmitted diseases, and extreme weather. Stories from the newsletter have been cited in many journals and books since 2000, and the high quality of its contributers is evident in their scholarship and career success since. An example is below:

Poor Nutrition Taking its Toll on the Health of Mongolians By Jacinda Mawson

Rickets very prevalent in Mongolia – 1998

Prevalence of rickets in Mongolia

Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr (1998) 7(3/4): 325-328
U Tserendolgor1 MD, JT Mawson2 MA, AC MacDonald3 MSc and M Oyunbileg1 MD, PhD

“The high prevalence of rickets in Mongolian children is a serious public health concern. In addition to the adverse effects on growth, development and immune function, it is probably indicative of widespread subclinical vitamin D deficiency.”

Another beverage was catching the interest of Mongolians in the late 1990s: beer. 

From The Far Eastern Economic Review, February 18, 1999

A New Brew: As Mongolia changes under the influence of economic reforms, the country’s elite are trading fermented mare’s milk and vodka for a new status symbol: beer 

Story by Jill Lawless

Photo by David South

Jill Lawless has two websites about her book, Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia.

Designed in London, the first website for Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia launched in 2003.
The new brand site for Jill Lawless is currently under construction.

More of Jill Lawless‘ journalism for The Far Eastern Economic Review here:,%20Mongolian%20rock


© David South Consulting 2021

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