The Market Women of Africa


Rosa nanesWhen Rosa Nanes began selling at the Asadena market in Praia, Cape Verde, 22 years ago, her goal was to create a better life for herself and her children. “At the time I had a daughter and I came from the countryside to have better conditions,” she says.

But as competition from supermarkets and larger markets intensifies, Nanes is considering another profession. “The market used to be filled with people selling,” she complains, indicating that vendors now only fill half the space. “People think they can make more money selling outside on the streets. And people buying think they can get better product at the bigger markets or the supermercado.”

In Cape Verde, as in many African countries, market women are vital to their local economies. As market traders, crocheters, seamstresses, even hairdressers, they are key contributors to their communities, not only through the goods and services they provide, but also because of the income they generate for their families and suppliers alike. Those who sell fruits and vegetables, like Nanes, purchase their food products from countryside farms and transport them to the urban centers. Others buy from wholesalers in the city.

Whether the governments truly understand the importance of these entrepreneurs is debatable. Mary Johnson Osirim, author of Enterprising Women in Urban Zimbabwe: Gender, Microbusiness, and Globalization (Indiana University Press), describes the market women micro-enterprise as the second major area of income-earning for women in Sub-Saharan Africa after agricultural production. “Market women are vital contributors in the food distribution system, especially in sub-Saharan African cities,” she notes. Osirim is also teaches sociology at Bryn Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr, Penn., and serves as co-director of the school’s Center for International Studies and faculty diversity liaison. 

Nanes pays 100 escudos (about US$1.35, or about $500 a year) each day to rent space in the market. “I have to pay even if I sell nothing for the day,” she says. According to the World Bank, the average annual income for market women was $5,440 for 2003.

Osirim notes that even women who sold goods from makeshift stalls outside the market paid rental fees. “In my work in urban southwestern Nigeria and in urban Zimbabwe, women have to pay rental fees for their market spaces/sites, often to the City Council. In Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, during the decade of the 1990s, even women who did not have ‘official’ stalls were paying rental fees,” she says.

Some women pay additional fees. For example, those who sell clothing and other heavy, non-perishable items that cannot be moved back and forth between their home and the market each day, pay storage fees; others also pay security guards to protect their goods from theft at night. The women operate informal banks to finance their ventures. Osirim explains: “Market women often participated in rotating credit schemes [called ‘rounds’ in Zimbabwe and ‘esusus’ in parts of West Africa] to which they might make daily contributions to a ‘banker’ in the market. At the end of the week, month, etc., a woman would receive a lump-sum payment.” Each woman in the ‘round’ has a turn to receive the payout, which was often used to replenish her goods, pay wages if she had a worker, “and/or contribute to the maintenance of her family and the development of human capital by paying school fees for her children, Osirim says.

Absent government protection, the markets are finding themselves under siege as countries develop and attract supermarket chains. Nanes says competition has cut her sales. In an area of Praia, Cape Verde, the mayor recently moved all the outdoor market vendors to an indoor venue, in what was called an area cleanup. Once inside an indoor market, the women have to pay higher fees, forcing some to relocate their businesses to less populated areas of the city. “It has been and it remains difficult for many market women to survive, as well as thrive, in the current phase of globalization,” says Osirim.

If the market women disappear, it will drastically affect the communities, says Osirim. “It is important to remember that they generally provide low-cost food for the urban poor and low-income populations, as opposed to grocery stores which are generally more expensive,” she says, noting that there are still very few grocery stores in some areas of urban Nigeria. Moreover, the market women “tend to provide local, indigenous foodstuffs, vegetables and other ingredients that are particular to the diets of specific populations,” she points out. “At present, market women provide more of such goods than established grocery stores, which tend to offer more western/global, north-style’ foods.”

Osirim argues that the large stores and market women can coexist, even though Nanes’ market is nearly vacant. “This had been the case during my research in urban Zimbabwe during the 1990s, precisely for the reasons mentioned above. It is also the case that this is a very important income-earning niche for women who lack the educational credentials to enter the formal sector of the economy,” she says.

For Toyin Falola, co-editor of African Market Women and Economic Power: The Role of Women in African Economic Development (Greenwood Publishing), the market women and large stores will continue to coexist because the African cities are not fragmented into the formal and informal. “Places merge in such ways that stores are located outside residences. Also, the way to diversify the economy remains the empowerment of women.”

If the markets survive, Osirim and Falola contend, it won’t be because of government help. “In general, I think that many governments do not take the economic power of the market women seriously until there is a crisis,” Osirim says, recalling the late 1980s and 1990s in West Africa, when market women united with students and other groups in protest against so-called structural adjustment programs. “Such SAPs generally meant the devaluation of local currencies, massive layoffs in public sector employment, the removal of state subsidies for vital social services and often the imposition and/or strengthening of bans on imported raw materials and other products. In response to these actions and the debilitating effects that they had on poor and low-income market women and others, these women have demonstrated, closed markets and essentially disrupted the urban food distribution system.  In such cases, they are then taken seriously by the state.”

Adds Falola, who is also the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History at the University of Texas at Austin: “Unfortunately, most of the governments do not care what happens to the market women.”

Meanwhile Nanes is left to ponder whether it is worth it to continue at the market, or if she needs to move on.