women market governance

Women and Market Governance in Mzuzu City, Malawi

Blog by Faith Manda, faithmanda@yahoo.com

In this blog I am going to share how gender is a factor in market governance practices in Mzuzu City in Malawi. The practices were learned through implementing a two-year research project on fresh food losses underway in Mzuzu City by the Mzuzu University and the Urban Research and Advocacy Centre (URAC). The project is funded by www.aciar.gov.au  and IDRC – International Development Research Centre.  It aims to reduce food and nutrition losses by identifying the drivers of fresh food losses that occur during the four stages of; a) harvest, b) post-harvest, c) transportation, and d) open market. The project also tests interventions that will contribute to the reduction of fresh food losses. ACIAR and IDRC are funding a similar project in Lusaka City, Zambia, where the research is being conducted by the University of Zambia and the Centre for Urban Research and Planning (CURP).

Mzuzu city is Malawi’s third largest city, evergreen, amazing landscape and cool weather. According to the census of 2018, the city is home to about 221, 000 people residing on 114km2 of land. Unfortunately, it is one of the hungry secondary cities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) 2018 report which found that, out of 910 sampled low-income households in it, 41% had “no food of any kind to eat” because of lack of money. The question is “will Mzuzu city achieve the global goal of ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition security, and promoting sustainable agriculture by the year 2030?” I would rather sound pessimistic in the first place when responding to this question.

Our study on fresh food loss found that there is a power and gender disparity in food governance at the market level.   We found minimal women participation in governance structures (market committees) and this has a lot of implications on fresh food retailing in Mzuzu city, where trading of food items is largely governed informally and this is evidenced by the high degree of involvement in street fresh food trading. The central market in Mzuzu city is too small to accommodate the growing number of traders.

Rotten mangoes discarded in one of the open dumps of Mathabwa market, Mzuzu City.

Although Mathabwa Market absorbs most of the food traders, street food item trading is rampant due to the ever-growing number of food retailers. Mathabwa market is the largest informal market in Mzuzu city for the delivery and wholesaling of fresh foods. Moving around the market fresh foods one sees fresh foods displayed on wooden benches with or without make-shift canopies or shelters. Along streets, too, shelters are unavailable and fresh vegetables, fruit and, potatoes are placed on sacks that are laid on bare ground. The food items are exposed to direct sunlight, wetness and houseflies which reduce value and nutrient content and cause contamination and spoilage of fresh foods. 

Our findings show that cold storage facilities are absent in Mzuzu city markets. The absence of refrigeration, as a food preservation method, exacerbates fresh food spoilage. On a similar note, it was astonishing to see muscle men offloading fresh foods at delivery points without any care. Tomatoes, for example, got bruised or damaged during their loading, transporting, and offloading at wholesaling points. The packaging of tomatoes in standard plastic basins was also problematic as tomatoes were so compacted leading to damage and spoilage. 

We learned that market retailing of fresh foods in Mzuzu city is women dominated. Nearly three-quarters of the traders were women. However, most women traders prefer trading in the streets as these are the only cheap spaces available and of course because they don’t pay market fees. Premium trading spaces within markets are not easily accessed by women due to corruption suspicions which were reported by nearly 80% of the interviewed market vendors.  The findings show the extent to which women traders are disadvantaged because they fail to bribe market committees due to their inadequate returns from their businesses. The women expressed strong feelings of lack of public safety because of limited access to sanitation services such as clean and safe toilets and water. This had sanitation-related implications on fresh foods in particular contamination of fresh foods due to handling with unclean hands. 

We also established that there is little women representation in the section and main committees of the market meaning decision-making is male-dominated. We found a link between women’s representation in market committees and low levels of profit returns among female traders. Election into the market committees is highly competitive and only vendors with high income stand a better chance of being elected into positions of power because they have enough money to buy voters. As a result, majority of the women fail to hold office in market committees due to their low income standing. Exclusion of women in market governance, despite forming the majority in retail trading at the market, implies that decisions made on retailing of fresh food are unsound because they lack representation in decision-making structures. 

The study findings further revealed that market committee leadership can be leverage for political power. For instance, one of the market leaders got elected to a high position in the ruling political party at district level making him more powerful and influential in decision making on market governance issues. When women sit in the market committees they are mere representatives rather than active participants in decision making because they are outnumbered by men and have low power to influence decisions. This goes against SDG 5 target 5 which aims to ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life.

Based on the current practices on urban food governance in Mzuzu city, women traders can be encouraged to form women-only cooperatives to promote women economic empowerment. Empowering women traders economically will uplift their economic standing. This will increase women representation in market committees and increase their bargaining power in the decision making process. 

Faith Manda is a Research & Advocacy Officer at URAC

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