Inside an African Outdoor Market

Kumasi Kejetia Market

Outdoor markets are busy, colorful, and confusing. In Ghana there are markets that sprawl for miles, serve millions of people, and attract vendors from across the continent. The sheer complexity is staggering: how do you get an onion from Niger to a kitchen table a thousand miles away in Accra? Now multiply that by a million people and thousands of different products, and subtract a banking, credit, or modern transportation system.

IDE is a large NGO that works with farmers to help them find better crops and farming practices. The country directors had been developing more productive tomato farming methods in the outlying regions of Kumasi and the drier, northern parts of the country, but they were unable to figure out how to get the tomatoes to market. We were tasked with solving the riddle of the market. The directors had heard about market queens, a mythical “vegetable mafia” that pulled the strings, managing the supply chain and orchestrating the pricing and competition between vendors.

After breakfast we went to the Makola market to see if we could find the market queens. We went to the LDS temple site to hire a few translators: there were five returned Ghanaian missionaries, sharply dressed, confident, and fluent in Twi. We all paired off and grabbed a translator. Jessica and I set off into the market to find the tomato queen.

Ghana TownThe research gods were shining favorably upon us. We walked up to the first tomato vendor we saw and asked her where the tomato queen was. She pointed off in the direction of the center of the market, but then introduced us to her shop partner, who was the mango queen for Makola. We asked her questions for fifteen minutes and learned all about the mango market. This queen organizes three trucks that go outside Accra to a few villages and buy the mangoes. One or two plantations supply all of the mangoes for Makola. She comes back and divides the mangoes among the vendors, who go out and sell them. The vendors pay a daily lease to the city of Accra for the use of the tiny scrap of public land containing their shop, and the queen serves as a union leader, arbitrator, and mother hen. If there are any quarrels with the city over rent rates, the queen negotiates new rates. If two vendors have a quarrel, the queen arbitrates the dispute. If one of the vendors falls on tough times, or if they buy produce on credit and it spoils, the queen will scrounge around for funds to bail her out. All the women look up to the queen mother, and the appointment is usually for life.

We thanked the mango queen, gave her a few cedis for lunch, and set off to find the tomato queen. We left the bustling main street and entered the cramped, colorful, mazelike bowels of the market. Narrow alleys zigzagged everywhere, lined with 4’x6′ stalls selling cleaning chemicals, little piles of ginger root, colorful baggies of spices, pungent stacks of dried beef fat and smoked fish, pig hooves, multi-colored fabric, and vegetables. Girls walked briskly through the crowd carrying basins full of wares, or heavy bags of rice, on their heads. One of the mysteries of the Ghanaian people is their women: they can carry 60 lbs of rice on their head, strap a sleeping baby on their back, and have both hands free to conduct business while constantly walking. I would collapse after 20 seconds, and then my brain would explode.

Ghana Market QueensWe started to notice different zones within the market. Everywhere you go, you’ll see similar fabric, chemical, and food stalls, but we also saw a building where women filled basins with countless varieties of rice, and also a small warehouse full of all kinds of meat. The stench of decaying fish, sides of beef, and sewer underfoot was absolutely overpowering.

We walked for twenty minutes in a straight line and the market kept going. Eventually we saw the tomato headquarters: a bustling courtyard cluttered with stacks of wooden crates. Women sold piles of ripe tomatoes from battered tables. We found out that there are two main varieties of tomatoes in Ghana: the Ghanaian kind is small, round, and very acidic. Farmers usually gather their own seed from the previous crop, scatter it in last year’s field, and wait for the rain to water it. These tomatoes are poor quality, but very cheap and plentiful. They looked rather unappetizing. Many of the piles of tomatoes were rotten and swarming with flies. Bowls of watery tomato remains sloshed their contents around as people jostled by. I thought about the fact that most Ghanaian food contains tomatoes. It wasn’t appetizing.

After asking around for a few minutes we were directed to an office, where we were informed that the tomato queen was out. We got her phone number and told her we would call back. It was time to go back to the bus. We said our goodbyes and threaded our way back through the labrynth of the market. Our translator had grown up in Accra, and seemed to know innately where to go. We emerged from the market in the exact place we had entered. I was impressed.

Back on the bus, we asked one of the translators how all of the street vendors across Accra get their stuff. He said that every morning, distributors send trucks on routes through Accra, and the street vendors buy their daily inventory from the trucks. It’s interesting to see how a huge city like Accra functions without a developed banking system or credit infrastructure. Almost everything is cash-based, and the producers must figure out how to get their products directly to the end-user. It’s definitely an interesting business environment, but they find unique solutions.

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Article by: Dave

Dave Cannon is a Seattle-based entrepreneur and consultant to nonprofits and small businesses. He loves Thai food and takes terrible photographs. You can follow him on Linkedin.
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