This morning I visited the two main markets in Beira to informally interview sellers in order to begin to grasp how vegetable markets are operating. What first struck me was the diversity of activities. People are very creative despite their limited resources and lack of infrastructure. Everyone is doing what they can to make money. Many times while farming in New Hampshire I made jokes about running a nickel and dime business, and clearly recall refusing to lower the price of my cucumbers to the $0.29 a grandmother-type declared was the grocery store price. I told her she could buy mine for $0.40 each or 3 for $1.00. From the stories I’ve heard so far, here in Mozambique vegetable markets are operating even closer to the margin.
The first market was primarily a wholesalers market. These wholesalers travel as much as four hours to Manica Province to buy large quantities of vegetables, often renting a car or truck, and then travel four hours back to Beira, the second largest city in Mozambique. The majority of these sellers sell in large quantities. Others are re-sellers who buy from the wholesalers and often sell only a few feet away from the wholesaler from whom they bought their produce. We spoke with a woman from Zimbabwe who was in Mozambique for one month to change the meticais earned by re-selling vegetables in to US dollars and take that back to Zimbabwe. I wondered about the profitability of this wholesale/re-sell system and how long the selling chain actually went. Sellers also varied widely their marketing approach. Some pick the best produce and make attractive displays and pre-measure small portions so that buyers do not have to purchase an entire kilo of carrots or beans (not much because they could not eat that much but rather because they can not afford to buy so much at one time), others simply display the produce as is. The market was quite chaotic, but not too crowded. No one has an assigned space, although it seemed that there had been some attempt to organize the market by vegetable. There were large quantities of tomatoes, potatoes and onions. Eventually we came across some carrots, beans, eggplant, peppers, and ginger. We even found one woman who was reselling garlic purchased from a Chinese shop in town. The final group of wholesalers purchase sacks of potatoes and onions grown in South Africa and sell them as is. This was the poorest quality produce in the market. Near an entrance we found an actual grower from Manica Province, who was operating what in the US we would call a truck farm. Today he was selling cabbage. He told us he owns and operated 10 hectares, sells in Chimoio and Beira, does not belong to an agricultural association or cooperative, and grows a wide variety or produce. We took his cell number as I’d like to spend more time interviewing him about his operation as we did not expect to find an independent grower at market.
The quality of produce at market varied widely. Some tomatoes were nearly rotting, while others looked acceptable for and American or European Farmers’ Market. This was especially true at the second market where venders paid for permanent stall space. One woman explained that she picked the best produce from the wholesalers market, and had a receipt book which meant that restaurants often purchased from her. She was able to charge 25 to 40% more for her produce. After some questioning we learned that this receipt book was not government controlled, but rather a book that could be purchased at any stationary store. She just had the combination of knowledge, foresight and education to enter this market.
In the afternoon I enjoyed a relaxing meal of Chamuças de Caranguejo (crab samosas) and Cora de Arroz com Caril de Gamboas (coconut shrimp curry with rice) along with two Mozambican beers (2M) followed by a small espresso. One thing I’ve noticed is how lovely service is here; attentive and pleasant without being overbearing. I’m not sure how to explain the difference from 1990 (perhaps more relaxed and confident) but it is honestly quite amazing. I hope it stays this way as tourism continues to pick up. Although at home I am usually a generous and fair tipper, I often feel that I am empathizing with and supporting some struggling waiter or waitress rather than actually enjoying giving a good tip for a job well done. After eating my meal I stayed to read and write notes for my assignment in Chimoio. This afternoon I had so many new ideas about how to approach the project. I’m not sure if it was the breeze from the Indian Ocean, the delicious food, or the fact that I’m doing what I love, but the ideas would just not stop flowing.