A small team from Oxfam is looking at markets in the drought crisis – their ability (or inability) to deliver food, and assessing what can be done to ‘stimulate’ or ‘support’ markets to recover. We have met some wonderful traders – many of the women really deserve recognition if not support. Their business is down, with prices high and food distributions also affecting markets. The future is uncertain as working capital and any savings derived from previous years’ trading declines. These people may indeed ‘profit’ from the market system in normal years, but as profits turn into losses not only do they risk losing their own liveilhoods, but communities begin to lose vital life-lines to the outside world of essential products like maize. Without these traders, farmers and livestock herders will not be able to get their goods to markets and begin to build their livelihoods up again.
The stories of a few traders are particularly striking because they are women, because of the journey they undertook in building their businesses, and because of what they have achieved in their communities:
For the last thirty years, Rufo Nura in Yabello in Southern Ethiopia has built up her business to two small warehouses. She has raised five children single-handedly, sending them to school to learn to read and write and build a better future for their families and community. She empathises with smaller traders who are trying to eke out a living from selling maize in the open market, one or two tins at a time, and she provides them with a sack of maize at a time to be repaid once they have sold the goods. She supports various community initiatives, and when we spoke, expressed gratitude that Oxfam is looking at ways to support people who currently have nothing to eat and no money to buy food.
Her wholesale business has suffered hugely in the drought, as local production which she ordinarily trades in has completely dried up with rains failing for two consecutive seasons. Attempts to bring maize in from markets some 300 km away have generated losses due to the high cost of transport and moving goods across various customs points. Rufo has a vision for the future – to purchase a truck to transport goods and not have to rely on negotiating with transporters; perhaps even an airplane she laughs! These visions are good, for they would help open up supply lines into Borena which is currently suffering from drought inflicted food shortages. Will the visions turn into empty dreams if business doesn’t pick up?
Ann Winjale is from Kitale, a town in Western Kenya that is a major trading post for Turkana whose central market lies some 300 km to the north along a dirt road. Ann started as a streetside trader in 1992, selling small heaps of maize to a trickle of customers. Gradually she built up her business and is in the process of building a second warehouse. She runs a network of agents as far away as in Kampala in neighbouring Uganda. When supplies dry up in the productive areas around Kitale, she begins to shop around for the best deals farther afield, ensuring that the markets are stocked with competitively priced grains. Her small business provides employment opportunities for her agents, transporters, and the three staff she employs – including her husband who stood by during our interview!
Susan’s store is in a completely different location – she operates in Milimatatu, a village in a remote part of Turkana, northern Kenya. Accessible only by dirt road in dry seasons, her shop provides a convenient one-stop shop to surrounding communities. It also demonstrates that with a little bit of imagination and a lot of conviction, it is possible to develop diverse livelihoods options in the dry-lands. Years back she began collecting and selling gum Arabic from rangeland forests, saving the proceeds until she could buy a goat, fatten it and sell that. Slowly building her business she saved KSH 50,000 (around GBP 400 at 2011 exchange rates) – half of which she used to pay for her estranged husbands’ teacher training, the other to set up a small business. Her business is slowly growing as she finds new business models to expand, including working with Oxfam as part of a scheme designed to provide poor pastoralists in Turkana with the cash to purchase the food they need, in quantities they can use, when they need it. In her ‘spare’ time Helen also helps other traders get started teaching them what she has learned from Oxfam!