Why consumers in developing countries are not crazy about tinned food

The growth and resilience of mass food markets in developing countries has proved beyond doubt that people naturally want to produce their own food and select their own ingredients or menus. Whoever came up with the idea of tinned food was wrong to assume people need the same amount of salt or soup. Even at household level some people do not want too much fat, salt or sugar due to personal and health reasons. Some consumers prefer semi-raw food like carrots consumed fresh in the market. Others want over-dried fish and so on. Where else can consumers have their endless choices and preferences fulfilled besides Africa’s mass markets where funny shaped fruits have a much superior taste than all?


Commodities that set quality parameters in African fresh markets

Consumers that buy commodities from Africa’s fresh markets are as sophisticated as shoppers in the formal market. Farmers and traders hoping to compete and win in the mass market should pay attention to the following commodities whose quality specifications influence customer satisfaction with all commodities.

Tomatoes – The first customer pulley is the tomato variety. The right one gives the farmer medium-sized fruits preferred by the market ahead of all other sizes. Major customers like vendors look at the amount tomatoes that can be heaped into a small pile or fit in a crate/box. Medium-sized tomatoes can be easily arranged in ways that hook customers. Formal markets also tend to be drawn to medium-sized tomatoes that are easily to measure into kilograms. Where only three large fruits form a kilogram, seven to eight medium-sized fruits make a kg, luring customers to part with their cash. In Zimbabwe and other East and Southern African countries, a variety called Tengeru from Tanzania has scored higher in meeting these parameters. Successful farmers say applying calcium fertilizer correctly and timely enhances the tomato fruit’s firmness, contributing to good skin appearance and longer shelf life.

Potatoes – Skin appearance is number one magnet factor for customers, followed by fruit shape where preference is roundish and not shapeless. The third parameter is size, followed by absence of any visible skin diseases or deformities. According to leading farmers, plant population and feeding influences fruit size. Wider plant spaces produces extra-large and large tubers or fruits. Variety selection is also critical and that’s where a variety called Valor stands out due to its roundish shape. Another great variety is called Panamera which is longish-shaped and a bit bigger than the variety called Mondial. Panamera is able to give the farmer more large and medium-sized tubers than small sizes. In terms of ranking by yield in Zimbabwe, Panamera is the leader, followed by Valor and then Mondial.  These are all imported varieties.  However, there are also other small boys like BP1 and Amatheist.

Cabbage – Head size is the key attraction for customers followed by appearance (head finish and leafy coverage around the head). Color is the other factor (darker green towards glittery appeal). This is where varieties like Star 3311, Star 3316, Kilimo and Takura compete fiercely. According to renowned cabbage farmers, wide spacing, adequate feeding and watering accounts for these favorable aspects.

Onion – The customer looks at the finish of the onion head which should be crispy brown skin and roundish. Medium-sized heads are most preferred of which eight to ten can easily form a kilogram. Medium sizes also dry very well, contributing to a longer shelf life. Good varieties for these features include Alodia which is more affordable to most farmers than other hybrid varieties.

Leafy vegetables – After freshness, the length of the leaves is a key attraction, followed by color (should be deep green).  This is where a Viscose variety known as Evergreen takes the trophy. The shape of the leafy is also another consideration with the same parameters applying to Rape vegetable where the leading variety is Rampant followed by English Giant, then Hobson.

Squash butternut – Customers first figure out maturity by looking at the stem where the fruit is de-linked from its plant (mother). Green lines on that stem must disappear, with the butternut turning to yellowish-brownish color, signifying full maturity and speaking to better taste. Farmers who try to surprise the market by bring premature butternut often get low prices except if there are serious shortages.  As in many other commodities, size also matters – most preferred are small to medium not extra-large that seem over-fed to a point of being difficult to pack and price. Absence of deformities is also key.

To get these qualities right, farmers say applying manure and fertilizer is critical. Although it prefers both commercial fertilizer and manure, butternut is one of few horticulture crops that do well with manure. That is why much production is happening among smallholder farmers who practice mixed farming where livestock are a key source of manure. Butternut needs the right quantities of water (adequate water) and when starved of water it can easily report in the market through its appearance. Adequate spraying for fruit flies minimizes losses while in the land.  Waltham variety has remained the leader.

Cucumber – Skin appearance is fundamental (should be greenish feel and look). After appearance, size and shape (straight with no deformities) follows, then freshness. Cucumbers with a bitter taste will have been given Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer but denied water before absorbing the fertilizer. Besides Monalisa and Stonewall, other famous varieties are Ashley and Pointset.

Okra – Fruit size is a key factor (small to medium is most preferred). Second is freshness – it must not shrivel (Kusvava). Color is also key – should be a very attractive shade of green. Customers usually determine freshness and quality in the market by physically breaking the fruit. When fresh, it breaks into two halves.  Okra also prefers humus (manure) which is why it comes from communal areas. It is a fragile and highly perishable commodity which has to be carefully harvested, packed and transported.  Be gentle when carrying or transporting. The good thing is, like most commodities, it can maintain taste and freshness at room temperature. To minimize chances of producing more large sizes, the farmer must narrow in-row spacing while too wide spaces lead to extra big sizes. Spineless variety is the leader.

Carrots – length is number one influence, followed by appearance (smooth with no side roots peeping). A third factor is freshness which can be determined by tasting through eating raw in the market. Carrots has to be denied water for sugars to build up with enough sunshine.  Consumers say too much water depletes sugars, with the amount of sugars being the main reason why the same crop and variety can taste differently. Carrots also requires a lot of water, feeding and does well in sandy soils.  The most popular variety is Koroda, followed by Nantzes, then Hekla which is a hybrid and very expensive.

Green beans – The customer looks at straightness and length, then color (must be dark green), freshness (seen through breaking the fruit) and then absence of spots.  Key varieties are Volta and Makatini.

Peas – When shelled, the customer looks at pod uniformity. Then brownish color of pods showing firmness of pods. Also critical is absence of observable diseases, then size of inside peas and firmness.


Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430

The value of domesticating the Consumer Price Index and other imports

The fundamental role of agriculture and SMEs in many developing countries should by now have seen local economists inventing better ways of capturing and expressing economic conditions and inflation. It is clear that imported concepts like Consumer Price Index and Producer Price Index developed in the North cannot adequately represent economic dynamics in agriculture-driven low income countries.

charles dhewa

For instance, it is no longer debatable that African agriculture requires a dynamic pricing index which takes into account different production zones, seasonality, diverse transportation methods and many other factors. Farmers in different production zones cannot have the same prices for maize and other commodities. For example, farmers producing soya bean and maize in sandy soils use more inputs like fertilizer than those in heavy clay soils. It means these farmers have different costs of production. On the flip side, farmers in sandy soils may use less diesel than those in heavier soils. Distances to market should also be factored in so that farmers in particular areas can know the type and size of transport they can hire cost-effectively. Such information is also critical for transporters, processors and financiers.

Market dynamics

Like most industries, every informal mass market in developing countries has an invisible cartel of price experts who set prices of commodities based on historical trends (not codified) and commodity supplies into the market which give signals of the volumes in farming areas. However, cartels in mass markets do not often know or care about the cost of production enough to consider such costs in setting prices.

Circumstances under which farmers need real-time pricing intelligence vary and include cases where a buyer suddenly shows up on-farm ready to buy the commodity. In such cases the farmer wants to verify some prices with eMKambo and other institutions in big urban markets like Mbare in Harare before making a decision to accept a price being offered by the buyer. In some cases, a farmer may have quietly brought his/her commodities to the city using public transport or his/her own transport and now has to verify market pricesbefore taking the commodity to the market or entertaining buyers. All these circumstances need accurate real-time information.  Historical information is not helpful.  That is why eMKambo has advanced in setting up a dynamic pricing index taking into account production costs and market dynamics.

Beneficiaries from a dynamic price index

Besides traders, beneficiaries of price information include consumers and vendors who need to leave their homes with enough money.  If customers and vendors understand the price, they are able to budget correctly and buy more to the benefit of traders. Commodities also move fast in the market when customers and buyers come prepared.  Negotiation time in the market is reduced as the marketing process becomes very fast. Traders from other markets who often come to buy from markets in capital cities become aware of how much money to bring for hoarding commodities as well as the size of transport to be used.  If a buyer from Masvingo hears that the price of cabbage has gone down from $3 to $2/head he will adjust his budget to accommodate other commodities needed by customers.

Ultimately, transparent price information benefits every value chain actor. Farmers deserve to know how much the trader is going to make on their sweat and how much is taken by other costs like transport, loading, packaging and others. Price transparency through a price index reduces abnormal profiteering by traders at the expense of the farmer. If vendors get tomatoes from Mbare at $17/crate, how much do they charge their consumers in high density areas?

Why this is important

In spite of accounting for more than 70% of the food, economists in developing countries have totally ignored inflation in the mass market, preferring to focus on inflation in relation to basic commodity food basket. Yet it is important to figure out the percentage increase in the price of inputs and transport to the market so that farmers can know if market prices have changes in correspondence to input costs.  Many farmers incur losses because this issue has not been clearly articulated. Using figures, farmers can see how lack of resonance between input costs and market prices is leading them to incur 30% losses.

It is critical to track inflation around the agricultural commodity basket different from the CPI for basic staples like cooking oil and sugar.  Formal companies are recording and doing their costing and are using such details to collude in fixing prices of basic commodities. But there is no such thing for farmers who should be assisted in mastering market-related budgeting.  Farmers are mostly affected by external factors beyond their control and these include cost of inputs, labor, fuel, water, equipment and many others.

Beyond improving quality and economies of scale as well as benefitting from shortages in the market, farmers do not have control over most external factors. In the market, farmers are given a price even if their costs of production and transporting have gone up by 20%.  They are pushed within a certain price range. The price index will give farmers bargaining power and can be able to see that is the production price is going up by 5%, prices offered by the market should be adjusted upwards weekly. Farmers can also know how increases in the price of petrol contributes to increases in commodity prices in the market.

A system should be put in place to reveal some of these issues and impact on the market or consumers.  Inflation around food markets is very important because it assist farmers to plan and make projections. A farmer who harvests crops when inflation is going up by 20% and earns $100, the following month the farmer will earn less than $90. To remain with $100 the farmer has to charge $110. If the farmer sees the price of inputs going up by 5% monthly and expect to buy inputs in three months, the inflation will be 15% and the farmer will not be able to afford inputs.

How consumers are affected by absence of a Price Index

Prices in the mass market are rarely not cost-driven or cost-based but depend on arbitrary decisions.  People just decide how to sell without a clear basis in ways that anchor future increase or decrease of prices based on supply.  For instance, the cost of producing a cabbage head is 60c – 70c of which the bigger component (15c-20c) is the cost of seedlings.  A farmer who decides to price at $1.50 – $2/head on-farm is doing so on what basis?  How did s/he arrive at the price?  Why should a producer increase prices by a 200% mark up?  What is the standard used for setting mark-ups in the agricultural industry?  When a trader gets cabbages @ $2 and sells @ $3 – $3.50, this drives inflation.  Everyone makes a decision on the highest prices. The farmer is not making decisions on costs and the trader is also marking up arbitrarily. They are all guessing and that means the consumer is not charged fairly. Such decision-making is an inflation driver in the whole country.

Supply and demand is over-shadowing costing principles as determinants of arriving at costs.  How can we use costing as the main determinant? Disorganized supply and demand causes all these challenges.  Traders and farmers should know the base price irrespective of supply.  That is why for tomatoes it is important to play with the number of fruits and not sell using kilograms. All parties should control the extent to which prices can fall before everybody begins to incur losses. This important process and analysis should be conducted at food systems level as opposed to isolated individual farmer level.  Banks and other financial institutions can use the price index to track and manage Non-Performing Loans.


charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430


How mass markets bring out the best in African food producers

Farmers and traders who do not frequent the booming African mass market will never know their depth.  New market entrants use commodities like leafy vegetables that are easy to produce. Once they are in the market, farmers are exposed to different kinds of leafy vegetables ranging from ordinary Viscose to ever green Viscose. Eventually the farmers decide to get more sophisticated by graduating into cabbage production and supply.  Here new knowledge includes appropriate varieties to grow, when and how to sell.


From talking to farmers and traders in the market, farmers also become aware of the time of the year production challenges are most likely to be encountered as well as quantities of different commodities required by the market in particular days. For instance, in most African urban mass markets, delivering commodities on Sunday for selling on Monday morning is more profitable because most farming communities do not work on Sunday and that means the market will be empty on Monday. The farmer also discovers that Fridays and Saturdays are good selling days for most commodities because outside markets come to buy on Fridays and Saturdays for restocking. Saturday is also a shopping day for urban dwellers while some travel to see their relatives in rural areas.

Learning from consumer choices

The mass market also informs the farmer and trader about sizes required by the market shown through buyer choices as different sizes compete for the consumer budget in the market.  Other key factors learned from the market include quality, appropriate finishing and leafy cover as well as selling tricks and buying patterns.  Pricing is also learned from the market – the farmer begins to see whether s/he is pricing his/her commodity fairly. Appropriate delivery times and consumer preferences like size and colour are also picked from the market. Farmers who arrive in the market late will find most customers who buy more volumes already gone. The farmer also gets to know about quality as determined by ripening stages for cabbages and tomatoes whose ripening stages have a big influence on quality and shelf life. Likewise, the market informs the farmer about different shelf lives for diverse commodities.

Without feedback, farmers are not aware of the consequences of their actions or decisions

If the market does not inform farmers about quantities to produce and when, the farmers will produce more at the wrong time, for instance during the off-season.  In addition to getting advice on alternative crops to venture into, through the market farmers are able to establish networks with other value chain actors like buyers, customers, traders, consumers, transporters and financiers. Engaging with other farmers enables new farmers to know types of chemicals and fertilizers to use for particular crops at a given time.

Mass markets enable farmers to meet informal financiers like traders who can easily finance certain crops without need for collateral. As financiers, traders can also advise farmers on what crops to grow, when and how?  It is also through mass markets that farmers are able to maintain their customer base and also get new customers. Farmers also gets educated about the preferred packaging materials and sizes as well the best way of packaging specific commodities.

Prospective business opportunities can be picked from the market. If a farmer produces the same commodity for a long time, it reaches a level where production gets boring and the farmer begins to look for new crops or with a different market altogether – from mass markets to formal markets or exports.  However, a new entrant has to start with lower bar crops like leafy vegetables and graduate into complicated commodities. With the right knowledge, the farmer can leap-frog some stages.

Agricultural shows have a different focus and impact

Although they receive a lot of attention from the media and policy makers, agriculture shows attract a few farmers purported to have excelled in producing particular crops or livestock. These farmer are mostly those who will have been judged to be the best from district to national levels according to given criteria.  However the time lag between when a farmer is judged to have been the best and the final show event at national level conveys they wrong impression that there are no other champions in between.

Commodities that will have been judged to be the best are the ones exhibited at the agricultural show but there is no comparison by variety and no explanation on varieties preferred by consumers. The show also tends to mix farmers from different regions yet conditions are different in each district and these influence performance. A farmer in Mazowe which is in natural region two with good rainfall and other advantages should not be compared with a farmer in natural region five Hwange.


Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430

A food systems approach or bio fortification – which is more relevant?

At a time communities in developing countries are diversifying their food systems in order to cope with climate change, isn’t a narrow approach like bio-fortification counter-productive? Could this be yet another example of interventions that are influenced by funders and their collaborators? In several African countries including Zimbabwe, both urban and rural dwellers are no longer just depending on maize but a wide range of foods including diverse vegetables, exotic fruits, indigenous fruits, tubers, small grains, indigenous poultry as well as game meat like guinea fowls. Aquaculture products like fish and a wide range of edible insects are also part of a broad food system. All these foods are not bio-fortified but guarantee a basketful of different vitamins.

Rising preference for natural remedies

Consumption of natural foods is on the rise as consumers become aware of the medical properties associated with these foods as opposed to processed foods. While almost every household now uses cooking oil, there has been a transition from over-dependence on Sadza with leafy vegetables to potatoes and rice with mixed vegetables every week. Food choices have broadened to include butternuts, potatoes, soya bean, soya chunks, eggs and many other choices available by season. Even in rural areas there is no longer dependence on Sadza and Mufushwa. With food diversity, people can now make their own beans, access fish products like Kapenta. Fresh fish is also widely available. If you don’t frequently engage with mass markets you won’t know this is happening and continue to promote narrow diets.

Given these circumstances, why should developing countries be persuaded to push a few bio-fortified products like orange maize and sugar beans? The negative effect of this is that it forces consumers to eat processed products yet wherever processing takes place some food elements are compromised. The consumption of maize has gone down by 30% in cities like Harare as revealed by the rise in the consumption of fresh and roasted maize from green mealies all year round, driven by the market’s distribution power. Green mealies production is also increasing in communal gardens and irrigation schemes as these are being turned into commercial entities.

Maize processing into Maputi has gone up 100 fold due to demand and availability of appropriate equipment. Rather than bio-fortifying maize at industrial stage, why not do it at seed level so that consumers can access iron and other vitamins when they eat green mealies, roasted maize, Maputi and other by-products some of which find their way into chicken and other livestock through stock-feed?

Broadening food baskets

African food baskets have also broadened into rural areas where food from other production zones is spreading around the country. Smallholder farmers are no longer limited to producing and consuming traditional staples and indigenous vegetables. The mobilization and distribution power of big markets like Mbare is ensuring avocadoes, peers, green beans, pears and other foods are found in dry regions like Binga and Gokwe where they are not produced. In cases where food like fruits are in short supply or out of season locally, the market has power to import, which is why apples, oranges, pears and pine apples can always be found in the market irrespective of season.

Dangers of misinformation

If developing countries are not careful, they are going back to shunning their own products in preference for processed foods. For instance they can be easily misled into believing that none of their own local foods contain iron, zinc or other vitamins being promoted as additives through bio-fortification. When one bean variety gets all the attention and promotion at the expense of more than five bean varieties that have been feeding people for decades, confusion becomes the order of the day. An impression is created that communities have been eating the wrong food all this time.  What does that say about hundreds of other bean varieties and white maize varieties being promoted by dozens of seed companies?

Many consumers are still confused on how to differentiate bio-fortified from genetically modified products. They are convinced food should grow naturally and should not be manipulated by inserting some additives or elements that should be found naturally in food. Researchers and food scientists in developing countries should be careful not to downgrade locally produced commodities in favor of processed foods whose final production requires foreign currency to import knowledge and technologies. Very few African countries have world class laboratories that can manipulate crop varieties with higher levels of precision and efficiency.

Where should promotion start?

If it is a production issue, bio-fortification promotion should start from farmers and traders who already handle diverse food.  Many farming communities already have red and yellow maize varieties. It is better to start from food systems existing in communities ranging from wild fruits to field crops and discover which vitamins already exist. Developed countries consume processed products because they do not have consistent food supply due to extreme weather like cold which makes it virtually impossible to produce food in winter as well as extremely hot summers which also negatively affect food production. Whenever a product is processed, something is added or subtracted.

Difficulties in translating imported terminologies

How do researchers in developing countries translate imported terminologies like bio-fortification or recovery and resilience framework tool into vernacular languages used by the majority?  Without home-grown theorization and application, researchers in developing countries cannot develop correct assumptions and research pathways in order to monitor progress toward adoption.  Most project-based terminologies brought by development agencies are predatory and transitory, only lasting for the duration of particular projects. They are more of identity labels connected with abbreviations of projects rather than well theorized and researched strategies that can benefit the entire community or country.

Funders continue to influence theories and methodologies through which local knowledge is generated and applied.  Nobody is connecting dots from diverse development projects to national strategies anchored on the knowledge produced by different projects. Instead of importing approaches and concepts or allowing funders to dictate food research and promotion at the expense of existing diversified food systems, policy makers should shift the attention of funders to the most relevant research that touches many ordinary people’s value systems. Funding allocations should not continue to value international significance over local relevance.


Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

Mobile: 0772 137 717/ 0774 430 309/ 0712 737 430