Secrets of Success Uncertainty, Profits and Prosperity in the Gari Economy of Ibadan, 1992-94
Wan, Mimi Y., Africa
Over the last fifteen years the gari supply system for the great urban centres of south-western Nigeria (Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and many smaller towns) has been constituted and refined into a major sector of the urban food market. Its growth has been very substantially the work of the producers, traders, transporters, retailers and consumers. Before the decline in the value of the Nigerian currency began in 1986, and before President Babangida embarked on populist rural development projects, gari was not the main form in which cassava flour was sold in urban markets. Although cassava is one of the cheapest staple foods, it poses problems for mass consumption. It has to be prepared and dried, and the main method of doing that had been soaking and drying it into a flour known as lafun by the artisanal Yoruba producers. There is a limit on the volume that can be handled in this way. Fermenting, pressing and roasting into gari was a method developed in the east of the country, and was also done by hand. But because of the shorter time needed for preparation and the much smaller demand on water and drying space, gari production offered no major bottlenecks to small-scale mechanisation, which came primarily in the grating and roasting. As soon as the volume of production could be increased the stage was set for major expansion all the way along the commodity chain. Even in a very poor and insecure economy there are particular niches that can experience a spurt of growth, and the urban supply of gari has been one of them in Nigeria. One great centre has been Oyo, a town situated in the producing heartland, in the savanna, which - by virtue of its longstanding political importance--is on every major route to the rest of the country (Fig. 1).
This article examines not the growth pattern of the gari economy itself but the commercial practices of the women traders of Oyo who are largely responsible for the growth. The remarkable feature of Ibadan's food economy is that it is supplied in small, consistent quantities by many village and town women who trade on the narrowest of margins. I calculated, for example, that the net profit--to include labour costs--was under 10 per cent. The gains may be small and difficult to accumulate to a level that allows expansion into other domains, but they are nonetheless sustaining in their regularity and widespread distribution among the female population.
No formal-sector financial or commercial institutions govern or mediate the gari distribution system. The entire complex edifice, with its thousands of operators, has to depend on reliability and trust. Yet the operators themselves cannot function through open processes. Their ability to make profits depends on skill at working at the juncture of two sets of considerations: first, they have to manage quite large quantities of goods, substantial sums of money and long time frames of turnover; secondly, they have to create livelihoods and meaningful lives for themselves and their dependants. The result of meshing the two concerns is a complex alternation of secrecy and display, even in a sector which must approximate the model of the perfectly competitive market, where almost all techniques are shared knowledge. To be successful in her profession a trader has to display her competence, and, in her personal life, to be judged a success she has to display her achievement. But at various stages of the turnover of goods and money secrecy is of the utmost importance. Pooling goods, money and reputation in one place and time, which is essential for display, is always dangerous. It risks loss from theft, shrewd reaction by competitors, jealousy or simply loss of traders' inside knowledge. It can be done only in a controlled fashion.
The article traces the stages of the distribution process in a rapidly expanding sector of the economy, describes where and how secrecy and display are practised, and explores women's own commentaries on the techniques they use. I argue that the business techniques of the gari trade--the mechanics of buying and selling, supplying and restocking, accounting and bookkeeping--function to disperse women's incomes and savings, which enables them to pool quickly and confidently when necessary without holding. The management skill involved is remarkable. Although some traders are better than others, the entire system depends on these understandings and conventions that build on an existing Yoruba tradition of commercial knowledge and action.
For the research I concentrated on activities in the market, where the greatest amount of interaction occurred between participants in the buying and selling of gari. Ibadan has two wholesale markets, Bodija, in the northern part of the city, and Orita Merin, in the centre of the old city. From observations made at these two markets, I divided gari traders into three categories: (1) traders who process cassava into gari and bring it to urban markets to resell: the oloko level; (2) traders who purchase gari in producing towns and villages and bring it to urban markets to resell: the alarobo level; and (3) traders who purchase gari in urban markets from other traders to retail: the oniremi level. In Ibadan my field assistants and I identified seven shop owners in Orita Merin and six in Bodija who wholesaled gari. Shop owners were the most stable and easy to locate of all participants in the gari trade. Each one had her own stall and a set of apprentices. They frequently were in the shops early in the morning until the close of the market at 6.00 p.m. These thirteen shop owners were interviewed with a standard schedule of interviews about shop management, trends in the gari trade, accounting and investment, and their business and life histories. Although I visited each shop at least once a week, I worked closest with two shop owners at each market, attending their ceremonies and spending extended periods of time in their shops visiting and passing the day. In addition to interviews and questionnaires of the shop owners, oloko traders, interviews with apprentices and family members of the shop owners were also undertaken. These interviews capture the work of apprentices and the occupations and experiences of the children of shop owners. Gari retailers who occupy the lower ends of the trade in terms of profits and supply were not interviewed owing to gaps in field time.
Although it was easy to determine the costs of processing, transporting and selling gari, traders were extremely reluctant to detail their earnings and relate what they spent their money on. However, budgets for processing, a shop's commission over a year and the exact amounts spent on weddings, naming ceremonies and graduation celebrations were not difficult to collect. As I describe in greater detail, personal expenditures were only partially revealed. We tried to get round this obstacle by asking traders to detail their most expensive expenditures during the year in order to determine the most significant demands on people's incomes. Many methodological issues are raised by focusing only on what expenditures people remember. While this approach may not provide a perfectly accurate account of a trader's actual aggregate expenditure over a period of time, large expenses incurred by illness, celebrations and house repairs represent significant investments of resources that by their planned or unplanned nature can easily be remembered.
UNCERTAINTY AND CALCULATIONS
Gari trading presents particular challenges in relation to risk and uncertainty. The production and supply chain involves not only the availability of standard resources of crop and transport but also the additional labour required to process cassava into gari. In general, traders in the food economy of southern Nigeria do not calculate the profitability of their trading ventures until the goods are sold. Therefore gari traders rely on a number of practices to mitigate risk and enable some control over uncertainty.
Uncertainty in the gari trade is characterised by the fluctuation of the retail price in urban markets. The urban food economy is highly sensitive to the availability of the supply of gari. Although gari traders recognise and anticipate the seasonal variations that are associated with major holidays and the dry season, they are less able to predict the daily price of gari unless they are continually cycling between processing areas and Ibadan markets. And although many can anticipate an upswing in prices during the dry season months of March and April, no traders I knew were able to stockpile supplies to profit from the price increases. I note in the following section some limited attempts to manipulate the price by withdrawing supplies. However, gari supplies originate from a variety of producing areas, which makes co-ordinated effort even more difficult in a highly competitive market. Furthermore, urban residents already maintain hostile and adversarial attitudes to traders, making any mention of price collusion incendiary. Planning for price uncertainties therefore entails safeguarding practices that are either specific to transactions or spread across a trader's trading assets.
The quick turnover of gari sales as a monitoring practice has a number of advantages over dependence on unit price. Selling gari quickly ensures that there is one uniform price per volume of supply. With this practice a trader avoids losing as well as gaining an additional margin of profit. Chances of additional losses and gains may occur in subsequent trading trips to Ibadan, but, for a specific supply of gari, traders resoundingly advocate a consistent price per kongo within a narrow time frame. In more practical terms, any delays in selling gari in Ibadan prevent a speedy return home. Specifically, delays in the city offer opportunities to spend more money while inconveniencing husbands and other family members at home. If sales are slow, women are sometimes obliged to stay several days as the guest of the shop owners. Although shop owners provide one meal for the traders as their guests, most women expect to spend more money on prepared food and other items. As the selling days increase, traders are more likely to reduce the selling rice of gari in order to return home. Slow gari sales entail postponement of the reinvestment of profits, if there are any. The longer a trader waits to return home the greater the cost to her initial investment.
In the best trading circumstances, traders arrive in the urban markets with the price of gari ??1 more than they anticipated. Depending on the difference between their anticipated price and the actual market price, traders can wait for prices to rise and fall over the course of several days. At the very least, women are frequently fortunate enough to match their investments with their earnings after deducting transport expenses. For traders who process cassava into gari and resell in Ibadan, profit margins are considerably greater than for the alarobo traders who purchase gari for resale only. In the worst circumstances, traders arriving with large amounts of gari discover that the urban market price is in free fall. In this situation, they have two options. Many wait for the prices to readjust to a more acceptable level or they will unload the gari with the greatest speed to maintain their initial investment. As described below, experienced traders with sufficient resources can weather short-term price fluctuations.
It is true that prices are fluctuating but not all commodity prices are falling or increasing at the same time. So as an experienced trader, when prices of a good are not stable and sales of that good are not profitable what I will do is switch to another commodity. But if I don't switch, I will just continue the sales of such goods with the hope that after some time it will repay any loss that I may have incurred on it. Usually decreases in price and subsequent losses are not prolonged beyond two weeks before it is stable and it becomes a bit profitable and so we will continue to survive; thus we are able to cope with the continuous fluctuations in commodity prices. As an experienced trader who trades …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Secrets of Success Uncertainty, Profits and Prosperity in the Gari Economy of Ibadan, 1992-94. Contributors: Wan, Mimi Y. - Author. Journal title: Africa. Volume: 71. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2001. Page number: 225. © 1998 Edinburgh University Press. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.