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. …