Patrick Chitumba, Midlands Bureau Chief
THE Covid-19-induced lockdown triggered some supply and demand challenges while highlighting several problems of agricultural marketing between fresh produce farmers and vendors.
At the peak of pandemic, there was a breakdown in the supply chain resulting in farmers running losses as their produce went bad.
The situation left farmers struggling to stay afloat.
Because of the restrictions, farmers needed to push their products and independently market their products directly to customers.
There is now a turf war at Mtapa Fresh Produce Market in Gweru between the farmers and the vendors over customers.
Mtapa Market is the biggest fresh produce market in Gweru.
It came into existence after Government ordered City of Gweru as well as other local authorities to provide a safe and clean business environment for vendors to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19.
The vendors were moved from markets such as Kudzanayi Long Distance Bus Terminus, TM Rank and Kombayi Fresh Produce Market where they were overcrowded.
The farmers had become used to selling directly to customers during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and have continued doing so, much to the wrath of vendors.
The farmers who come from as far as Chimanimani, Harare and Gokwe among other areas with potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, eggs and a variety of other fresh produce had camped at the Mtapa Cemetery precast wall selling directly to the customers.
“Because I needed to survive during the Covid-19 induced lockdown, I started selling directly to the clients. I would bring my truck from Chimanimani with potatoes and bananas and deal directly with the customers because the vendors at first were not allowed to trade,” said Mr John Phiri, a farmer from Chimanimani.
He said as the situation normalised with the relaxation of travel restrictions, it became a challenge to engage the vendors, which made him continue dealing directly with customers.
“It’s because we had embarked on agricultural marketing endeavours that ensured a more direct pipeline to customers.
Direct marketing is new for a lot of farmers who have long relied on intermediaries to bring their products to the marketplace,” said Mr Phiri.
Mr Phiri said they market their products directly to the customers because it allows for better profit margins compared to selling via vendors.
“The benefits are realised by cutting out the middleman and getting money directly from the customer,” he said.
As farmers expand their reach in order to sell directly to consumers, other agricultural marketing problems emerge, said another farmer, Mr Praymore Siwela who brings in oranges, butternut and eggs from Norton.
He said problems include storage facilities to maintain freshness and delivering fresh goods to customers.
Mr Siwela said combatting these issues may require investing in storage facilities and redesigning processes to ensure the freshness of products.
“We don’t have warehouses or places where we can keep the produce fresh for a long time. These products have a limited shelf life, which presents a short window for farmers to meet customers’ freshness expectations,” he said.
According to City of Gweru public relations officer Ms Vimbai Chingwaramusee, they have 10 to 15 farmers bringing in their produce everyday depending on the crops which are in season.
She said they have received reports of some farmers or wholesalers who were parking trucks by the Mtapa precast wall selling directly to customers.
“Under normal circumstances, the farmers sell to vendors and the customers then buy from vendors,” said Ms Chingwaramusee.
As a local authority, she said they have been removing those trucks so that there is law and order at Mtapa Fresh Produce Market.
“We have been moving those farmers so that they can sell their wares at the designated area. When we had a consultation meeting with informal traders, they complained that the farmers claimed to be selling bulk fruits and vegetables but in actual fact, they were now selling small quantities of vegetables and fruits at a cheaper price thus conflicting with informal traders. So, we’ve engaged the farmers to move to designated areas and also stick to selling in bulk,” said Ms Chingwaramusee.
She said the local authority has been fining the farmers who are not compliant with the regulations.
Ms Chingwaramusee said they are in consultation with the farmers and the vendors adding that an agreement was reached with farmers for them to move to designated areas.
“A farmer’s truck that is found at an undesignated place is clamped and released after a clamping fee of US$85 is paid. So far, we’ve fined two trucks,” she said.
Ms Chingwaramusee said there are approximately 1 500 informal traders at Mtapa Market.
“However, the registered are 600 and sadly those complying to pay vending fees are only 391,” she said.
Ms Chingwaramusee said they have between 10 to 15 farmers bringing fresh produce a day depending on demand and supply.
“Some come every day, some after two to three days or even a week depending on where they are coming from,” she said.
Mr Richard Moyo, the interim chairperson of the vendors said under normal circumstances, they must buy from farmers and resell to customers.
“That’s how it operates, that’s how the system is supposed to function. But we were now fighting with the farmers who were used to selling directly to customers, leaving us counting losses,” he said.
Mr Moyo said some farmers were now going to the residential areas with trucks loaded with fresh produce in order to sell directly to the customers.
“Now farmers are taking the fresh produce to residential areas and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a pity because they’re stealing our customers,” he said.
A resident, Mrs Anele Mkhwananzi said farmers’ products such as potatoes were affordable as compared to what vendors charge.
“For example, farmers sell a 10kg pack of potatoes for US$7 as compared to US$9 charged by vendors. So we appreciate what farmers are doing by coming directly to us,” she said.