In much of the Caribbean, women provide the link between the farm and the traditional market place. Most market stalls are run by women, who are also a central feature of the agricultural economy and value chain. In Dominica and St Lucia, women are producers, wholesalers (“machann”), and retailers (“revandez”).
While the producers have their own farms and are able to sell produce directly to supermarkets, the machann (Creole for the French “marchandes” or sellers) buy from producers and sell to retailers, hotels, and supermarkets. The revandez(Creole from the French “revendeuses” or resellers) purchase from farmers (or also from the machann) and sell to individual consumers. So, produce sold to consumers by the revandez are usually marked up the most.
In Haiti agricultural, market women fall mostly into two categories: the machann and the “madam sara”. There is some degree of overlap between the two because though both can be found selling at the retail level, they represent two different types of commerce:
their relationship with producers, middlemen and transporters are different and there is significant difference in their access to capital and therefore their economic independence.
A few words about the Haitian public markets. Public markets in Haiti usually take place every Friday and are usually located along a main road for the convenience of transporteurs and shoppers. Some communities have their markets on a different day so as to avoid competition with the Friday market of a neighbor community. There are, however, advantages to having coinciding market days because a single day is often convenient to the buyer who seeks a variety of goods, and it also facilitates comparison shopping, which increases competition. Like in the other islands the local government of the municipality where the market takes place charges sellers a fee to have a fixed location or stall. They also charge a sales tax for those who bring goods to sell but don’t necessarily come often enough to want a stall, or who sell goods, such as livestock, for which a stall would not be needed.
Machanns usually sell in one public marketplace. A fairly reliable percentage of their clientele are repeat customers who know where to find them. While many producers often travel from near or far to sell their own products in the market, some producers bring their product to the market and sell it on a wholesale basis to the machann, who then sell it on a retail basis to the public. Producers sometimes (but not always) have a long-standing relationship with certain machannsand will sometimes leave their product with her on the trust that they will receive a fair price for their product if it is sold. This is an important social capital feature of Haitian commerce and is central to a street-level trust and credit system that is an age-old practice found in many agrarian communities in the Caribbean. Haiti’s rapid urbanization does not seem to have negatively impacted the way the practice works, but it is certainly less frequent in urban areas.
Madam Sara’s go to the producer to buy produce in bulk, similar to the revandez in St Lucia and Dominica. They then bring the produce to market and sell it. They are their own middle-men, and often deal with large sums of money and large-scale transactions. A Madam Sara will often pay a deposit on an agreed price for the anticipated production of a farmer’s fruit tree (like buying futures in the Chicago stock exchange) and will rent a warehouse to store large quantities of goods that she has purchased from multiple locations as they are harvested and delivered. The Madam Sara are known to visit a farmer, size up the number of mangoes his tree might yield in a month or two, place an order for the entire harvest and pay the farmer a deposit, and then send an employee in a month or two to collect the harvest and pay the farmer the balance. Nowadays the farmer has to wait until the harvest is actually sold at the market, and even longer to get the rest of his money, during which time the Madam Sara could be robbed. The banking system has not liberalized enough to take deposits from informal businesses and so the recent development of credit cooperatives has greatly served the entire agricultural sector by enabling Madam Sara’s to safeguard their capital and even send transactions to farmers. Also, though the “mobile money” cell phone transactions launched after 2010 took off very slowly, the practice was greatly appreciated because the Madam Sara’s didn’t have to carry around as much cash and they reduced both the cost and time for transactions. Insurance for warehouses is still rare, though, and is provided by credit unions such as FONKOZE, a women’s credit union that also provides short term revolving credit for Madam Sara’s and market women.
Often, the Madam Sarah will also often hire young women to help her sell her produce in several marketplaces. In some cases a Madam Sara will hire people who walk around certain neighborhoods to bring her goods to buyers between market days. This practice used to be very important to enhance income but is now greatly reduced because of the logistical difficulties that have arisen due to expanding urban areas and crime.
By Bertrand Laurent
The author is an agricultural anthropologist who works on governance and workforce development in the Caribbean. He is Executive Chair of The Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development.