There’s a German woman and man staying long-term in this same hostel. She is a doctor volunteering in a hospital here; he is an entrepreneur taking a break from work and just along for the ride. Somehow, he explained, he stumbled into a job teaching “Entrepreneurial Thinking” to a group of aspiring business-women in a rural area just outside Moshi. When he learned that I’m interested in women’s development, he invited me along for a class. I ended up mostly translating - the teacher does not know much Swahili, and his students know very little English. I grappled with words like “profit” and “bookkeeping” and “value chain” and “competitors.” In the end I learned a lot, about the very different ways in which business and markets can be conceptualized.
The teacher started with a quick summary of the previous day’s work. He had taught them about bookkeeping, providing each student with a counterbook and a ruler to create her own ledger. He ran through the reasons why keeping accounts is important: to pay taxes, to see where you are making profit and where you are losing money, to keep track of the money you owe and that which others owe you. When we had finished bookkeeping, we moved on to a list of questions the teacher had asked his students to answer as a starting point for writing a business plan. These questions began with things like, “What do you sell? How much does it cost to buy or make it? What is the selling price?” - questions which were easy enough to answer. But he followed these with questions about quality, service, and pricing differentiation from competitors, which we all struggled with a bit together. I ended up defining “competitors” as “people who are selling the same things as you,” but that’s not quite right.
I’ve been spending my days at the central market in Moshi, sitting with women who sell agricultural produce there. My presence at the market continues to be a surprise to passing customers, and I’ve heard multiple exclamations of, “An mzungu selling coconuts? Have we really come to this?” The vendors, however, have warmly welcomed me, inviting me to sit with them at their tables or to visit them at their homes.
Muslim and Christian, of various ethnic groups, and hailing from as close as blocks away to as far as Iringa, the women at Mbuyuni use rickety wooden tables or plastic sacks arranged carefully on the ground to display clothes, shoes, fruits, vegetables, and fish from 6am to 6pm. They are almost exclusively mothers, 30-60 years old, with a primary school education. Most of them also provide primary economic support for their families, but the market is one of many responsibilities. Before arriving, they wash clothes and dishes then feed and dress their children for school. When they get home, they are cooking again, washing again, putting the kids to bed, and preparing for the next day. Hours are precious, and still there is money to be found, relatives to be visited at the hospital, produce to be collected from farms or wholesale vendors.
An example of the ways in which “competitors” interact at the market: one day Mama Francis, Mama Sabrina, and Doreen were all selling onions, of the same size and quantity and for the same price. Sabrina had fallen asleep at her mother’s breast, and Mama Sabrina was laying down a bed of blankets for the one-year-old to sleep on, in the shade of the shop behind us. A customer approached Mama Sabrina’s table: “Shiingapi vitungu?” How much for the onions? Doreen answered her with the price, and the woman decided to buy. Rather than selling onions from her own plastic sheet on the ground, Doreen stood up, helped the customer to select onions from Mama Sabrina’s table, and placed the money she received under Mama Sabrina’s tablecloth. I’ve seen this happen everyday. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to leave her table, even all day, trusting that her neighbors will serve her customers and keep the money separate from their own. Other women fall asleep in the shade a few feet away, exhausted from the sun and from the labor of child rearing and carrying heavy sacks of produce, and their peers sell for them just the same. If their businesses were a competition, wouldn’t they push to sell their own produce first?
The word Mama Francis and Mama Sabrina use for market practices is kusaidiana - helping one another. Though I also hear the word kujitegemea -supporting oneself (and for women, this implies one’s family too) - quite a bit, these concepts are not in conflict. Instead, my hosts at the market see themselves as part of a community of women who are struggling with the same things and trying to advance together.
“Competitor” just doesn’t quite explain all that.