________________

MARKET PRICES


To effect trade, direct barter was the medium of exchange in the early stages of African market development. Goods were exchanged directly. In many communities, however, various commodities were used as currency, including cloth, cattle, salt, iron bars, cowrie shells, beads, firearms, mats, and gold dust, served as media of exchange. Every African today will declare that prices in the village markets are generally not determined or fixed by the village chief or king. This is a fact that has been true for centuries and must be stated emphatically since many modern African governments are ignorant of it. Prices on indigenous markets traditionally have been influenced by several factors: the forces of supply and demand, scarcity, time of day, status of the consumer, relation with the seller, quality of the product, its degree of necessity, bargaining skills and competition. In general, prices are determined by the normal forces of supply and demand, the other factors merely shave off or add a few pennies so that two different consumers do not pay exactly the same price. Thus price -- charging different prices to different customers for the same product -- exists in indigenous African markets. It is the traditional practice. Skinner (1964) observed that "Mossi merchants were very aware of the principles of supply and demand and held goods out of the market when prices fell, in order to obtain later higher prices" (222). Ian Vansina (1962) also found that prices on Kuba markets in Zaire, "prices in Kuba is that they behave in exactly the same way as prices do in European markets. The price is set by the relation of supply and demand. When shrimps first appear on the market, they fetch a high price. Later on, the price falls" (235). On the Konso markets of southern Ethiopia, Kluckhorn (1962) discovered that, "supply and demand was the basic adjustment mechanism for prices" (86).

Marguerite Dupire (1962) observed that on Fulani markets, "The price of millet and of salt, essential elements in the life of the nomad, vary in proportion to their scarcity. That of millet is at a minimum after the harvest and at a maximum just before the next harvest - variations on the order of one to four - while salt is less expensive at the return of the caravans which bring it back from the salt mines of the Sahara" (36). The status of the buyer also affected how much one paid for a commodity. Europeans would affirm that in indigenous markets they paid higher prices than the natives. That was one reason why many sent servants to make purchases for them. The price of an item was often influenced by the time of day. Toward the end of the market day, most traders were in a hurry to get home or reluctant to carry home unsold goods. Africans knew that was the best time to obtain good bargains. In most indigenous African markets, haggling was the process by which prices were determined. Prices were not fixed by any village government authority, people bargained over prices. Tardits and Tardits (1962) provided a description of such a bargaining process on South Dahomean markets: Bargaining is the rule. Prices asked by sellers as well as buyers are always higher or lower than those which are finally agreed upon. Long debates ensue in which praise and insults have their place. A customer looks at a fish tray; the merchant asks 425 francs for 40 fish; the customer offers 350 francs. After a short discussion, the merchant is ready to sell. The customer then withdraws the offer and proposes 300 francs; the discussion goes on till the seller has accepted; the buyer thinks it over a second time and says: `275 francs.' The merchant finally agrees but the customer drops the proposed price down to 200 francs. At this point, the merchant refuses to sell. Discussion starts again until at last the bargain is concluded for 225 francs (106-107).

In sum, prices on indigenous markets generally fluctuated in accordance with the forces of supply and demand. When tomatoes were in season, the price fell, and vice versa. Peasants and chiefs understood these price gyrations. If the price of an item was too high, the traditional response was to bargain down the price. If it did not come down enough, a substitute was purchased, especially in the area of farm produce. For example, cocoyam, cassava or plantain could be substituted for yam. One was not "forced" to buy yams if they could not afford it. When the price of a commodity remained persistently high, the natives either produced it themselves, as often happened in the case of yams, or traveled to the source to obtain it more cheaply. Tales of traders trekking long distances to buy goods more cheaply at the source are legion. Similarly, various meat substitutes could be purchased if the price of, say, chicken was too high. African chiefs did little to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the village market. Nor did they impose price controls on the market. It was never the traditional role of chiefs to police how prices were set. Even wages were not fixed by any village authority (Hill, 1987, 110). To all intents and purposes, the African village market was an open and free market, however "primitive." Only rarely did a chief intervene in market transactions.

Role of Women in the Distribution


Upon close study of Africa's rural economy, one cannot fail to be impressed by the participatory role of women. Today the majority of Africa's peasant farmers -- about 80 percent -- are women. Women also dominate rural markets and trade. In Yoruba, "local farm produce - either cash crops or food crops - are marketed at the local market, almost invariably by women" (Hodder, 1962). These are not recent phenomena. Female participation in market activities always has been a tradition. It was the result of the traditional division of labor on the basis of sex.

The object in trading, as everywhere, is to make a profit. The Yoruba women "trade for profit, bargaining with both the producer and the consumer in order to obtain as large a margin of profit as possible" (Bascom, 1984, 26). And in almost all West African countries, women kept the profits made from trading. "A Ga woman also makes money by her trading. A man has no control over his wife's money, but any extra money she can extract from him for herself can never be reclaimed" (Field, 1940, 54). "In South Dahomey, commercial gains are a woman's own property and she spends her money free of all control. Trade gives to women a partial economic independence and if their business is profitable they might even be able to lend some money - a few thousand francs - to their husbands against their future crops" (Tardits and Tardits, 1962, 110).

Traders frequently reinvest part of their gains to expand their trading activities and spend part to cover domestic and personal expenses, since spouses have to keep the house in good condition, replace old cooking utensils, buy their own clothes and educate their children. Historically, another important use of trade profits was the financing of political activity. According to M. I. Herskovits (1964), "support for the nationalist movements that were the instruments of political independence came in considerable measure from the donations of the market women" (377).

In fact, it can be asserted that there is no black African leader, past or present, whose mother or grandmother did not engage in trade, the traditional role of women in Africa. Clearly, any event, whether government policy, a civil war, or a calamitious occurrence, that disrupts agriculture or diminishes the scale of market activity would have a disproportionately adverse effect on African women. That in turn would have ramifications throughout the family structure and the entire society.

The Role of Government in the Indigenous Economy


Indigenous African economies were based on agriculture, pastoralism, markets, and trade. Both the rulers and the natives appreciated the importance of these activities. Indigenous governments created the necessary conditions for their subjects to conduct their activities. Even with agriculture, the tribal government did not interfere or dictate what crops the peasants should raise. The peasants decided what to cultivate. The role of the chief or kings in agriculture was to ensure that access to land was not denied to anyone, even strangers. Supervision or regulation of access did not constitute control over production.

In most cases across Africa, "there was no direct interference with production" (Wickins, 1981, 230). The tenet of African law that maintained that any harmful action against another individual was a threat to the whole society was applicable to the realm of economics. A restriction on individual's economic activity placed severe constraints on the economic welfare of the whole society. If the individual prospered, so too did his extended family and the community. An individual could prosper so long as his prosperity did not conflict with the interests of the community. The society's interests were paramount. Unless an individual's pursuit of prosperity conflicted with society's interests, the chief or king had no authority to interfere with it. This was a well-nigh universal African belief.

With trade, the historical evidence does not suggest government interferences. It would hardly make sense for the chiefs prevent their own subjects from engaging in trade. Traders were free enterprisers, taking the risks themselves. As Kwame Y. Daaku (1971) observed: Those who so desired and ventured into distant places in pursuit of trade could rise to higher positions in the traditional setup. Along the coastal towns, successful traders began to display their affluence by surrounding themselves with a host of servants. Some were raised to the status of headmen or elders. They built themselves magnificent houses on which some of them even mounted a few cannon. The rise of these people was not only a coastal phenomenon. In practically all the forest states there came into prominence men like Kwame Anteban of Nyameso in Denkyira, whose wealth became proverbial (179).

Occasionally, the kings and chiefs had farms and other economic enterprises operated for them. For example, the Asante kings had royal gold mines, and the chiefs in East and southern Africa had some goats and cattle. But they were mainly for the consumption of royalty and guests - not purposefully for the people as a whole. This point is crucial. Nowherein the history of Africa is there evidence of chiefs and kings operating tribal government farms to feed the people. The natives fed themselves, built their own huts, and provided for themselves. Nor did the kings and chiefs operate tribal government enterprises. The craft industries were owned by individuals or families, not by the chief or the state. The ruler might choose to have an enterprise but, again, it was mostly for his own benefit, not that of the natives. It was the same with trade. As Daaku (1971) noted in the case of the Akan of the Gold Coast, "Apart from the occasional trading organized for and on behalf of the chiefs, trading, like all other vocations, was primarily an affair of individuals. Much of it was conducted by a man and his family, that is, his wives and children and/or with his sister's sons. It was never an affair of the state" (Daaku, 1971, 174).

Only in very, very few instances was trade monopolized and controlled by the state. The exceptions include the kingdoms of Dahomey, Asante and Mossi. The Dahomey kingdom was centrally planned, and Dahomeans were the most heavily taxed West Africans in the nineteenth century. Inevitably, the Kingdom collapsed under the weight of its bureaucracy and maze of regulations. In fact, fewer than 20 out of thousands of commodities were reserved strictly for chiefs. According to Robert Bates (1987), the most frequently mentioned objects of chief's monopoly were ivory, kola, slaves, cattle, skins, and parts of game killed (55). Everything else was a free commodity.

In conclusion, state intervention in the economy was the exception rather than the rule in precolonial Africa. As Bates (1987) observed, "In precolonial Africa, the states underpinned specialization and trade; they terminated feuds; they provided peace and stability and the conditions for private investment; they formed public works; and they generated wealth, if only in the form of plunder. In these ways, the states secured prosperity for their citizens" (40).

The Indigenous System: A Summary and Assessment


Foreign observers who came upon African natives' profit-sharing schemes hastily denigrated them as "primitive communism." Many African leaders also considered the same schemes as proof that the indigenous system was "socialism." Both groups were wrong. Many tribal societies had no state planning or direction of economic activity. Nor were there state enterprises and widespread state ownership.

The means of production were privately owned. Huts, spears, and agricultural implements were all private property. The profit motive was present in most market transactions. Free enterprise and free trade were the rule in indigenous Africa. The natives went about their economic activities on their own initiative and free will. They did not line up at the entrance of the chief's hut to apply for permits before engaging in trade or production. What and how much they produced were their own decision to make. The African woman who produced kenkey, garri or semolina herself decided to produce those items. No one forced her to do so. Nor did anyone order the fishermen, artisans, craftsmen, or even hunters what to produce.

In modern parlance, those who go about their economic activities on their own free will are called free enterprisers. By this definition, the kente weavers of Ghana, the Yoruba sculptors, the gold, silver and blacksmiths as well as the various indigenous craftsmen, traders, farmers, and all were free enterprisers. And the natives have been so centuries. The Masai, Somali, Fulani and other pastoralists who herded cattle over long distances in search of water and pasture to fatten them also were free enterprisers. So were the African traders who traveled great distances to buy and sell commodities - an economic, risk-taking venture.

The extended family system offered them security they needed to take these risks associated with enterpreneurial activity. Many development experts overlooked some positive economic aspects of the much-maligned extended family system. Although this system entailed some "sharing" (not forced or proportionate), it also provided the springboard for Africans to launch themselves into highly risky ventures. If they failed, the extended family system was available to support them. By the same token, if they were successful, they had some obligation to the system that supported them. The Fanti have this proverb: "Obra nyi woara abo" (Life is as you make it within the community).

State intervention in the economy was not the general policy, except in the kingdoms of Dahomey and Asante. But rigidly controlled Dahomey collapsed under the weight of its own regulations. Even in commerce, African states lacked state controls and ownership. In Gold Coast, for example, gold-mining was open to all subjects of the states of Adanse, Assin, Denkyira, and Mampong. Some chiefs taxed mining operations at the rate of one-fifth of the annual output. In some states, all gold mined on certain days was ceded to the throne. But the mines were in general not owned and operated by the chiefs. Rather, they granted mining concessions.

Much of the indigenous economic system still exists today, where African governments have not destroyed it through misguided policies and civil wars. Female traders still can be found at the markets. They still trade their wares for profit. And in virtually all African markets today, one still bargains over prices - an ancient tradition. Rather strangely, postcolonial African leaders and elites came to believe that they had to abandon their traditonal heritage in order to develop. It is worth noting that the economically vibrant Japanese did not do so. "It's postwar success is not due to Westernization. Although Japan has modernized spectacularly, it remains utterly different from the West. Economic success in Japan has occurred through pure discipline -- the people's ability to work in groups and to conform" (editorial in Bangkok Post cited by The Washington Times, 9 November 1996, A8). In fact, the traditional Japanese heritage of working in groups bears remarkable similarity to Africa's.



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