Market Women: Backbone of the Liberian food economy (Part I)

By Jackson Fiah Doe, Jr.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 20, 2006



Like their counterparts in other West African countries, Liberia’s market women play a very critical role in the country’s food sector. In fact, these micro-entrepreneurs have dominated Liberia’s food economy for the last few centuries. Market women primarily sell fresh produce and other foodstuffs in and near a market; they also sell cheap manufactured goods. A market, in the Liberian vernacular, is a building or place where locally grown food crops, food-related items and other goods are sold.

Although often overlooked and dismissed as illiterate, Liberian market women – who comprise an overwhelming proportion of marketers – have an enormous impact on the country’s food distribution. This was especially true during the Liberian civil war (1989 – 2003). At a time when people were fleeing the country in droves, some market women did not leave Liberia. Instead, they continued selling much-needed food in marketplaces to those left behind. One such woman is the aunt of a friend who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. My friend told me that his aunt, a marketer in Ganta (The largest city of Nimba County, Northeastern Liberia) opted to stay in the city for the duration of the war, despite pleas from family members for a change of heart. Undaunted by the danger, she sold fresh produce in Ganta’s main market to people who remained in the city. However, in 2003, when a major rebel group invaded Ganta and indiscriminately shot and killed several people, she and some colleagues fled to neighboring Guinea. Weeks later, she returned to the city, as did other marketers - to the relief and delight of many very hungry people - after some armed residents defeated the rebels. She managed to restart her business, thanks to a sister residing in US, who gave her $500.00 via remittances.

Similarly, some family members living in Monrovia (Liberia’s capital) during the civil war explained to me that when the fighting was fierce in the city, many market women refused to sell in the markets, for fear of been shot or worse, killed. Consequently, many of Monrovia’s residents could not find food to buy. As a result, some elderly people and the very young were without food for days and weeks. Subsequently, quite a few of them died of hunger. Some of these people would have lived had food been sold in the marketplaces. Notwithstanding these tragic cases, most market women worked during civil war, selling much-needed food items to residents of Monrovia and other parts of the country. Had they not sold food during the war, thousands of people would have died of starvation.

As the above examples show, market women are without doubt very vital to the Liberian food economy. In this paper, I will take a closer look at Liberian marketplaces, types of market women, the economic impact of these micro-entrepreneurs, and factors impeding the progress of market women. I will also put forth recommendations needed to enable market women to move to the next level in business.

A closer look at Liberian marketplaces

A marketplace can be located indoor, outdoors or both.1 A typical Liberian marketplace comprises a building, in which fresh produce, fish, meat, and other foodstuffs are sold inside the facility. Outside the building, new and used clothes, towels, shoes, slippers, household items and other local and imported goods are sold in stalls. There are a few markets (mainly found in Monrovia) where everyone sells inside the buildings. Some marketplaces are built structures of wooden poles with thatched or zinc roofs (mainly found in small towns and villages).2 There are also marketplaces that are open-air. Additionally, there are daily markets in cities, while many small towns and villages have a market day at least once a week.3 During the market days, people from nearby areas converge on that village or town to buy and sell fresh produce and cheap manufactured goods. Even if there is not a market everyday in a town, it is not unusual that some people use the place to sell things on non-market days.4 But only on market days is the place packed with people and goods.5

At first glance, most Liberian large marketplaces seem very chaotic. They are very noisy; there are people shouting and screaming. The places are often jammed packed with standing room only. People are everywhere – inside and outside the market buildings. The nearby streets are crowded and traffic-ridden, and there are few spaces between the stalls and traffic6. The market flows into large parts of the surrounding areas. However, if one takes a closer look, it becomes apparent that order reigns over chaos.7 The marketplaces are usually divided into sections based on types of goods for sale. Inside the buildings, one finds a meat section; there is a fish section; other sections have locally grown food crops. Outside the building, there are stalls in which used clothes, new clothes, footwear, household items, and other cheap manufactured goods are sold. It is rare to see different items in the same zones or sections, like food and clothes

Types of market women
In my judgment, there are four types of market women. The first consists of women who sell primarily food items (locally grown produce and other food items.). Most of the market women fall into this category. The second is made up of women who sell used clothes, underwear, towels, household items and other manufactured goods in stalls, usually outside the market building. It is my view that this group makes the most money. In the third group, are women who sell in willor markets, which are rectangular, wooden four-legged, case-like tables (about 6 feet wide and 4 feet long) with two sections – vertical and horizontal -, located on the inside of these tables. When opened, – which usually happens during selling time – the vertical section has shelves, while the horizontal section or base has components. The two sections are used to stock items such as cigarettes, matches, kola nuts, snacks, candies and so forth. The last group comprises hawkers or ambulatory traders, who load cooked food and other goods into a basin, box or head tray to circulate throughout the market aisles and surrounding streets.8 Hawkers are by far the poorest of the market women, because they sell few items with very low profit margins.

The Liberia Marketing Association
Headed by Madame Geneva Koffa, the Liberia Marketing Association (LMA) is the organization entrusted with overseeing the marketplaces. Consisting of predominantly women, the organization was established to be a potent voice for small or petty traders, advocating for better marketing facilities and favorable lending practices to improve marketers’ services.9 The LMA is a nationwide organization with branches in very heavily populated areas. LMA markets locally produced food items in urban areas. Every LMA general market operates a warehouse where items intended for the market from the rural areas of production are stored until sold.

When a woman wants to sell in the market, she registers with the LMA and pays a one-time fee to get a table – which is either of wood or concrete – in the market. Should she decide to quit selling in the market, she can sell the table to someone else. Also, each marketer is to pay daily fees to a tax collector who works for the LMA. The daily fees are not progressive taxes; they are not paid on the actual income, since there is no systematized income tabulation. Instead, it is a flat tax, which means everyone pays the same amount of taxes irrespective of income. If marketers don’t pay the fees, some of their goods are confiscated; other some cases, they are barred from selling in the marketplaces. The fees collected are used for the cleaning and maintenance of market facilities.

Reasons for selling in marketplaces

a. Low barrier to entry
Unlike other businesses, such as stores and shops, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to sell in the markets. One need not have lots of money to get started. These micro-businesses don’t have overhead like stores and shops, which pay utilities, and other expenses. Many market women started as strolling hawkers, selling food and other items in head trays, which required very little start-up costs. If there is any profit, it can be invested in a new and slightly larger consignment.10 Eventually, these strolling hawkers purchase a table, using money they have saved, which is sort of a progression in their careers. As for the women who began selling in the markets by buying tables, most of them got the start-up capital from friends and family members; some got money via remittances; others use funds from Su Su or ROSCAS (Rotating Savings and Credit Associations), which are essentially a group of individuals who come together and make regular cyclical contributions to a common fund, which is then given as a lump sum to one member in each cycle.11 For example, a group of 12 persons may contribute US$10.00 per month for 12 months.12 The US$120.00 collected each month is given to one member. Thus, a member will lend money to other members through his regular monthly contributions. After having received the lump sum amount when it is his/her turn (i.e. borrow from the group), he/she then pays back the amount in regular/further monthly contributions.13 Deciding who receives the lump sum is done by consensus, by lottery, by bidding or other agreed methods.14

The fact that selling in the marketplaces doesn’t require specialized skills and education, many of the market women are uneducated. Most of these women can neither read nor write. Many speak their native dialects fluently. However, they know just enough English to conduct transactions with customers. According to Gracia Clark, - an Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Indian University-Bloomington, who conducted a ten-year research on West African market women - the skills that these women need most, especially for those who sell locally grown produce, include the ability to remember prices, make change, and calculate multiple purchases.15 Because of their lack of formal education, most market women can’t work anywhere else. Therefore they are attracted to the marketplace because of its low barrier to entry.

b. Single parenthood
Like the United States, which has in the last several decades witnessed the proliferation of female-headed households, especially within the African American community, Liberia has, over the years, also seen a sharp increase in households headed by women. In the US, the government provides public aid (assistance) to poor single mothers in the form of food stamps, free medical care (MEDICAID), and free housing or housing vouchers. The United States also mandates dead-beat fathers to pay child support, which is garnished from their paychecks on a monthly basis. The money is then sent to the mothers for the care of the children. Conversely, single mothers in Liberia don’t have such luxury. The Liberian government does not provide assistance to poor single mothers, nor does it mandate fathers to support their children. Some fathers in Liberia don’t want to financially support their children. As a result, the mothers have to find a way to support their children and themselves. In light of this, the mothers have to find a way to make ends meet. Lacking valuable skills and education, these poor women resort to selling in the marketplaces.

c. Lack of support from husbands
Many wives, especially those living in the rural areas, have husbands who are polygamous, meaning, they have multiple wives or mistresses. Not having enough wealth, these men tend to favor certain wives, whom they support. However, the other wives have to fend for themselves. Like poor single mothers, these wives have to find a way to make a living. Since they are mostly illiterate, these wives turn to selling in the markets.

Other married women sell in the markets because their husbands are unemployed.
As a consequence of the Liberian civil war, many husbands lost their jobs. Although the war has since ended, there are still thousand of these men without employment. Most of them are uneducated, and have no valuable skills; they are unable to compete in the already scarce job market, as the unemployment rate in Liberia is a staggering 85%.16 In light of this, many wives have become the sole breadwinners of their households by selling in the markets.

The economic impact of market women

It goes without saying that market women have a tremendous impact on the Liberian economy. Almost everyone living in the country, whether they are Liberians or non-Liberians, have either purchased items from market women or sold goods to these micro-entrepreneurs. Market women impact the Liberian economy in several ways. They are the main retailers to foodstuffs and some imported goods in the country. These women also possess significant buying power, and have helped reduce poverty in Liberia.

Main retailers of foodstuff and some imported goods in Liberia
Except for big-ticket items like cars, generators, refrigerators and stoves, one can purchase just about anything in Liberian marketplaces. Most foodstuffs are sold in the markets (fresh produce and canned foods). In the big cities, the markets are the only places where locally grown food crops are sold. Although rice, Liberia’s staple food, – which is consumed by most Liberians eat daily - is sold in stores and supermarket on a wholesale basis, it is retailed in the markets, where it is bought by the cup (which comes in various sizes). Most poor Liberians simply can’t afford purchasing bags of rice from stores. Thus, the markets afford them the opportunity to buy rice, as well as other fresh produce, in small quantities. Most Liberians, rich or poor, are attracted to the markets because they can buy any locally grown foods, which primarily comprise the Liberian diet. These locally grown food crops are very perishable and have to be cooked the same day they were purchased to avoid spoilage, since most Liberians lack access to refrigeration. Unlike most people in the United States, who don’t cook everyday and regularly eat fast foods, Liberians eat hot, cooked meals everyday, consisting mainly of rice that goes with soup made of edible leaves, vegetables, palm or vegetable oil, and spices that are mainly found in the marketplaces. Therefore, they visit the markets daily to purchase these items in small quantities.

In addition, Market women, mainly those of the food hawking variety, usually sell near schools, universities, parking lots, offices, and other areas. For instance, as a student of St. Mary’s Catholic school - located in Sanniquellie, northeastern Liberia - from 1976 to 1986 (2nd to 12th grade), I used to buy snacks and light meals from market women during our hour-long breaks, as did most students. Like many students in Liberia, I did not take lunch to school. Instead, I was given lunch money, which I used to purchase light meals from market women. They sold foodstuffs like donuts, peanuts, bread, frozen cool aid in tiny plastic bags, cooked corns and the like. But for these market women, many students, including myself, would have been hungry during classes, which could have made it difficult to concentrate. As a result, I, as well as thousands of students, would not have fared as well as we did. Thus, it is safe to assert that market women in a way contributed to my success, as well as that of other students, by selling snacks and light meals to hungry students.

Moreover, some market women sell cheap manufactured goods. These items, if purchased at stores and other places would be otherwise very expensive. That is why lots of Liberians buy various items from the marketplaces. Items sold in the markets include towels, soap, cooking utensils, cigarettes, tobacco, watches, gym shoes, slippers, colognes, perfumes, belts, household items, cosmetics, toothpastes, toothbrushes, African clothes, jewelry, and just about any other cheap manufactured goods. Many poor Liberians view the marketplaces as their main shopping centers, since they are able to purchase most of the items they need at affordable prices. For them, stores and other shopping centers are beyond their reach. Few Liberians - those with high-end incomes - can afford to shop at expensive stores. In their judgment, the goods sold at marketplaces are of poor quality, which is not always the case. For instance, I remembered buying valuable items in marketplaces when I lived in the country. The very same items were twice as expensive in specialty stores as they were in marketplaces.

Additionally, many people flock to marketplaces because they have the opportunity to bargain on the basis of price and quantity. Almost every good purchased in the market is a product of bargaining, which is a very good thing for price-sensitive customers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to bargain at other places. However, the markets are havens for bargaining. Nothing is bought at full price.

Significant purchasing power
Without doubt, market women, collectively, are a formidable economic force. They have significant purchasing power. Many small as well as large businesses in Liberia sell their products primarily to market women. For example, foreign merchants in the wholesale food industry sell their goods to these women, who are their core customers. Farmers depend on market women to purchase their fresh produce. Fishermen count on these micro-entrepreneurs to buy their fish. Also, there are other businesses that sell exclusively to market women. Most of the businesses that serve market women make a lot of profits from this customer base. The wholesalers of goods, in my view, make hundreds of thousand of dollars, if not millions, selling goods to these micro-entrepreneurs. Without the patronage of these market women, many businesses would experience financial hardships, and subsequently go under. Because they number in the thousands, market women are a force to be reckoned with. They can literately make or break a business.

Help reduce poverty
There has been a sharp increase in the number of women selling in marketplaces throughout the country. This is primarily a result of the lack of employment opportunities available to them elsewhere. They use the profits from their businesses to support their families, and are thereby unshackled from the chains of poverty, which have entangled many Liberians. Also, because many market women are pro education, they strive to send their kids to school, enabling them (children of market women) to get a good education, who are then positioned to become financially independent; thus, they are able to rid themselves of the dependency syndrome, which has permeated the Liberian society, courtesy of poverty.

3 Ibid
4 Ibid
5 Ibid
6 Ibid
7 Ibid
8 Gracia Clark, “Onions are my Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women”, (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1994), p.12
9 “Voices of Dissent Getting Louder”, The Perspective, June 19, 2001

12 Ibid
13 Ibid
14 Ibid
15 Clark, p.189
16 www