Nelly Bassily | February 4, 2008
It’s early morning in a Malian village. As the sun rises, traders prepare for the weekly market. A woman spreads a cloth on the ground and arranges her wares. She hopes to sell has a few buckets of grain from her family farm to sell. Other traders, mostly women, group themselves nearby.Over the next few hours, the small grain traders will sell millet and sorghum to local farmers. Most will use their earnings to purchase vegetables and spices. As they conduct their business, they also play a crucial role in their community’s agricultural system.
The International Food Policy Research Institute discovered the importance of women seed traders when they set out to study how grain varieties – regarded by the institute as crucial genetic resources – were distributed. They focused on millet and sorghum because they are Mali’s most important food crops.
The institute found that, unlike wholesale traders, small women traders typically sell grain that has been washed and hulled by hand. And unlike traders who buy and re-sell grain from many farmers, small traders have key information about their product. Since the millet and sorghum comes from their own farms, they understand its qualities and how it grows.
Malian farmers don’t typically turn to the market for grain seeds. But when they do, the need is vital. Generally, farmers store some of their own grain for seeds. They may also exchange seeds with their neighbours. But years of drought or pest damage can deplete their supplies. They may also turn to the market if poor rains cause the first planting of the season to fail.
Small grain traders ensure access to seeds that have adapted to the Sahel’s harsh growing environment. Farmers looking to purchase seeds need to know precisely where grain seeds have grown, because some seeds only grow well within a 50 kilometre area.
The women traders bring their knowledge to the market as well as their grain. Those with particular expertise are often sought out by farmers. They sell more grain and get a better price.
As the sun begins to set on Mali’s village markets, traders pack up their goods and begin the journey home. The commerce they have done will help them prepare meals for their families – and it will also help ensure the sustainability of local agriculture.