Nelly Bassily | January 21, 2013
The market is abuzz with activity at the Gakindu shopping centre in Nyeri, a town in central Kenya. Traders cart in bags of produce, with flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and pigs in tow. Leah Wambui stations herself among the crowd and prepares for a morning of trading.
At this market, the chatter and haggling is between farmers. They have decided to forego middlemen and even cash. Instead, they barter among themselves.
Swapping one type of good for another is an age-old practice. For a growing number of people in Nyeri, it is gaining new appeal as a way to combat increasing food scarcity.
Ms. Wambui explains how it works for her. She says: “If I need a chicken, I take a basketful of maize to the market and look for someone interested in my goods. If we agree the goods meet each others’ worth, then I will trade my grain for the chicken.”
This is not how she has always operated. Ms. Wambui used to sell her grain to middlemen who would come to the village at harvest time. She says they would buy it for a very low price. Once her store of grain was empty, she would spend her meagre earnings on food for her family. But it would not last to the next harvest. Often, her family had to rely on relief food, which could take a month to arrive.
Erratic rainfalls have led to crop failures in recent years, making matters worse for the farmers in Nyeri. In 2011, Kenya experienced its worst drought on record. The village chief called a community meeting to discuss the drought, and the idea of bartering came up.
Mureithi Githinji is chairman of the village market. He says people resisted the idea at first. But when a few people decided to try swapping commodities, they found they could make their food last to the next season. Soon, more people joined the scheme. Bartering gained popularity.
Some experts see bartering as a way to enhance food security. Ronald Sibanda is the World Food Programme’s representative in Kenya. He says there’s nothing wrong with bartering, as it allows people to get the commodities they desire.
The idea of bartering doesn’t appeal to everyone. John Kabiro is a trader in the capital city of Nairobi. He argues that bartering undermines the cash economy. It also takes money out of his pocket.
But Ms. Wambui and many other farmers in Nyeri are convinced. They no longer want to sell their crops to traders, only to have it sold back to farmers during times of drought. They have found food security by cutting out the middleman.