Okesie (literally meaning ‘the big one’ in Twi) is 49 years old. She is big (as her nickname suggests) both in girth and in her power and influence within the market. She is one of a handful of older and elderly women who founded this marketplace on the outskirts of Accra. It is a small market housed (after years of negotiation with municipal and traditional authorities) on what was formerly a waste dump, but has been cleaned and improved with a permanent structure. The market offers a range of commodities – from farm produce to clothing and household goods – to a local customer base. Okesie attributes her success, as do many of the older market women, to God’s divine intervention. They may point to visions, dreams, or voices that called them to trade in a particular commodity and/or at a particular location. As Okesie describes, “the Lord showed me just when I slept, that I should trade in plantain and cassava” later adding, “since it was plantain God revealed to me, it’s plantain I sell.”
The location of her market on the outskirts of Accra is such that Okesie’s primary concern as wholesaler and market queen for the plantain sellers is to ensure supply throughout the year, during both abundant and scarce seasons. The largest markets where plantains are sold are at Tema and Agbogbloshie so she must compete with these well-known markets. She does this through relationship work, maintaining frequent communication with her regular suppliers, checking up on them periodically to “find out how they are faring.” The result is that “if it abounds, [the supplier] brings it to you, and when it is scarce too, he brings it.” The mobile phone is crucial in this relational work since farmers live and work relatively remotely from the market. Additionally she attracts and secures the loyalty of suppliers by offering services and assistance when they arrive with their goods, beyond the more immediate demands of transactional work. She takes seriously her job of hosting suppliers/farmers who travel from the village to the city to sell their produce. She ensures these visiting suppliers are provided with meals, are aided in shopping for whatever they may wish to take back to the village. As she describes it, “I have to settle her very fine.” This means even giving small gifts, “And when she is leaving, you have to give her something…you will buy soap. You have to treat the person nicely, if you don’t, she will not bring the goods because there are so many markets where they will treat her nicely if she takes it there.” In this way Okesie distinguishes her market not by price but by her service orientation.
How critical the mobile phone has become to the work of maintaining supplier relationships is illustrated in an incident. Some years back Okesie’s home was broken into, her phone and most of her working capital (in the amount of about $1000) was stolen. This event led her wholesale business to near ruination. She was forced to rebuild from scratch. She noted, “I remember, one of the phones that was stolen had almost all my business contacts. I lost almost all my customers so my business also went down. I then became a burden to my daughter, so she bought me the [new] phone.” In the period after this theft many of her suppliers went instead to Agbogbloshie and Tema markets. The incident she perceived has had a long-term effect up until today, “…people use to buy so much from us here…if it were to be those days, today being Friday, I wouldn’t have time to even grant you this interview because goods would have been bought in very large quantity.”
Market Prices: For Okesie, price is a variable that fluctuates over time in relation to the seasons. She sees little point in making calls in search of the best price. For plantains, the price is low when it is abundant (come August) and high when it is scarce. She is not concerned with getting the absolute best (lowest) price she can from suppliers. She is rather most concerned with ensuring a supply coming into the market year round. Without plantains to sell she has no way to generate any income for herself. As far as making a profit, she notes that, “I know how much I bought it [for] so I know how to split it to get my money.” Likewise, she suggests, the farmers who supply her with plantains have no interest interest in price comparison, but are instead most concerned with making sure to recoup their “T and T” (time and transportation).
Apart from maintaining contact with suppliers to ensure year-round supply, the phone also has come to be valued for its role in synchronization work. Transportation is hugely unpredictable in Ghana due to uncertain availability, low vehicle quality, frequent breakdowns and accidents, the tendency towards overloading trucks, poor road conditions, and (in urban centers) traffic jams. Okesie noted how keeping in phone contact with a supplier who is en route helps her to avoid wasted time and wasted trips. This communication helps to ensure they are at the same place at the same when it comes time to inspect the goods and for money to change hands.
The very same day of our interview, such an incident had occurred. As she noted, “I should have been here at dawn to receive goods from somebody. But when I call she told me that they are unable to get a car to bring the goods, so they will leave today and get here by tomorrow….I would not have been able to know this if I didn’t have the phone. This will mean that I should have come here between the hours of 3:30am and 4:00am.” The phone thus offers some degree of convenience, lightening some of the burdens and exhaustion of trade. In this way it also likely facilitated overall market efficiency by improving synchronization between suppliers and buyers getting produce (especially perishable goods like plantains) to customers that much more quickly.
Okesie’s philosophy of trade is personal, service oriented, and focused on building loyalty from suppliers. She employs her mobile phone accordingly. Much of the literature on personal relationships and loyalty in trade connects it to the concept of trust. Trust often is understood as having to do with ‘contract fulfillment’ in trade activities. A trusted trade partner is one whom can be depended upon to make timely payment for goods, repay credit, correctly calculate and report price and quantity, and offers truthfulness and transparency about the quality of goods. In countries where the court system does not offer reliable recourse when something goes wrong in a trade relationship, traders are likely to work again and again with the same trade partners (rather than taking a risk on a new supplier). A trusted relationship is formed, in part, upon the accumulation of successful transactions with such regular partners.
In the account of the fish export trader on Lake Victoria in Uganda we offered evidence of the phones use as part of trust-building. The fish export trader used his phone to do remote surveillance on the fishermen to whom he had extended credit, ensuring that they were not selling some part of their fish catch to others. Okesie’s case likewise shows a focus on the phone’s role continuing trade in the existing mode, based on personal relationships rather than transforming trade into a more impersonal and calculative activity. The phone specifically enhanced trust by ensuring Okesie’s availability to receive suppliers at the market when they arrived with their goods.
Okesie’s main concerns were with seasonality, scarcity, and supply. For her, as noted, price was salient as something that varied over time. By contrast the economic analysis of mobile phones in markets has mostly been concerned with price as varying across space. Price may be high or low depending upon supply and demand in localized market areas. Poor information flow can lead to a glut in one market while there is scarcity in another market that is relatively nearby. However, given the out of the way location of the market, Okesie is more concerned with having any plantains at all to sell. Once she has the plantains in hand she can add whatever she has to to the price in order to get her minimal profit.
Finally, Okesie’s mention of phone theft is an important element of her experience, something she mentioned at 3 different points in her interview. Theft of a phone, as many phone users over the years and in many parts of the world have noted to us in interviews, is a setback not only because of the expense of buying a new phone, but due to the loss of one’s SIM card (and phone number) and one’s address book and contacts. In Okesie’s case it was clearly the latter that was more destructive. Her ability to continually enliven her social network, stir up business was demolished since she placed all record and memory of this network in a portable device that could be easily stolen or lost. Her suppliers could no longer reach her and she had no way to reconnect with them. Many phone network companies in Ghana and elsewhere offer services now to do back up address books. This is a critical design requirement as traders come to materialize their trade networks in the phone.
Trager, L. (1981). Customers and Creditors: Variations in Economic Personalism in a Nigerian Marketing System. Ethnology, 20(2), 133-146. – An article on ‘personalism’ in markets in Nigeria describes relationships between trade partners that sometimes go to the extent of involvement in family events such as weddings, etc. The author finds that the more personal ties to trade partners (called ‘onibara’ in Nigeria) depended upon the commodity, the distance between trade partners, and the level of trade.
Jagun, A., Heeks, R., & Whalley, J. (2008). The Impact of Mobile Telephony on Developing Country Micro-Enterprise: A Nigerian Case Study. Information Technologies and International Development, 4(4), 47-65. [OPEN ACCESS JOURNAL] – looked at the supply chain in the cloth-weaving trade in Nigeria. The article asks whether there is evidence following the use of mobile phones of disintermediation (cutting out the middleman) and delocalization (less reliance on proximity in arranging and facilitating trade) in the processes of trade along this supply chain. They find that the role played by certain middlemen who coordinate between weavers and customers remains significant and, in fact, the phone was largely employed by such individuals to consolidate their position rather than finding it supplanted by the phone.
Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness. The American Journal of Sociology, 91(3), 481-510. – on the significance of the nature of the social network in economic activity, trusted relationships, and opportunities to exploit and deceive.