By Luitfred Kissoly
Since first reported on, back in December 2019, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has swiftly spread globally affecting millions of people. In Tanzania, the first recorded case of Covid-19 was on 16 March 2020. The disruption brought about by this pandemic has affected the entire spectrum of human life, and food systems are not being spared.
In food markets, traders have seen COVID-19 disrupt the very livelihoods they depend on.
“This disease (COVID-19) has really caused a lot of disruption in our business” asserted Haika (45) a female tomato wholesale trader at Mabibo market in Dar es Salaam.
“The disruption brought about by Korona (COVID-19) has really been felt by most in our business. Since the start of the pandemic, business has not been good, and the level of activities here at the market is far lower compared to the pre-disease period”, she added.
The Mabibo market–famously referred to by locals as “Mahakama ya Ndizi” (loosely meaning “the court of bananas”) because it is the largest trading hub for bananas in the city–has always been abuzz with activities. The market is run by an association of traders and is one of the largest food markets in Dar es Salaam, with wholesale and retail trading in a wide range of food products beyond bananas. These include Irish potatoes, fruits, onions, tomatoes, vegetables. Nonetheless, bananas, Irish potatoes, and an assortment of fruits are by far the dominant food products traded in the market.
“I have been a trader here for over nine years,” said Haika. “We [herself and her mother] started small, and saw our business grow, from only doing retail to now doing wholesaling of tomatoes.” She explained how she got started and grew her business, saying “my mother introduced me to this trade, and over time, the market expanded, and there are now more traders compared to when I started doing business here.”
With the onset of the pandemic, in the early days and months, the Government of Tanzania instituted various measures to control the spread of the disease. These largely followed the World Health Organization’s standards: social distancing, wearing of masks in public spaces, and handwashing, among others. Further, the government, for a period, shut down schools and universities, suspended all international flights, and stopped mass gatherings. Although there have never been any lockdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused considerable disruption.
“In the early days of the pandemic, we took precautions such as washing hands and using face masks. The market administrators educated us intensively on ways to take precautions. The guards would ensure that you are not allowed to enter this market unless you wash your hands at the entry. Essentially, water tanks were installed for people to wash hands, and most of us used barakoas [masks],” explained Haika, when asked how they responded to the pandemic in its early days.
On whether the traders still observe the safety protocols, Haika said “I still take precaution, mostly through washing hands and avoiding crowds. There’s fear in me, and most traders are also worried about their health and families, that is why some also wear masks.” Apparently, some traders are aware of the lingering risk, in their day-to-day activities.
Following the outbreak of the disease and the implementation of the various measures responding to it, food traders at the Mabibo market observe that business has never been the same. “Not many customers are coming to the market now,” Haika noted. “I used to have customers who were supplying to hotels, but very few of them are coming nowadays as most hotels have closed,” she added. These experiences are shared by many other traders. Life did take an unexpected turn for Said (23) a young trader retailing potatoes at the market. “There is generally low business activity, and this is felt by most of us food traders,” Said asserted. “Since the pandemic, my business has been on a downward trajectory. I used to retail up to six bags of potatoes a day, but now when I sell two bags, I thank God… and I am not sure of the future. I may have to close business if things don’t improve,” he concluded.
Traders in the market largely depend on their already established network of customers, both large and small. Orders from customers who used to supply to hotels or schools have substantially decreased as most hotels closed business and schools were closed for a period. In addition, the decreased business activity in the market can be attributed to, among others, border restrictions and a subsequent decline in cross-border trade, as the market caters to domestic as well as foreign customers (mainly from Kenya and the Comoros). Essentially, most traders are of the view that there are fewer customers and the purchasing power of the remaining customers has been negatively affected. This is reflected in the decreased orders for most food products.
However, amid all the despair emanating from low business activity, traders are still optimistic. This is because the country did not, for the time being at least, implement strict lockdown measures. Interestingly, despite being aware of the danger of COVID-19, most traders maintain that lockdowns would have made their lives even more difficult. “I really thank President Magufuli that he did not pursue total lockdown. This would have made matters worse as we don’t have alternative livelihoods,” Haika said. Clearly, the government has very difficult decisions; balancing health risks and economic and livelihood impacts. For his part, when asked about strict lockdowns, Said assertively said: “Where would we go? We have to come to the market, if we are to get our daily bread. So total lockdowns would have very detrimental effects for most of us”.
Dr. Luitfred Kissoly is a lecturer at Ardhi University.
This blog is part of a project on “The Impacts of Covid-19 Responses on the Political Economy of African Food Systems”. To learn more about this project, visit its page here: https://www.plaas.org.za/african-food-systems-and-covid-19/
This project is generously supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).