What informal markets can teach your business

Benson Matee cooking chapatis in Mukuru kwa Reuben slums, Nairobi. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Last week, I visited Kangemi market in Nairobi which is hidden behind the vibandas (stalls) seen from the roadside. It was an early morning visit.

Lots of people were walking in and out. The kiosks included just a sack laid on the ground or a wheelbarrow occupied every available space except pathways. 

From the outside, you think there is a lot of disorder. But once you‘re there for a few minutes, you see plenty of order.

One order very noticeable is specialisation. Each trader focuses on a product like potatoes, tomatoes, dhania (coriander), ginger, green maize, sugar cane, and even cooked food such as chapatis.

The size of business premises also matters. There are big ones with permanent structures while most are made of wood or other light materials.

The bigger part of that market is temporary. Not so paradoxical because it also has lots of perishables. Surprisingly, it’s very clean!  The products on sale take care of your pockets in various quantities.

There are big, medium, small or even more classifications of containers. You can buy in bulk or in units.

You can’t leave that market empty-handed!

It seems the market long learned how to handle inflation. And foods for every ethnic group are on sale. Add other merchandise like utensils and water containers.  The men and women walking in and out are not aimless.

They are shopping or passing through the market. You realise that behind what looks like chaos is order.

This is not different from the stock exchanges or pits of the commodity exchanges where derivatives are traded.Something else makes this market fascinating beyond order within chaos, it’s seeing the key actors live - the buyers and the sellers.

And their reactions. The gender factor was well taken care of and so is the age spectrum too.

Even children played around, seeming very much at home. Could lack of childcare be the reason children were there? Our schools are on recess. 

I also noticed freelancers, willing to walk you around or carry your luggage at a fee. They quickly notice the visitors, after all, that’s their home.  

Walking through that market, I wondered where business and economics scholars were. This is their lab away from textbooks. You can see pricing, branding, efficient market, behavioural economics, competition, layout, diversification, hedging etcetera.

A walk through the market takes you through almost all the concepts you ever learned in economics or business, at whatever level. How many of us, schools, businesses or economics have taken time to visit these markets, not supermarkets? Let’s make learning live, experiential and fun too.

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