Retail Around the World: Tanzania
I am starting a new series on Reurbanist about retail in countries around the world. The buying and selling of goods is intrinsically a social activity which offers great insights into the dynamics of culture. Personally, I find observing and participating in this exchange a fascinating process with sometimes surprising lessons.
The first country to be profiled is Tanzania located in Eastern Africa. Tanzania has a population of 43 million and growing. Although one of the poorest countries in the world (average GDP of $1,400 per capita), the country has historically been relatively politically stable. After its founding, Tanzania experimented with socialism with less than stellar results. Today, the market is free and foreign investment is occurring, but currently high inflation is causing difficulties.
In major cities in Tanzania, markets are the largest hubs of commerce and activity. While some do have elements of “window shopping” (minus the windows), most are serious places of business.
In the fish market in Dar es Salaam, freshly caught fish and squid are auctioned to a very intent group of older women.
One of the main markets in the city of Mwanza. Those sacks likely contain ground maize, a main staple of the local diet.
No need to pay rent if you can literally carry your merchandise on you. The woman is carrying a tray of roasted ground nuts and quite skillfully chased me up a flight of steep staircases on a ferry. Bus depots and traffic jams are working examples of capitalism as herds of vendors come out to sell their merchandise.
While hiding from heavy rains in Mwanza, I was asked by some Dutch aid workers whether there were any shopping malls to visit. I tried to explain this question, and the concept of shopping malls, to my colleagues with limited success. However, I did later find out that Mwanza (population +/- 4 million) does have something which could be called a retail centre (not that I would have sent them here!).
In Dar es Salaam, a new modern shopping mall was recently built called Mlimini City. The parking lot is filled with Land Rovers driven by aid workers, and there is virtually no security in comparison with malls I have visited in other African countries. The mall has a simple linear corridor with two rows of inline stores, and large anchor stores including a hypermarket are located behind. I was on a mission to find at least one store in Tanzania that would accept my visa card, and finally succeeded at the hypermarket. Clearly it was an unusual request however as processing the credit card required making sure the internet was working and getting the manager involved. Many people store money with an account linked to their cell phone which they can withdraw cash from easily almost everywhere in the country. With fast internet, imported food products, and an English language book store, the mall clearly was a bit of a “refuge” for foreigners.
Purchasing a Solar Panel
In Mwanza I spent several days negotiating for a solar panel system. The first thing that was immediately apparent to me was that most major businesses (solar panel retailers / internet cafes / grocery stores) were run by locals of Indian origin. I had noticed this on a prior trip to Tanzania, but I hadn’t realized just how ethnically segregated retail was in Tanzania. In addition to many mosques and churches, Mwanza also has a Hindu temple!
Realizing my lack of Swahili and limited understanding of solar panels was putting me at a serious disadvantage, I enlisted what seemed to be an ever increasing entourage to help me scope out systems and prices. We would reconvene out of sight of the merchants to analyze price lists.
After identifying a seller with a solid track record (fake panels are very common), we went to visit their store in person which was located in the same Mwanza retail centre shown previously. Inside was chaotic at first, and I was glad to have such a large group with me.
At the store, we tested out the 100 watt system which gets attached to an inverter and car battery. With the panel working, we paid for the system (quite a process when the largest local bill is equivalent to $6 USD) and carried everything to the bus company office on the same floor to organize transport.
From here, we transported the system 20 hours by bus to Dar es Salaam, and then another 12 hours by car into the interior – mostly by dirt road. Watching the bus driver hit speed bumps at 100km and hour with the delicate panel on board was a nerve-wracking process and we were all relieved when it arrived at our final destination intact.
The solar panel was recently installed and is now operational.
To learn more about what I’m up to in Tanzania, please visit the website of HRLE, an organization dedicated to protecting the legal rights of women and children through training and advocacy.