Livelihoods at stake

Paulini Vesikula (second left) with women of Lekutulevu Village, sell their produce in Labasa Market. Picture: SERAFINA SILAITOGA

Rural women market vendors of Vanua Levu and their families are feeling the financial impacts of COVID-19.

Before the pandemic these women used to earn between $100 and $150 a day and could earn more depending on the quantity of their produce.

Since COVID-19 many have seen their income cut in half and they are feeling squeezed as prices for their produce go down, other food prices go up and customers become scarce.

Many vendors on Vanua Levu are now earning just $60 a day – despite facing fewer restrictions than their counterparts on Viti Levu.

Vendors working in Labasa Town have had to increase the quantity of their products in order to sell and attract customers as impacts of COVID-19 have weakened buying power.

For Paulini Vesikula and the women of from Lekutulevu Village, in the hills behind the town, increasing the quantity of products to sell to customers has become a necessity but the prices have remained at pre-COVID-19 levels or worse.

Ms Vesikula said they had no choice but to cut the price and increase the size of heaps of cassava, bundles of cabbages, piles of egg plants and other products so customers are able to buy them.

“Yet we buy these products from farmers at a higher price compared to those times before COVID-19 hit us when the prices were low,” she said.

“For a heap of cassava we will have about seven pieces and sell it for $5 when this should be $7 now.

For a bundle of cabbage, we would wrap four medium sized ones and sell for $3 but now we have included bigger sized cabbages and sell at the same price.

“So we are basically making a loss but what else can we do when we need to sell and earn an income.

The competition is tough now among vendors because we are all trying to earn an income to support our families.”

Ms Vesikula said the weakened buying power was as a result of increased job losses.

“As we know when COVID-19 hit us a lot of people lost their jobs and businesses also suffered so not many people came around to buy from the market,” she said.

“That’s another reason we have increased the quantity of products we sell to attract customers.”

Seini Rayaki of Togaviti Village in the district of Vaturova agreed that market vendors are getting squeezed as wholesale prices for staple food crop increase but the price they receive from customers in the market has fallen.

“We travel to Labasa on Fridays, spend the night and sell our produce on Saturdays before we return home in the evening so before we head to town we budget for our fare which is $20 return,” she said.

“We have noticed that the cost of vegetables and root crops (from wholesalers) have also increased.

Before COVID-19 hit us we could spend $30 for a sack of cassava, $30 for a bag of cabbage and we buy these things if we don’t bring enough from the village.

“But now we are spending about $80 for the same size of cassava bag and $60 for the same size of cabbage bag so the prices have increased.”

Ms Rayaki who lost her husband a few years ago is finding it harder to feed her family as prices of other essential food items — beyond those available in the market — have also increased.

“Prices of food have increased and it’s getting difficult for us because we have very limited income opportunities,” she said.

“In the past, after a day’s sale in the market, we can do big shopping and spend $100 or more on food and sweets to take back home for our children.

“But we can’t do that now because we can’t even earn $100 in a day’s market business so we buy less food now for our families and obviously, can’t spoil our children with sweets.”

These women include those who travel from Cakaudrove Province to sell their produce in Labasa market on Saturdays.

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