OPINION: Surviving in the market place

Sunila Wati, 56, from Qalau settlement on the periphery of Rakiraki Town has been a market vendor since 2004, a pioneering member of Rakiraki Market Vendors Association. Picture: SUPPLIED

As some Pacific island nations reverse COVID- 19-related restrictions, states are beginning to shift their focus on rejuvenating their economies. This focus will need to recognise the disproportionate way women and girls are experiencing this global crisis, including impacts such as the increased rates of domestic violence and job losses.

Expert projections warn of a 4.9 per cent decline of the Fijian economy this year, with projections assuming effective containment of the pandemic and the resumption of tourist arrivals relatively soon.

The impact is affecting the supply and transport of goods and services, government revenue and expenditures, businesses and eroding consumer confidence, with people saving more and buying less.

A COVID-19 Response Gender Working group formed by Fiji’s Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation recently undertook a rapid gender analysis with multiple development stakeholders that included the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office (MCO).

The analysis found that 40 per cent of rural women in Fiji work as farmers or as farm labourers. Entitled “Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on Women in Fiji”, the report noted that women earn 25 per cent less than their male counterparts.

As many as 85 per cent of market vendors in Fiji are women, 61 per cent of whom are between 46 and 75 years of age. About 50 per cent of Fiji’s market vendors are selling what they produce (vendor farmers).

The report stated that 21 per cent of women market vendors remain unbanked; some who resort to moneylenders pay as much as 28 per cent interest for their loan. Market vendors have indicated that they are suffering from reduced trade because of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is intensifying underlying inequalities in our economy, with women being hit hardest through the economic and health crises. Women vendors or farmers are having to deal with increased economic vulnerability due to limited savings, pension contributions and access to financial resources.

COVID-19 has brought to the fore food security and nutrition issues. Women vendors also face a greater risk of gender-based violence.

Keeping food on the table

Varanisese Maisamoa, the president of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association, suggests the prioritisation of cash or grant support and psychological support for women vendors as two forms of immediate relief.

Ms Maisamoa said the cash grants would keep their businesses afloat. Psychosocial support would address the stress that women are experiencing as they worry about feeding their families while trying to survive as businesswomen, Ms Maisamoa said.

Rakiraki is on the north-western coastline of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu. With hotels around Rakiraki shutting down, there is now no market for selling her handicrafts. This has forced her and other vendors to travel to larger markets, just to make ends meet.

“I’m now back to selling vegetables. I travel to Suva on Thursdays to sell them. I stay there until I’ve sold everything. I let my relatives know the days I will be at the market, so they come and buy. If we sit in Rakiraki, most of these vegetables will go into the bin.

“But in going to other markets, we are spending more and a cash grant would help our business keep afloat,” Ms Maisamoa said.

Apart from supporting transport costs to other markets in the hope of making some money, a cash transfer would also support additional expenses.

In addition to rent and bills, Ms Maisamoa for example has had to buy an internet dongle so two of her children who are attending university, can follow their online modules, research and submit assignments. Ms Maisamoa spends an additional $F50 for weekly data replenishment.

As the president of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association, Ms Maisamoa hosted an informal gathering of all women vendors in June, utilising the resource and training centre within the new market complex.

The women shared what they were going through, both as businesswomen and as mothers, for whom ensuring there was food on the table was becoming more difficult.

For Ms Maisamoa, hearing the shared experiences in a safe space affirmed the need to address mental health.

“As women,   have the burden of ensuring our children have something to eat, apart from other commitments and these weigh on us heavily. I just wanted us to meet. I just wanted us to encourage each other but as I listened, I knew we needed a professional to come and speak to the women,” Ms Maisamoa said.

“We have become creative in ensuring we remain afloat. The Markets for Change [Project] financial literacy training taught us how to save and how to manage whatever we have. The confidence it instilled in us, where we now see ourselves as businesswomen, makes us determined to survive, we must, but for now, we need help.

“Women in Rakiraki are resilient, we bounced back after (tropical cyclone) Winston and we will survive this too. However, after Winston, there was demand so we could stay and survive.

“This time, we have our produce out, but no one is buying. Business has never been so slow. Income has been interrupted and food security has become a real issue.”

Ms Maisamoa said the official opening of the new Rakiraki Market has been positive for residents, particularly women vendors. The market is spacious and clean.

She says it gives them a sense of security, of safety.

“There is hope in having this new building. It reminds us that one day all this will end and Rakiraki will become a bustling market again, with our residents, tourists and hotel operators returning for their vegetables, handicraft, fish, rootcrops, etc,” Ms Maisamoa said.

Building better from within markets

The new market is significantly larger with 307 stalls (180 more stalls than the previous market).

The Australian Government, through the UN Women’s Markets for Change Project, invested $F3.2 million into this development complementing the Government of Fiji’s investment of $F3.1m.

The completion of the new market is a critical step towards stimulating increased economic opportunities in Rakiraki, benefitting all vendors, their families and contributing to rural livelihoods.

With women comprising 75 to 90 per cent of market vendors in the Pacific, their voices are critical in infrastructure development. Members of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association were consulted throughout the design phase of the market.

The market has enhanced amenities, including a market management office, improved water and sanitation, ventilation better lighting and more importantly, is disaster-resilient – it can withstand flooding and is Category – five cyclone resistant.

The new market building also has space for the municipal council to develop commercial offices as a source of revenue.

For UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office, Markets for Change is a project that intersects key priority areas for gender equality, an enabling environment for nurturing women leaders through strong market vendor associations.

Markets for Change is principally funded by the Government of Australia’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development (Pacific Women) program, and since 2018 the project partnership has expanded to include funding support from the Government of Canada. UNDP is an implementing partner.

“The Markets for Change project is also important because it reaches women that more traditional projects do not reach – women from rural areas and those working in the informal sector.

Markets are sources of food security, economic activity and livelihoods … critical to small island economies.

When markets prosper, so do communities,” Sandra Bernklau, the UN Women Representative said.

As a common space where we converge as Pacific communities, marketplaces can be effective platforms for building back our livelihoods. Keeping Pacific marketplaces open will be critical for women market vendors like Vara, and critical for addressing the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19 on Pacific families.

The resilience of the women vendors we work with have been remarkable.

Keeping our marketplaces open has never been so important. It remains a space of economic activity and a central platform from which COVID-19 recovery and response can continue to be effectively provided.


 Ariela Zibiah is the  Regional Knowledge Management and Communications Specialist (Markets for Change Project). The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily the views of this newspaper.

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