Mama mbogas are powerful. Well, you may not know this until you talk to farmers who grow crops like tomatoes, onions and leafy vegetables and sell to them.
The women, scattered in all urban areas, provide a reliable market to farmers who do not wish to sell to brokers at a much lower price.
Therefore, to a good number of farmers, Mama mbogas determine whether one reaps or makes losses from agribusiness.
Based on the position they hold in the agriculture value chain, I took time to speak to a number of Mama mbogas to understand why they are the best bet for farmers and what they look out for before buying produce.
Mary started her business three years ago in Rongai, a fast-growing residential area on the outskirts of Nairobi. She began the business with Sh9,000, money that went to rent and the initial stock, mainly sukuma wiki (collard greens) and spinach.
She would buy a kilo of sukuma wiki at Sh20, bunch five leaves and sell them at Sh10. Out of the 1kg, she would generate six bunches, giving her Sh60 in sales and Sh40 in profit. And from a kilo of capsicum, which has 12 small and medium-sized fruits, she would buy at Sh40 and sell each at Sh10 making between Sh80 and Sh100 profit. Thanks to the profits, she was able to expand her business and start buying from farmers’ directly.
For tomatoes, she currently prefers those grown in the open field more than those farmed in greenhouses, which have a shorter shelf life.
Also when purchasing tomatoes and onions, the majority of Mama mbogas prefer the medium-sized ones rather than large-sized ones.
This is because despite buying in kilos from farmers, them they sell per number of fruits, with three fruits going for an average of Sh10. Besides, a majority of consumers go for medium-sized produce.
Further, when purchasing onions, they consider well-dried bulbs since they have a longer shelf-life. For coriander, short varieties attract them more as compared to the taller ones. This is because, in the short varieties, there are more several plants in 1kg as compared to the taller ones, making more bunches.
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For leafy vegetables, freshness and the colour tops the qualities Mama mbogas look for when purchasing from farmers. Yellow leaves are a turn-off to customers.
Besides, when one buys products that are infested with pests and diseases, there are chances of incurring losses.
Farmers who engage in mixed cropping, with their gardens, for instance, hosting indigenous vegetables such as black nightshade, cowpeas, amaranthus and even tomatoes or onions are preferred by Mama mbogas since they are able to get more from one place.
Like many other traders, Mary buys farm produce in quantities that are adequate to sell in a day or two to prevent losses due to perishability.
Therefore, she visits the farms where she sources produce every day to replenish stocks.
A chat with a number of farmers revealed that they prefer selling to Mama mbogas than brokers.
And this is because of two reasons. The first is that Mama mbogas always buy in cash as compared to other buyers like schools or hotels, which buy on credit. Second, their prices are a little higher. While a broker may offer Sh50 for a kilo of tomatoes, Mama mboga would buy at Sh55 or Sh60.
A majority of farmers find it harder to sell their produce directly to consumers in smaller quantities of 3-5 leaves at Sh5 in the case of coriander or sukuma wiki like Mama mbogas. Therefore, the vegetable traders, who buy in kilos, come in handy for farmers.
Technology has become a major link between farmers and Mama mbogas, with WhatsApp becoming a key enabler in facilitating business.
Like any other business, there are challenges hindering the traders’ ability to buy more from farmers.
The current rise in temperatures is affecting business since most traders do not have cold storage facilities. Produce like bananas, avocados and tomatoes are ripening reaching the senescence stage faster leading to losses. On the other hand, vegetables like spinach, coriander and sukuma wiki are yellowing faster due to the heat.
Mama mbogas work for longer periods as they have to wake up early to get good deals from farms and close business late as they wait for customers.
Transportation from the farm to the urban areas is also costly as they are sometimes forced to use motorbikes.