Positioning Peasants, Artisans and Traders

By Mary Njeri Kinyanjui

Globalization offers an integrated economy in the sense that actions occurring in distant parts of the world affect each other, but this integration has not thus far led to inclusivity or sustainability. Theorists like Joseph Stiligtz, David Harvey, and Jeffrey Sachs, as well as global finance institutions, are developing proposals for a future economy that would promote these basic principles. According to Stiglitz, this new global economy necessitates revised contracts between citizens and their governments. One such contract that desperately needs revision is that between peasants, artisans, and traders in Africa; and governments, development practitioners, and financiers.

The global economy is often viewed as a network of corporations producing and moving commodities between countries and continents. Notoriously absent from this map are the numerous peasants, artisans, and traders who play an active role in the primary production and exchange of goods and services. Situated in marginal spaces of the global economy, these workers are often considered to be at the bottom of corporations’ value chains. Understanding why peasants, artisans, and traders have persisted across the African continent into the 21st century is a key question that development practice must address in order to position them in the new global economy in a way that is both inclusive and sustainable.

In particular, female peasants’ economic marginalization is exacerbated by the long-standing cultural prejudices of academic and development discourse, which labels them as traditional, primitive, and backward. They are further perceived as unregulated or even criminal workers who need to be rescued from themselves through entrepreneurship, policy, and microfinance. Given this climate, their survival cannot be taken for granted. Their role in the global economy must be reimagined.

The history of African peasants, artisans, and traders is very different from that of their counterparts in Europe and North America. In his book The Great Transformation, political theorist Karl Polanyi documents the ways in which craft production in 18th century Europe was taken over by corporations through the power of a self-regulating market, the entrenchment of the culture of money, and the transformation of land, money, and labor into artificial commodities that could be traded in the market. The narrative in Africa has been quite different. Peasants, artisans, and traders have refused to transform their land and labor into artificial commodities. Instead they treat land as a tangible entity that carries its own productive value outside of the market.

The dominant logic behind global economic systems of production and exchange could be enhanced by incorporating aspects of this so-called marginal logic, given how African peasants, artisans, and traders have managed to persist in the midst of global crises and fluctuations. They continue to fight for positions in the global economy by adapting their norms to the current economic realities.

A good example of this is the Githunguri Dairy Farmers’ Cooperative. Founded in Githunguri, Kenya, in 1961, the cooperative began as a group of 31 farmers who, after the bank repeatedly denied their requests for a loan, decided to save money themselves by putting aside one Kenyan shilling for every liter of milk sold. The cooperative membership has since grown to 12,000 members, and provides services to farmers such as education on milk hygiene and management, input stores, group activities designed to address problems of scale in production, and banking. In 2004 their efforts culminated in the establishment of a milk-processing factory, which produces yoghurt, ghee, butter, and cream.

Likewise, the Kimalel Goat Auction has integrated Kenyan pastoral traditions into the present-day national economy. Introduced by President Arap Moi in 1986, the auction based its model on the gatherings of the pastoral communities of Kalenjin, Pokot, and Samburu, who would regularly meet to trade goats. By converting the meetings into official auctions, the exploitation of goat traders by middlemen was reduced, and the goats were transformed into commodities. In 2015 a total of 1,960 goats were sold, with a profit of 18.7 million Kenyan shillings. The auction has attracted others to the initiative, such as the county government and the Kenya Commercial Bank, which has promised the goat farmers loans for self-improvement.

The Dagoretti Plot Owners Association is another initiative that has integrated a formerly peasant-farmer community into the Kenyan national economy. The community members, living on their ancestral land in a Nairobi neighborhood, began constructing low income housing rentals in the early 1970s. Today over 6,000 plots have been built, and they have shifted from relying on farming to real estate housing production. Most residents now rely exclusively on income from housing rentals.

These case studies provide evidence that peasants, artisans, and traders can manage their own systems of production and exchange, and preserve their land and labor as tangible commodities. They have chosen to adapt to the current economic climate by working in collaboration with each other. Most of the production and exchange transactions in these case studies rely heavily on trust, with the rules and regulations set by the workers themselves, who have a vision of ensuring continuity and change within their economy and society. Economic theorists and institutions should therefore start recognizing these workers as significant and alternative members of the global economy.



Mary Njeri Kinyanjui is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Developmental Studies at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. 

[Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer]

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