By Tim Sharp
In the early morning a group of women gather around the carpark on the edge of Kokopo’s main marketplace. An open back truck arrives. As the truck is coming to a stop the women congregate around the vehicle, reaching into the tray and touching and inspecting the bags and baskets of produce the rural producers have brought to the market. At times, some women climb aboard the arriving trucks, but the market authority has been issuing fines for this lately. Before the passengers have had time to alight from the vehicle, the gathering crowd of resellers are lifting down from the truck palm leaf woven baskets full of leafy greens and plastic bags of capsicums – jostling to secure produce to sell that day. The prices are keenly negotiated – ‘the capsicums are not big. They are small and green! Now will you cut K5 and price it at K20?’ (Interview, 2017). Eventually the produce is taken into the heart of the marketplace. Each reseller has her own regular selling spot, and her own regular customers that know to find her there.
Such market scenes of women purchasing goods for resale are common throughout the developing world. But this kind of buying and reselling has only recently emerged in PNG’s marketplaces. In the 1960s, PNG’s marketplaces were characterised by the absence of intermediaries and wholesale transactions. Most vendors had grown the produce they were selling. This, among other features, distinguished the region’s marketplaces from marketplaces in most other parts of the developing world where specialist intermediaries were well established. Producer–seller marketplaces themselves are relatively common elsewhere, and farmers’ markets have regained popularity in the West, but they generally sit within wider marketing systems in which intermediaries operate. What is striking about PNG’s early marketplaces is that intermediaries were virtually absent from this wider system.
Intermediaries gradually emerged within the country’s marketplaces during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but over the past two decades the involvement of intermediaries has gathered pace. Today, in some marketplaces in the major urban centres such as Port Moresby and Mt. Hagen, resellers now make up the majority of vendors. And in the main markets in Lae, Kimbe and Kokopo resellers are now a prominent group. The rise of intermediaries, or middlemen has been entangled with other changes, notably the rise of long-distance trading, greater specialization and division of labour, and the appearance of bargaining.
The domestic commodity networks are also increasingly complex. In some networks there are two or three intermediaries now separating producer and consumer. Some of these wholesalers have complex operations with multiple buying agents. They deal in large volumes of produce, and invest considerable sums of money. Intermediary trading is at its most complex in the betel nut trade, but the trade in other commodities is catching up.
The rise of reselling has been driven by a range of factors including urban growth, migration, increasing costs of living, higher demand for domestic fresh food, and growing urban precarity. Intermediary trading has expanded because people have few other good livelihood options, but it equally reflects entrepreneurial innovation and opportunism in a changing economic environment. It has also grown as the practice has become more culturally acceptable.
The sheer number of people dependent on marketplaces for food and/or money means even small changes can lead to significant and far-reaching impacts. It is critical we understand the dynamics and trajectories of change, and how they reshape the contours of uneven development in PNG.
The rise of small-scale reselling and wholesale trading in PNG, and the changing character and dynamics of PNG’s marketplaces, is explored in a new paper published in the Journal of Agrarian Change – Intermediary trading and the transformation of marketplaces in Papua New Guinea.
The publication draws on my PhD fieldwork on betel nut trading, marketplace surveys in East New Britain and West New Britain undertaken as part of the ACIAR-funded project Strengthening livelihoods for food security amongst cocoa and oil palm farming communities in Papua New Guinea (ACIAR ASEM-2012-072), and interviews with marketplace resellers and wholesale traders as part of the ACIAR-funded project Identifying opportunities and constraints for rural women’s engagements in small-scale agricultural enterprises in Papua New Guinea (ACIAR ASEM-2014-054).
Busse, M. & Sharp, T.L.M. (2019). Marketplaces and Morality in Papua New Guinea: Place, Personhood and Exchange. Oceania 89(2), 126-153.
Curry, G.N., Koczberski, G., & Inu, S.M. (2019). Women’s and Men’s Work: the Production and Marketing of Fresh Food and Export Crops in Papua New Guinea. Oceania 89(2), 237-254.
Sharp, T.L.M. (2019). Haggling Highlanders: Marketplaces, Middlemen and Moral Economy in the Papua New Guinean Betel Nut Trade. Oceania 89(2), 182-204.
Sharp, T. (2013). Baias, bisnis, and betel nut: The place of traders in the making of a Melanesian market. In: McCormack, F., and Barclay, K. (eds) Research in Economic Anthropology, Engaging with Capitalism: Cases from Oceania. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 227-256.