I just came back from the open market here in Blantyre, Malawi, my home for 2018, and couldn’t help feeling proud for not getting the “Muzungu discount” I got the first time I picked up a pound of perfectly ripe stone fruit (what they call it here).
On the way back, I started thinking about how a mango market in sub-Saharan Africa can be a microcosm to illustrate the extremes of global economic inequality, a hot topic in Davos at this year’s World Economic Forum. But we’ll come back to that later.
For context, “Muzungu” is the term used for people of non-African descent, and literally means “aimless wanderer”. Locals use the word for people just like me who don’t know when mangoes are in season, or what a fair price is for a pound, or who botch an attempt to say “good morning” in Chichewa, the Malawian vernacular, and end up saying “I have good milk” instead.
As you can guess, the “Muzungu discount” I was referring to earlier isn’t a Thursday special on mangoes. It’s a colloquialism for the higher pricing foreigners get on almost anything that doesn’t have a price tag, which is almost everything in the Blantyre Market.
I’d try describing the market, but that would take a thousand words, so here’s a picture instead:
It was easy to know when I got the Muzungu discount the first time. Last week, when I had returned from the market with my first pound of mangoes, I was met with hearty laughter from my FINCA Malawi colleagues (the microfinance bank I’m volunteering for as an advisor), after I triumphantly announced that I paid 50 cents for my first pound.
I was disappointed, and not wanting to be misled, I was driven by a sense of fairness to go back to exact a fair price. To beat Blantyre’s market, I knew I had to find a local ally. This time my secret weapon was going to be Judy.
Judy is Chris Kizza‘s executive assistant, and Chris is FINCA Malawi’s CEO. Judy and I have adjacent desks just outside Mr. Kizza’s office, a beautifully sunlit air-conditioned bullpen we share with corporate counsel and the Chief HR officer. I suppose he keeps his CFO close, but not too close.
Chris has an open door policy, entertaining at least two dozen meetings a day, which to date may have included a conversation with a certain volunteer microfinance advisor from Canada about appropriate mango prices. That’s just the kind of leader he is – he makes the individual problems of the 500+ people in his organization his problems. Here’s a picture of the office near Henderson Street in Blantyre, as well as a sample of the kind of lovely skies Blantyre has, pretty much all the time:
This time, with Judy at my side, I was confident I’d get the mango prices without the Muzungu discount. I had insider information from Chris Kizza, and I knew a rock-bottom price for the stone fruit (no pun intended) was 24 cents per pound.
The owner of the mango stall I ended up committing to, Ms. Mnesa, put up a strong defence to my Judy-assisted bargain game. In the end, I acquiesced at 36 cents per pound. I purchased two pounds, and gave one pound to Judy as a gesture of thanks. I’m not sure if her facial expression at the time was one of “Mangoes? Really?” or “I can’t believe you brought me out in this blazing 2pm sun just to hassle down 14 cents per pound on mangoes”. It was funny at the time.
Whilst negotiating our way back to the office through the pedestrian maelstrom I started thinking about Ms. Mnesa, and the village in Ntcheu district she said she hailed from (you can learn alot about someone through bargaining). FINCA Malawi has a branch in Ntcheu district, one of its smallest outposts, with seven microbankers managing a modest balance sheet of a few thousand dollars. The stalwart seven of Ntcheu are helping the townspeople and villagers in the area get access to financial services which would otherwise be unavailable, like microloans, and savings accounts.
The muzungu discount = reparations
In retrospect, the notion of my desire to beat the Muzungu Discount seems a bit ridiculous. I think the price discrimination I faced partly reflects the psychology of the locals who desire justice for a very unjust history, which is ingrained in the cultural memory here. A person with a lighter complexion and sporting designer sunglasses is a symbol for the long and painful legacy of colonialism and imperialism.
Paying a little more for mangoes isn’t that bad when one looks at it that way.
To put it into another perspective, let’s take the average income of the villagers in Ms. Mnesa’s district, about $2 per day. When you think about it in terms of mangoes, it looks something like this:
With my paltry tax-free stipend (thanks Global Affairs Canada, and to all of you fine Canadian taxpayers reading this), I could buy a good 200 pounds of mangoes every day and open up my own mango stand if I wanted to (though Pedram’s mangoes doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well as Ms. Mnesa’s mangoes does).
On the other hand, your average Ntcheu villager can afford only 4 pounds of stone fruit if they don’t buy anything else that day. That’s a factor of 50x between me and the villager in Ntcheu, and more like 150x between you and that villager (I’m assuming you’re making $75,000, which is average for most people working in those glass and steel towers in Toronto).
Enough bounty for a billion mangoes
That brings me to Davos. This week, the world’s economic and political prima donnas and primo uomos are meeting at a ski resort for the World Economic Forum, to discuss things that are beyond the pay grade of billions of people on planet earth, but things that will affect those unrepresented billions.
This year, more than ever, the topic of economic inequality is front and center.
And Rightly so. We live in a time where people like Jack Ma (Alibaba’s CEO) could buy a pound of mangoes for me, Judy, Ms. Mnesa, Chris Kizza, and the billion other people in Africa and still have 84% of his wealth left over.
And that’s just Jack Ma.
But don’t take it from me. Oxfam released a brilliant report called Reward Work, Not Wealth, commenting on the state of global economic inequality ahead of the WEF meeting, and if you thought my Jack Ma mango comparison was startling, take a look at these stats:
- Last year saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days.
- Billionaires saw their wealth increase by $762 billion in the last 12 months.
- This huge increase could have ENDED global extreme poverty seven, yes, SEVEN times over.
- 82% of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1%, while the bottom 50% saw no increase at all.
- A 1.5% tax on billionaire wealth could pay for every child in the world to go to school.
But more than you might know, people like you and me, the moderately successful white collar types who are “kind-of-but-not-quite-rich”, are in the same sort of bucket as the villagers in Ntcheu. It’s the poorest of the poor, and 90% of the people in rich, advanced economies that are getting squeezed the most. Take a look at the graph below to see what I’m getting at:
How about them mangoes?