Marketplace Literacy Programs in Tanzania from 2013 to 2015

Madhu Viswanathan talks with Maasai participants during a MLP class exercise.
Madhu Viswanathan talks with Maasai participants during an MLP class exercise.

The Marketplace Literacy Program has been working with Oikos East Africa (OEA), a conservation and sustainable development NGO in Tanzania, to launch consumer and entrepreneurial literacy in tribal communities. Two of the primary tenets of OEA’s mission are to fight poverty and ecological devastation in these rural populations, guiding its initiative to help find environmentally sustainable methods of economic development.

This relationship began in February, 2013, when Madhu Viswanathan visited Tanzania, met with Mr. Ramadhani Kupaza of OIKOS East Africa, and spent time with the Maasai community. This partnership was facilitated by the Safe Global Water Institute, University of Illinois. In a poignant moment while meeting with a large group of young Maasai men, one man asked Madhu, being a professor from a great university, if he could help the community suffering from extreme poverty. Madhu returned to Tanzania in June, 2013, combining a visit by an interdisciplinary student team for field research with marketplace literacy pilot workshops.

One of the first exercises was to set up a shop and observe the traps that people fell into when either being cheated or not paying attention. People had very rudimentary levels of skill as customers and did not think in terms of starting a small microenterprise. Some had seen a marketplace for the first time only when they were well into middle age. Other exercises included showing a value chain for jewelry, as women in the community were involved in making jewelry, and discussing what is most important for a business.

Maasai participants attend a MLP session.
Maasai participants attend an MLP session.

Maria Jones, an MBA student at that time, then spent a month on the ground in the Maasai village conducting marketplace literacy sessions with Mr. Kupaza, the Director of OIKOS East Africa. When Madhu returned in February, 2014, there was a noticeable difference in the skill levels of those who had participated in some of the sessions and applied their learning. Young men spoke of communicating through cell phones about prices at buyer and seller markets before purchasing livestock for reselling. Women spoke of having a small income to afford better food for their children or a mattress and pillow for their home. The conversation about businesses was at a different level than it had been a few months earlier in that people were willing to consider income-generating activities to a greater degree.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Kupaza visited India to observe marketplace literacy programs conducted there and to participate in a field trip for University of Illinois students. He also participated in the Fifth Subsistence Marketplaces Conference in Champaign in June, 2014.

Marketplace literacy education in Tanzania was launched in October of 2014. Marketplace literacy programs in that area have emphasized the creation of community-based businesses first, which then leads to lessons in consumer literacy. Mr. Kupaza and Mr. Emanuel, our lead instructors in Tanzania, have been arranging educational programs village-by-village. First, they meet with the (male) leaders of the village to explain their intentions and then the village leaders bring women from their communities to attend the education sessions – often, 25 women per sub-village unit. When repeat programs are offered in the same village, women who attended the previous program are invited back to help encourage the new participants to attend the sessions and learn what they can.

A neighborhood shop in Tanzania, where class participants might go for their real-life shopping experiences.
A neighborhood shop in Tanzania, where class participants might go for their real-life shopping experiences.

For the last few months in 2014 and in 2015, they have been conducting educational programs in Mkuru, a Maasai pastoralist village in northern Tanzania. The programs have lasted five weeks on average, with sessions usually lasting six hours one day a week or two three-hour sessions per week. In Mkuru, the first session was conducted in Swahili, Maasai, and English, with subsequent lessons conducted entirely in Maasai. Sessions typically include round-table discussions and question-and-answer periods, and sometimes there are special activities.

One special activity conducted early in the program was a classroom-based shopping exercise. The instructors set up a makeshift store with products that the participants could buy with fake money made from black-and-white photocopies of real paper money. Participants were selected to shop in front of the classroom for specific merchandise. In one scenario, the participant was asked to buy a certain kind of cooking fat, and in the other, the participant was asked to buy the item in the store that she considered most valuable, and take for free the item that she considered least valuable. In both scenarios, the instructor / shopkeeper gave the participant / shopper the wrong item. In the first scenario, the shopkeeper also shortchanged the shopper. After each exercise, the instructor asked the participant to determine whether she received the correct change and the correct item.

A Maasai participant buys  groceries during a shopping exercise.
A Maasai participant buys groceries during a shopping exercise.

One interesting revelation of this exercise was that the participants were unable to determine whether they received correct change. This was not because they could not figure out the math, but because of the imitation money they were using in the exercise. The village women were accustomed to recognizing the Tanzanian denominations by color instead of number; the black-and-white photocopies effectively obfuscated this information. The Mkurus’ method for counting money is similar to other alternative methods encountered by Madhu Viswanathan and fellow researchers among consumers with low levels of literacy in other geographic areas, and demonstrates the ingenuity of people who are navigating marketplace literacy in the absence of more formal education.

The Mkuru women had the opportunity to demonstrate more of that ingenuity in one of the other special activities in the program this spring when they took a field trip to Arusha, a mid-sized city in northern Tanzania. There, participants were directed to conduct research into the clothing industry. This came after participants had chosen to establish a community-based business selling clothing. The field trip gave them the opportunity to visit wholesale shops and determine fair prices for the clothes they intended to sell based on the costs of similar clothing in Arusha – as well as their costs for materials and travel expenses.

Interaction during a MLP class in Tanzania.
Class participants buy goods with play money during an exchange in this MLP class in Tanzania.

In addition to figuring out pricing for their business, the participants also explored options for selling custom-made clothing to order. This option turned out to be less lucrative at first. While they had several potential customers who said they were willing to pay for goods they had ordered, none of those customers actually paid for any of their orders. This may have been a difficult lesson for the participants, but the instructors used the lesson to emphasize that entrepreneurs must make decisions about business transactions without delay; otherwise, any number of variables could change a customer’s decision to pay for something s/he ordered.

Overall, the sessions have been a positive experience for participants and instructors alike. The community-based clothing business initiative in Mkuru is starting to take off, with increasing numbers of customers placing (paid) orders for clothes and others coming in to buy clothes pre-made. Both Kupaza and Emanuel see this as a sign that marketplace literacy really works. They are wrapping up their program in Mkuru and developing an exit strategy that will ensure that the business continues to thrive without their direct involvement. They have also moved on to the nearby village of Engutukoit, another Maasai community near Mkuru, where they are establishing a marketplace literacy program with an entirely new group of people.