Fishy business in the Fish Market – a tale from Maputo

If you have been on a project implementation support mission, you know the feeling of fulfillment and relief that one gets when the Aide Memoir has been written, discussed and agreed upon by the project management team. You generally feel that you have added value and have learned something new in the process. It is on a day like this, on a mission to the Rural Markets Promotion Programme (PROMER) in Mozambique, that our team leader, Claus Reiner, also the Country Project Manager, suggested we take an evening off to have dinner as a team.

The members of the team who had been to Maputo before suggested a visit to the fish market and off we went! The market has stalls with all sorts of sea food – fish, crabs, prawns, etc. It is a rather basic market, some kind of make-shift roof over the stalls, made of old tarpaulins and an assortment of sisle bags. I expected there would be a fishy smell, but I thought the market, being in the capital, would be more modern.

One of our colleagues who lived in Maputo for two years - entertained us with tales of how slippery the market vendors are, and their custom of cheating you several times over if you are not careful or in company of a local person. Everyone was thus alert and ready to make sure that we got value for their money.

The first stop was in the stalls where you buy your choice of fish and other sea food. The ladies have electronic hand held weighing machines and so we begin to think ‘these can’t be messed with, surely?’ and with some confidence, two of us begin to make orders for the rest of the team. Every kind of fish, ‘camarai’, crabs, prawns, squid, etc selected is carefully weighed. Not to be out-witted, the two decide to re-weigh the goods on someone else’s scale. To everyone’s surprise, the second scale shows much higher weight than the one for the seller, meaning that we have to pay more money. They quickly rush back to the original scale, weigh again, and decide to pay.

Feeling a bit comfortable that we have not been cheated, we walk to the restaurant right next to the stalls where the fish is supposed to be prepared. In the restaurant, there is another weighing scale so our representatives decide to weigh the goods again! Guess what? They are all less than what we have paid for (at least we knew how much a kilo of the different kinds of fish bought cost).

We see our two colleagues rushing out of the restaurant where the rest of us have taken seats on the verandah and ordered some drinks, back to the market stalls. They explained that they went to the guy who sold them the biggest fish, and told him that the restaurant scale shows something else and managed to get back 250 meticai (the Mozambique currency). Then they go to the lady who sold the lulus and ask for refund. She carries the extra lulus to the restaurant where upon seeing the original goods she sold weighed, says that “that weighing scale has malaria” and walks out. The guys, in hot pursuit run back to the market to get the third lady who sold the king prawns, only to find that she has disappeared away after seeing her two colleagues being followed up to pay up.

“All is well that ends well” Finally the two team members accept defeat and take their seats. They have understandably been worked up by the whole process and all they need is a beer, and for the food to get ready quick. The food does come, after about fourty-five minutes and looks delicious! Those who get to eat it confirm that it is great – worth the hassle! Two of us planned to have chicken because we do not really like fish.  

The discussion, as we eat is - about the whole unfortunate business of not being able to trust anyone, and yet business essentially, should be done with a healthy measure of trust. Unfortunately, everyone agrees that this is not something that happens only in Mozambique, but it is a worldwide problem. Actually, someone gave an example of how in the developed countries, cab drivers will take advantage of tourists who do not know the rates by charging them exorbitant prices for short distances. For people who have been working on a project that promotes markets and access to markets, this is one other aspect that we realize has to be emphasized.

The other questions are, is there a standards bureau in Mozambique? Is it possible that that institution can change the measurement standards aspect of the way business is done in the fish market? When traders are trustworthy, they will have more customers visiting their stalls regularly and more frequently. They can ensure a steady, regular income, and expand their businesses just by working towards making their clients have confidence in their scales. Doing business is about building a good reputation. Has anyone tried to explain this to them? Has anyone bothered to combat the cheating by making use of scales that are tampered with illegal and holding the perpetrators liable or maybe encouraging and rewarding those that are trustworthy? Just a thought - for development partners out there, looking at improving livelihoods of small scale traders.