I have always loved the bustle associated with traditional ‘wet markets’ and wholesale markets, particularly in countries like Myanmar where agriculture is such an important part of the domestic economy. They are its beating heart.
For the retail sale of beans, pulses, chillis and numerous other commodities, these are often measured out in old recycled condensed milk cans. For wholesale, more sophisticated metrics may be used, but they are still all ‘spot markets’, with prices set on the day, and a handshake deemed as legally binding as a forward contract.
Most wet markets in major urban settings will be open every day of the week. In more rural areas, the market may shift from town to town, rather like a traveling circus, with an established schedule. Market day then serves as a magnet for other vendors to set up their stalls to cater to those travelling into town from outlying villages.
While the sheer pace of activity at the markets might give the impression of chaos, there is method in the design, not wholly unlike the supermarkets of Western economies. Flower sellers tend to inhabit the main points of entry and exit, selling an amazing array of cut seasonal flowers and perennials. A ‘surf and turf’ zone will be where the meat and seafood vendors congregate, sometimes with snoozing dogs lurking quietly under the tables, patiently waiting to see what scraps might be available by around noon, when the market tends to wind down for the day.
As we have seen in numerous Asian countries, as the economy develops and a more affluent urban middle class emerges, there can be a migration towards the air-conditioned supermarkets. Good news for them perhaps, but for local smallholder producers who rely on the wet markets for their income and are unable to meet the standards and volumes demanded by local supermarket chains, let alone export markets.
This trend has been accelerated by increasing concerns around food safety — including occasional health scares — and the general quality of products being sold. The use of dubious pesticides, fertilisers, chemicals and even recycled lubricant oil to increase output, or the illicit production of plastic eggs and rice grains, as well as tainted babies’ milk have all attracted media attention. Parents worry what they are feeding their children, and look to the supermarkets to provide them with some protection through the imposition of various standards, traceability and rigorous testing.
Reliant on under-resourced government health agencies to perform this role, wet markets cannot compete in this regard, but typically have a competitive advantage in terms of price, the freshness of good sold, as well as the trust that has developed between seller and buyer over many years of commerce.
Nick Freeman is an independent economic development consultant based in Yangon