Until recently, supplying vegetables, fruit and flowers to supermarkets was seen as a niche area of African export production, likely to involve only a small number of producers. However, sourcing from Africa by European supermarkets has expanded rapidly over the past two decades.
In the last ten years there has also been an expansion in supermarket retailing within Africa itself, led by South Africa but now extending into East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania (Weatherspoon and Reardon 2003). This replicates a global trend towards multiple retailing emanating from the north, also spreading into Latin America and parts of Asia (Reardon and Berdegué 2002). Sourcing by supermarkets, whether in Europe or Africa, will potentially have a profound effect on agricultural production and employment in Africa. European supermarkets prefer to source from larger commercial farms or producer groups that are able to supply consistently high-quality products on a tight but flexible schedule, and in sufficient volumes to fill their shelves (Dolan and Humphrey 2004).
If the same trend is replicated by African supermarkets, this could pose a significant challenge to smallholders and commercial farmers that have traditionally supplied open domestic markets. But demand from supermarkets has led to an expansion of paid work in commercial horticulture. This labour force includes a significant proportion of women, often drawn from the households of male permanent agricultural workers or from smallholder households. In sectors such as horticulture and floriculture this female employment is often temporary, low-paid, informal and insecure.Insecure workers are highly vulnerable to poverty, which is compounded in the case of women who juggle their reproductive role with that of wage earner.
This article draws on research on female labour in horticultural production for UK supermarkets. It examines the effect of supermarket retailing on employment, and the gender implications for temporary and contract workers, with particular reference to South Africa and Kenya. The article also asks how the vulnerability of such workers could be addressed, and whether the effect of supermarket retailing on workers could be harnessed in a more positive way.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.2 (2005) Gender, Work and Vulnerability in African Horticulture