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A City of Fruit Stands

A City of Fruit Stands

Mangoes will never be the same again. Pineapples, too — oh, and the oranges! I had no idea I’d been so cheated all these years, robbed of true pleasure.

My first encounter with the local produce came three days into my stay. Someone brought home a plastic bag filled with sliced mango. They handed me a toothpick, and I used to skewer one of the bright cubes and plop it in my mouth.

Fireworks. Magnificent, sun-blasted fireworks.

Where? The only word I managed to fumble out between my munching.

And their glorious reply: everywhere!

On my first trip, I waited for others to join — everyone who’d tasted had to have some of their own. We went out onto the street and sure enough, there they were. Piles of mangoes in their peels, their avocado twins, and sliced oranges, each given their own tray to make a bouquet of sorts.

A vendor set up shop on every block, and sometimes two even shared either side of a business. I bought three for six cedis — for those wanting to know just how much you’re missing out in the US, that’s just a buck-fifty. Yeah, it’s a crime.

I was in love and unashamedly so. I still find myself sneaking out late at night — less sharing that way — to buy up the day’s leftovers that the vendors are happy to get rid of at even better prices.

But what I couldn’t understand is how all those mini-businesses managed to make enough money to operate. It’s not just the prices, but the amount of vendors. I’ve seen, from my numerous late-night fruit excursions, that most of them still have rather large piles of fruit that they’ve yet to sell. Sure, they can sell some the next day, but simple arithmetic and supply-and-demand have to put some kind of limit on the amount of suppliers.

But everywhere in the city, it’s the same. The vendors are mostly women, and they dominate the storefronts. Others walk along the streets, weaving in between traffic to sell sugar cane and boxed fruit arrangements to drivers and trotro passengers.

I began talking with some of the nearby vendors to find out more, and I was rather shocked by what I learned.

The first lady I spoke with, Linda, sold bananas — called kwadus — across the street from our house. She said she’d been selling fruit for about seven years. Her work schedule is a standard one: Monday through Friday, with Saturday reserved for cleaning and Sunday, for church.

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I asked her how tough competition between the vendors was, and she gave me a confused look. I repeated my question, thinking maybe she hadn’t understood, but still she had nothing to say.

Finally, she said, “We don’t compete.”

Now I was confused. But others I talked to said the same thing.

I soon found out why. I spoke next with the lady I mostly get my mangos from. Usually, she’s all smiles. She waves every time I pass by her stand, even if I don’t buy fruit. But this time, something was wrong and she made it obvious.

I greeted her in the usual way — wo ho te sen? (How are you?)

“Why did you no come yesterday?” she asked.

I told her I’d bought my fruit at a different vendor in the city on my way home from work.

That was a mistake.

She took a step back, and grabbed a woman who spoke better English.

“She wants to know why you would do that,” her friend said. “Do you not like her fruit?”

I reassured her it was incredible, the best I’d had. I was eventually able to explain that I meant no offense, and once I explained the American grocery system her smile returned and she shook her head as if to say, of course, the silly American.

We laughed it off, and I bought a couple extra mangos to show my condolences. As she sliced them, I told her I wanted to understand more.

She, with the help of her friend, said that loyalty is very important in the fruit vendor world. Customers buy their fruit from the same person, usually every day. While they agreed there wasn’t competition between vendors for customers, it is rather disrespectful for someone to buy from a different vendor, especially those from the main city who don’t have to travel as far from the morning markets where most vendors get their produce.

I asked more about the farmers supplying the fruit. They said most of the fruit comes from small farms, where the work is done by hand.

Another woman who owns a restaurant across from the stand butted into the conversation, saying she was sad at the state of farming.

“The farmers now, so many use fertilizer,” she said. “The fruit is not natural.”

She’s convinced that food that isn’t grown completely organically doesn’t have the same nutritional value. For this reason, she only buys mangos grown without fertilizer.

I asked what the difference was, and she went into her restaurant to show me.

She came out holding a mango, just like any other, except it was quite a bit smaller than the ones my vendor sold. She peeled its skin and let me try it. Maybe it was all in my head, but it tasted even better than the ones I’d been buying — slightly less sweet, but with more flavors like citrus.

Her concerns echo those of many in the U.S. fearful of the effects of food grown using conventional methods, defined as the use of herbicides, pesticides, and genetic modification.

I’m fascinated by the agricultural industry, and I’ve written several stories on the state of farming in the U.S, as well as talked with several leaders in the industry.

At the moment, there’s no consensus on whether or not conventionally grown food is better or worse than organic food, but that hasn’t stopped people from becoming staunch supporters of either side.

In a nation on the brink of mass agricultural development — larger corporate farms replacing family-owned operations, for example — it will be interesting to see how Ghana deals with rules and regulations regarding the conventional sector.

The U.S. just passed laws requiring that companies who use genetic modification allow consumers to see which products were modified using a barcode that consumers scan with their smartphones.

This post became a bit of a rabbit hole, but it’s only to be expected from someone who’s tasted the good (natural) stuff and wants more of it.