Compared to markets in many developing countries, Male’s fruit and vegetable market appears tranquil. Visitors aren’t hassled, and the pathways are fairly clean. Nearly each stall presents banana bunches, coconuts young and mature, and bundles of various leaves alongside giant papayas and modest mangoes. A few sport coconut oils and juices for skin, hair and cooking, as well as containers of Maldivian spice mix and a salty fish sauce.
While the market is the shopkeeper’s source for local goods, the rules of competition are personal. “Business depends on your friends–both shopkeepers and customers,” said one vendor. Pointing out the homogeneity of goods available, he explained, “We compete by making sure we have what the other guy has. We don’t lower the price.”
While business is alright, the annual holiday season (October – December) brings a dismal combination–low supply and low demand. In spite of their personal connections, most vendors note that business hovers between “alright” and “bad.”
During the holidays many locals leave the country, and island-based suppliers make fewer trips to Male’. One man said the price of a coconut, one of the Maldives’ most common products, has dropped from Rf5 (US$0.30) to Rf2 (US$0.13). Bananas sell for Rf1 (US$0.06) apiece, versus the shop rate of Rf3 (US$0.9). He adds that most tourists who stop in don’t buy.
Seasonal market trends are a nuisance for vendors, but their complaints mostly lie with the changes imposed on the market system by the Male’ City Council, then Male’ Municipality.
Renovations earlier this year transformed the former sprawl to a plot of concrete squares delineating 176 stalls, available by lottery for three-month periods only at Rf750 (US$49) per month.
Many vendors said they were uninformed of the changes and simply asked to evacuate. Protests against the order were unproductive, and vendors claim the new arrangement has hurt their business as well as their pride.
“People who had worked here for years weren’t given an advantage in the lottery,” said Ahmed Zakariya. “It’s only by chance that they can sell goods, and for three months only.”
Zakariya said the situation had led some vendors to lease out their stalls at a profit.
“Some guys have families, and their whole life is based on this business,” he explained. “They try to lease a stall from someone else so they can sell for longer, but they’re not too happy with the set up.”
Vendors have also turned to their own resources to fix physical flaws.
Although the Municipality provided white tarp covers for the stalls, the sandy pathways were unprotected and rain often splashed into the stall areas, coating products in wet silt. One vendor explained that the blue and patched sheets now draping over the walkways were raised by the men themselves, in the interest of protecting business.
Noting the prevalence of unstable and crumble-prone styrofoam surfaces, Minivan News asked a vendor why the stalls were built out of such impermanent material.
“People don’t invest in improving their stalls because they only have them for three months,” said one man. “Even if you win the next lottery, you may move across the market. So we use re-usable materials that are easy to move.”
Gesturing to his approximately four foot by seven-foot stall, Zakariya added that the restricted stall spaces hurt business prospects.
“Sometimes we can’t keep enough produce in the given space, so we can’t sell as much.”
He said some vendors partner with their neighbors to expand storage and sales, paying a fee or entering into partnership as friends.
Mohamed Manik of Gaaf Alif Atoll believes he is one of the few vendors currently selling solo. He said he makes a monthly minimum of Rf10,000 (US$649), but believes the joint operations make a much higher profit. “They are my big competitors, the ones who have partnered,” he noted, looking around. “But I usually can’t compete, so I just try to make a satisfactory living.”
In spite of the delicate competition for social-professional connections, Manik said people are friendly. But he pointed out that they share a common antagonist: night burglars.
“Theft is a big problem,” said one older man.
Without a security guard or market gate, he said, the market is hard to defend. Pranksters most often steal banana bunches, however he said some coins he had had the day before had disappeared overnight.
“Sometimes the guys who stay here overnight catch the thieves and beat them, and hand them over to the police. But they are soon released, and come back the next day to hassle us,” he said.
“Security needs to be better, the city council should take responsibility. It’s very, very, very very sad,” he concluded.