George Sekonya gives an update on his doctoral research.

Relatively high unemployment levels in the semi-arid mopane bioregion, have spurred a thriving cross-border trade of mopane worms as a source of income. In the region, South Africa has been the largest net importer and most lucrative market for traders, prompting exporters from Zimbabwe and Botswana to take advantage of this vibrant market and thus became de facto suppliers to the South African market. The cross-border dimension of this trade is however not without controversy. Field work in Beitbridge, Musina, Makhado, Thohoyandou, and Groblersbrug have brought to the fore interesting insights on the informal cross-border trade of mopane worms. George visited these ports of entry, border towns and other key markets in the Limpopo Province, interacting with vendors, bulk traders and cross-border importers to catch up on market trends during the period of relative scarcity in spring. Insights from these engagements are summarised below.

Key issues and lessons from the border

Different actors and roles

Mopane worm trading, like any informal economic activity, comprises heterogeneous groups of actors, often with different objectives. Within the informal cross-border trade, there appears to be some clearly delineable categories of traders. These include vendors, bulk traders and cross-border importers. The well-defined roles of each of these categories of traders appears to be in contrast to notions described in the literature of informal trading being a chaotic endeavour.

Conflict between actors

Preliminary results demonstrate that there is a potentially volatile conflict brewing between local bulk traders and their foreign counterparts. The uncooperative relations between the two groups may point to a potential turf war over customers and market dominance, markedly in Thohoyandou. During interviews, traders ascribed intensifying competition as the likely cause of the tension between the various groupings.

Customs duty

The customs duty imposed at the ports of entry charged by the South African Revenue Authority was criticised as being inhibitory by informal cross-border traders. Although most traders understood the need to generate revenue, the requirement to pay customs duty on mopane worms was seen as an unfair requirement for people who are struggling to make a living.

Formal regulation

Several municipalities in the study area have passed bylaws which require informal traders to obtain vendor permits. Similar to customs duty, this requirement is perceived by some traders as a money-making effort by the municipalities. They further believe that the bylaws do not effectively enforce compliance. For mopane worm traders, this is seen as an unnecessary layer of costly regulation. While there is notable dissatisfaction, almost all the traders complied with and were in possession of the required permits. Nonetheless, they felt that this regulatory framework should be eliminated as it added no value in any way.

Social and personal networks

The social and personal networks within which the traders are embedded were listed as important support mechanisms. For example, trading strategies such as collective trading or stock consolidation to meet bulk orders, information sharing to plan cross-border purchasing trips, purchases on credit and contributing to stokvels, emerged as the most common and important benefits which traders derive from their relations with fellow traders. Some of these networks extend across borders, for example, traders from Botswana and Zimbabwe maintain relations and ties with their South African counterparts for various reasons, including for credit and loan facilitation, and to secure their client base.

Way forward

The next phase of the study will include more fieldwork during the harvesting period in the main source countries – Botswana and Zimbabwe. Of interest will be the insights of the harvesters, intermediaries and conservation officials in the areas where mopane worms are harvested. Some of the issues which will be explored in depth include the nature of the power dynamics and personal relations between the harvesters and cross-border traders, and the forms of regulation in the source countries.