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Survival of the fittest: Making a living in wet markets

Gone are the days when anyone could freely head to a public market to purchase fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables. With community quarantine measures in place, many livelihoods have been upended. Eight months on, and the many businesses in the country are still struggling to adopt solutions to survive an economy in recession. Among the hardest hit livelihoods are wet market vendors who rely on the general public coming to their stalls. To lessen the risk of infection, many have instead turned to online grocers to source their produce.

As the country continues to grapple with a declining economy, where does this leave wet markets vendors across the country?

Overcoming struggles

Kadiwa market was once the heart of the city. Situated in the basement of SM Marketmall Dasmariñas, it was a busy place—women walking around with bright red shopping bags, frantically fanning themselves in the heat. Children would run by the packed stalls, distracted by one shiny toy after another. The market was the place to go to for the freshest meat and vegetables, where you would regularly run into your neighbors and where the vendors had familiar faces. 

Christina Nica Zantua has been running a market stall at Kadiwa for 20 years. However, with strict quarantine guidelines having shut down public markets, like many business owners today, Christina turned to Facebook and created an online market stall. Kadiwa Online Market Dealer lets consumers shop for fruits and vegetables to be delivered at their doorstep. “We always check and inspect to ensure that the products that we bought are safe and fresh upon buying and paying for it,” she explains.

Similarly, for Beth*, her Cebu city-based mobile palengke was a response to continue making a living with what people find necessary at this time. “So katong pag-abot sa lockdown, didto mi nagka-idea nga [mag-mobile palengke, kay] wa man mi’y laing source of income kay gi-close man ang mga tindahan.”

(When the lockdown started, a lot of establishments were forced to close. That was when we got the idea to start the mobile palengke because we had no other source of income at the time.)

She used to sell clothes and jewelry in her ukay-ukay, but soon realized that selling food was a wiser decision.. “Nag [huna-huna] mi kanang, unsay need jud [nga] necessary sa mga tao—unsa jud ilahang kinahanglan. Mao to nga nag-try mi [magbaligya ug] mga ginagmay nga [mga] gulay. Hurot hurot man!” she shares.

(We thought about what people really needed at the time, and we decided to try to sell small vegetables. They were sold out quickly!) 

To be able to sell in subdivisions, Beth had to email a proposal to homeowners’ associations. “[Kailangan] ang pag-endorse ug letter sa mga subdivision…aprubahan sa mga [subdivision officials]. Pero pag nakasulod na, wala na’y [problema], mu-follow lang ka [sa] unsa’y ilang i-implement, [ug] mu-follow lang ka sa mga rules nila,” she explains.

(We had to get letters endorsed to the subdivisions and have them approved. But once that’s approved, and we get to go into the subdivisions, you just have to follow the rules that they implement.)

No easy feat

Beyond the low turnout that has resulted in little to no sales, vendors have also had to face shrinking profit margins that dwindle their already reduced incomes. Forced to seek other ways of earning a living, vendors are put at risk of being exposed to the virus.

For Beth and her family’s mobile palengke, this has become an everyday occurrence. “Some people even tell us, ‘This thing you’re doing, it’s a danger to your lives. You know that there’s a virus around and yet you go around like that,’” she imparts. 

There are a number of protocols in place to ensure their safety, such as designated operating hours, ‘no mask, no entry’ rules, and contactless payments. However, Christina notes that these health and safety protocols are not strictly enforced. “The [enforcement of the] policy is the biggest problem in the market because not everyone follows it,” she laments.

The future is mobile 

Makakita man gyud sila [sa] actual na amo ginabaligya,” Beth notes on the advantages of operating a mobile palengke. As a result, their family income escalated since their transition to mobile palengkes because of the convenience and quality it offers to consumers.

(The customers get to see first-hand what we sell.)

Hard work and sacrifice are truly their only way to establish trust with their customers. “Ma-door-to-door jud nimo sila ba. Kay uban nga [mga] subdivision [customers] namo—kana bitaw ginatuyok namo ang sakyanan—so makakita jud sila [sa mga gulay ug prutas]; maka pili gyud sila,” she shares.

(For the subdivisions that we visit, we really bring our mobile palengke around the place, going door-to-door and visiting each house. So they can really see the produce and choose the best ones they want.)

All things considered, things are going well for Christina. “[Our] online market increases our sales and we gain more customers or attract them. It is very helpful in this kind of situation.” However, she notes that it is necessary to innovate and improve services to ensure customer loyalty: she aims to expand Kadiwa’s Facebook store, and explore more user-friendly contactless payment methods.

Despite the rise of online markets, Christina believes that there will always be a need for traditional market selling, as it caters to certain sectors who do not have access to online markets. “Traditional [markets] will always remain in our history,” Christina emphasizes.

Forging ahead

Beth shares that purchasing from wet market vendors would be a big help to their livelihoods. “Buying our goods is more than enough. Because we add our own mark-up to the goods that we buy from suppliers; we earn an income. We can also help them because they can stay safe and avoid going to markets,” she shares in a mix of Cebuano and English.

With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, the plight of our wet markets may go on for a longer period than any of us could hope for. For the time being, wet market vendors are continuing to carve a path through the storm. As Christina suggests, self-discipline and following pandemic protocols are ways to alleviate their struggles. “We have been in the same situation and it is very hard for us,” she admits.

Like many Filipinos, Christina and Beth hope for a day when things would be better. But like many things, this is out of their hands. All the two can do now is survive. 

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

By Bea Cruz

By Angelo Emmanuel Fernandez

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