Everything You Need to Know About Bartering Markets in KZN

🕘 12-minute read 

Cake for cordial, spring onions for a pair of tights, and artisan breads so good they could probably fetch an arm and a leg. Bartering is booming at exchange markets in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

What is Bartering?

Bartering, according to my Collins English dictionary, is ‘to trade goods, services, etc in exchange for other goods, services, etc, rather than for money’. My well-thumbed dictionary (which I wouldn’t exchange for all the tea in China) indicates further that the term barter derives from the Old French barater – to cheat.

I found that surprising. Bartering surely involves negotiation and thus a mutually fair outcome? But then I got to thinking about some modern instances of bartering. You know the type I mean. Like a cabinet post for a passage to India or a coal mine. I must confess, though, to having engaged in similar questionable negotiations when I struck a deal with my good friend and hairdresser, Daniel. A haircut for a dozen beers (my husband’s).

On the whole, however, bartering is an honest way of trading that started going out of fashion after the Lydians began minting coins in around 600BC. (One such coin, by the way, can fetch a pretty penny now, up to $11 000, my online search revealed). Nevertheless, bartering survived and is making a comeback as evidenced in the number of exchange markets cropping up in the KZN Midlands. At the last count there were two in Howick, and one each in Tweedie, Hilton, Rosetta, Mpophomeni and Curries Post. Intrigued, I went to check out a few.

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Needs and Wants

Before I went, people were curious about how value is assessed to ensure a fair deal. But as I discovered when I arrived at the Howick Exchange one cold Wednesday morning, value in bartering is seen differently to how the commercial world sees it. “It’s nothing to do with monetary value,” Nikki Brighton, co-founder of the market with Pam Haynes explained. “It’s about sharing abundance. And also what a person might need or want.” Right then, I could vouch for that. I was so cold, I’d have bartered my soul for a cup of hot coffee.

Head to the Midlands for the bartering markets in KZN
Howick exchangers barter at the Miller Street Common.

To illustrate her point, Nikki described one of her more memorable exchanges: a bunch of mint for a Zara blouse. “The blouse was of no use or value to the owner; she’d grown out of it. My mint was exactly what she needed that day.” The notion of need got me thinking of poor old Richard III who, in Shakespeare’s play of that name, cries out, ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ Who, in similar circumstances – horse slain on the battlefield, bloodthirsty enemies baying for blood – wouldn’t offer such an exchange?

But back to a gentler bargaining field, the Miller Street Common where the Howick Exchangers were swopping produce and goods with nary a thought to cash, and without any unseemly haggling. Amid frolicking dogs and children (neither up for barter, the parents pointed out), beautiful home-made artisan bread was snapped up for equally beautiful home-grown beetroots. Cakes were swapped for cordials, locally grown seeds for books, lettuce for lemons, kitchen utensils for tree tomatoes, spring onions for a pair of tights, a naartjie for a hug.

Growing a Sense of Community

“Money becomes an obstacle to the true value of something,” Nikki said, spreading out her wares on the ground. “There’s huge worth in the time it takes to grow produce, or harvest seeds, or bake.” Having spent more time than I care to quantify slaving over a hot stove, I couldn’t agree more. “Remove the money and exchange becomes pure joy,” Nikki remarked.

It certainly seems so. Bread baker Carol Addis, who lives in Lions River ten kilometres away, said, “The barter market is the best thing that’s happened to me. I knew no one in Howick until I started attending the market and began making friends with many like minded people.”

That sense of community is what the exchangers at the Hilton Produce Exchange emphasise too. “Every community should have a barter market. It’s so fulfilling to spend a morning with like-minded people,” said Kevan Zunckel, whose wife, Karen pioneered Hilton’s market.

Get to know your neighbours better at the bartering markets in KZN
Karen Zunckel, pioneer of the Hilton market, with her daughter Jessie and husband Kevan.

“I’d wanted to do one for a long time but wasn’t sure if anyone was growing food in our town,” Karen explained. “I put a message on the Hilton Facebook page to gauge if there’d be any interest. Within 24 hours there were 200 responses.” The weather was appalling for the first market and Karen was sure no one would pitch up, but people did and, nearly three years later, the market is going strong.

A key feature is the seedling stand facilitated by NPO iThemba, an organisation founded to uplift the nearby community of Sweetwaters. The organically grown seedlings are part of a programme to improve nutrition in Sweetwaters, encourage community members to grow food, and create sustainable income. Karen hopes Sweetwaters residents will, in time, also bring their vegetables to barter.

Meanwhile, other local growers barter exceptional fresh produce like the most splendid cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers, and oyster mushrooms I’d ever seen and that I wanted with all my heart right then. I had nothing to exchange though, other than an unopened packet of fishnet stockings a friend (I hope she’s not reading this) had traded me for a piece of chocolate cake days earlier. The stockings remained in my car, though. They didn’t seem appropriate to the occasion.

But I was lucky. Kevan explained that, while bartering is preferred, it’s not always practical and cash is then permitted. I was thrilled. Those veggies outclassed anything you’d find in a regular commercial store.

“As an environmentalist, I’m very aware of the commercial world and the rut humanity is in,” Kevan said, adding that a community that trades not only in goods but knowledge and skills offers a more sustainable way of living. He described helping someone out with his beehives and, in return, being given “a bunch” of chickens to take home. Those chicken eggs are now among the produce Karen and Kevan bring to the market. On my visit, a dozen fetched a heap of fabulous oyster mushrooms.

A Way of Life

Bartering as a way of life is a message I heard again when I attended Barter it Bru at Tweedie. The oldest of the Midlands’ barter markets, it celebrated its fourth anniversary on the day I visited. Says founder, Sarah Derrett whose artisan breads are so good they could probably fetch an arm and a leg, “In the Dargle Valley where I live, we barter among ourselves all the time.”

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Regular market-goer, Norma Bode echoes that. “I’m part of a WhatsApp barter network and we exchange whatever we have, be it skills, produce or goods. Even my son, who has a traditional barber shop in Hilton, often exchanges haircuts for products or professional advice.” I didn’t ask if beers ever entered the equation.

At Tweedie that morning, the convivial group swapped bread for horse manure, avos for pickled walnuts, cake for organic salad packs, scones for seasonings, clothes for Jersey milk and cottage cheese. Other items went for a song, Gary Battersby playing his guitar to entertain us all.

Sharing abundance is the philosophy of the bartering markets in KZN
Sarah Derrett, founder of Tweedie’s Barter It Bru market, trades a loaf for manure.

As with the other two markets, the emphasis is on community, sustainable living, organic fresh produce, and knowledge sharing. And everyone present seemed to walk that talk. Belinda Hay and Emil Cloete, for example, are farmers who focus on permaculture training and developing holistic, organic systems of food growing. Similar ideals inspire a new venture Sarah has set up in a blue wood cabin not far away on the R103. “The Growcery Store and Farmacy,” she says, spelling out the words, “is an organic community co-op that supplies a reliable source of truly organic fresh produce with barter options provided.”

Sounds like my kind of place and one for which I’d swap malls, mass-produced goods, and wilting, shrink-wrapped vegetables any day.

Where to go

  • Howick Exchange: Miller Street Common on Ridge Road. Second Wednesday of the month 8.30-10am and the last Saturday of the month 9.30-11am.
  • Hilton Produce Exchange: James Craib Park, 3 Committee Lane, Hilton. Third Saturday of the month 9-10am.
  • Barter it Bru: Tweedie Junction (where Full of Beans Coffee shop is) First Saturday of the month 9.30-11am.
  • Contact Facebook: Midlands Barter Markets

Words and Photography Andrea Abbott

Leigh Hermon

A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.

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