Trading on the margins: locating continuities of exchange in Guinea-Bissau


Geography and Anthropology

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Guinea-Bissau has experienced more than 40 years of failed economic policies since independence. Simultaneously, a few astute social theorists recognize that this country may in part be governed by internal logics and enduring local power structures that allow for continuity in the face of on-going political and economic ruptures. This article highlights these contours and continuities focusing on the merchant classes of contemporary Guinea-Bissau. How do both immigrant and indigenous entrepreneurs continue to eke out a living in this deleterious west African small state? How are social networks and cultural identity tied to business practices? Findings are based on 19 semi-structured interviews from 8 different locations throughout the country. Representative themes are investment in kin and kind at all levels; reliance on specific cultural and economic expertise; apprenticeships and insularity within homogeneous types of economic enterprises; and finally, long-term investment strategies aimed at profit over professional development, and livelihood and continuity over innovation. This article demonstrates that trading on the margins provides novel opportunities, particularly for locally grounded south-south investors and entrepreneurs, including increased flexibility in dealing with the state apparatus and its functionaries, informality, anonymity, growth potential, and specific micro-environmental knowledge.