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In Syria’s Underground Economy, Trade Agents Circumvent High Prices

With costs of basic goods skyrocketing, many are turning to a network of so-called agents who will buy hard-to-find products in cities like Damascus and deliver them to other parts of the country.

Written by Husam al-Zeer/ Al Iqtisadi and Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

It’s hard to get basic goods in Syria these days. Often they’re not available, or too expensive, or in another city. In the place of traditional e-commerce, Syrians are increasingly turning to a new underground trade network to carry out their daily business.

As the war drags on, many people here, especially in rural areas, have come to depend on traveling relatives and friends who are willing to risk days-long drives on dangerous roads and checkpoints to purchase and deliver items that are unavailable or prohibitively expensive in a given location. Many experienced travelers have now become agents, buying and transporting goods for a fee.

They say the merchandise requested is usually clothes, home appliances and food products. The basic rule is that the merchandise, usually transported in the baggage area on Syria’s traditional micro-buses, should be small and easy to carry. With high-quantity orders, agents make multiple trips.

Many agents are young, able-bodied university students and graduates in need of income.

“Many girls who share my taste in clothing depend on me to bring clothes and other supplies for them, because prices where we live in the countryside of Hama are higher than in the city itself,” says Batoul, a student-turned-agent. “They know that I add a little bit to the original price to cover my frequent travel costs to the city. Even with the added commission, prices are still cheaper than in local markets in the countryside.”

Ziad is a university student in Damascus. Originally from rural Homs, he now transports items between the capital and his hometown.

“Many people from my village ask me to bring goods for them, and that has become a source of income for me. I recently delivered perfume [from Damascus] to shop owners,” he says. “I sometimes give the bus attendant a small sum of money so that he tolerates my overweight luggage, or puts it in a safe place when items are breakable or damageable.”

Mohammed, another agent, has contracted with shop owners in Damascus, supplying them with coal from Hama city. The coal, he says, “is way cheaper there … and I receive a healthy commission.”

Increasingly high prices for basic goods is slowly pushing people away from regular markets and has led them to depend more on such agents. A common saying among those who contact Batoul, Ziad and Mohammed is that “no matter how big the agent’s profit is, the goods are still cheaper than they are in local markets.”

Abu Ahmed, from rural Homs, says his nephew, who works in Damascus, comes to the village on Thursdays and Fridays. “On each visit, he brings me and other close friends the items that we ask for. In return, we give him some money to cover his travel expenses. Clothes in regular shops here are very expensive, and cost 50 percent less in Damascus. Using agents saves us a lot of money.”

Um Rami, from rural Hama, says traditional local markets in the countryside have become useless.

“No one depends on these markets anymore, because everything there is overpriced,” she says. “I ask a girl who travels frequently to Damascus to get me what I need. I save half of what I would have paid in regular markets.”

Mahmoud, who owns a cell phone shop in Hama, says it’s not just individuals: businesses have begun to depend on agents as well.

“There are no real wholesale cell-phone markets in the countryside, because the prices would be too high and we would not make any profit if we were to buy from them,” he says. So “I ask a guy who travels regularly to Tartous, Hama and Damascus to bring me what I need. The prices are reasonable and I can make some profit.”

As their network grows, some agents have begun to buy items in big cities and resell them in their home villages, a take on mobile markets.

Then there’s Um Mazen, who has developed a business in her Hama home. “My son is a university student in Damascus and he knows all of the wholesale centers there,” she says.

“We transformed one room of our house into a showing room for clothing. He purchased clothing for a reasonable price in Damascus and we resold them here at competitive prices. Immediately, people began scrambling to buy these clothes and asked for more.

“Today, we have a variety of merchandise and we have improved our life. We have also proven to those around us that one can sell at low prices and still make profit, which refutes the local shop owners’ claims for why their goods are overpriced.”

Adds Abu Samer, another resident who has followed suit: “I noticed that the prices for used shoes here had risen. I knew some used shoe merchants because of my previous work in Beirut, so I traveled to Beirut and bought some shoes.

“Because I didn’t have a shop, I used a room in my house as a showroom. As soon as people saw the shoes, they started buying them. They were surprised by how cheap they were, compared to those in regular second-hand stores. I sold all the shoes in one month, and I’ll go to Beirut again soon and get more.”

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