The plight of street vendors in African cities

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Rural to urban migration has increased at a phenomenal rate in African cities and is sustained by a number of factors that include climate change, increased urbanisation, access to global supply chains, worklessness in rural locations as well as policy interventions to address some of these issues.

The circumstances of these rural to urban migrants vary, some amongst them are wealthy whilst others are impoverished and as such their primary reason for migrating is to improve their economic prospects.

The latter are unlikely to access formal employment in towns and cities typically because they have no formal education. Their best hope of accessing work is via the informal sector.

A large proportion of the urban informal sector is made up of  street vendors and African women are especially over represented in this category. In the absence of empirical evidence, I would suggest that, this is partly driven by the lack of capital, which in turn puts the possibility of renting commercial property beyond their reach.

Kampala -uganda 1962 photo :

 Cleaning up the city

Having escaped rural spaces in search of a better life, the livelihood of African women as street vendors has come under threat by city authorities that are determined to clean up city streets and urban spaces.

In Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, the task of cleaning up the city fell on Jennifer Musisi, the Executive Director of Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) who took office in April 2011.

Under her leadership, KCCA has cleaned up the city by removing street vendors from the city’s kerbs and pavements , pulling down illegal structures, cleaned up green spaces etc.

Not everyone has welcomed these changes and some have argued that they have impacted the poorest in Kampala. (Here is the link to the song referred to in the linked article)

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It is not only street vendors in Kampala that have seen their livelihoods impacted by the urban clean up. More recently, at least 20,000 street vendors in Harare, the capital city in Zimbabwe, have suffered a similar fate as the authorities their moved to crack down on street vending.

Reacting to this crack down on street vendors, Nigel Mugamu founder of @263chat has argued that Zimbabwe has experienced an increase in rural to urban migration as citizen seek opportunities in towns and cities. He added that

A large proportion of street vendors are women who have increasingly joined their partners in various economic activities to supplement the household income. In some cases, the women have become the only breadwinner. An important aspect of this, the way women use financial resources in a family compared to men. Women tend to use these resources on the family i.e. education for the children etc.

If women are the only breadwinners in a family what will become of such families if street vending is ended altogether. Sustainability expert Christopher Ejugbo has argued that whilst street vendors can be a nuisance in cities such as Lagos, authorities should bear in mind implications for their livelihoods.

 What the authorities need to do is get them (street vendors) organised by having special streets where people can expect them.

Nqaba Matshazi a fellow blogger here and journalist had this to say on the situation in Zimbabwe;

Vending has always been a constant in Zimbabwe and it grew particularly when the country de-regularised its economy in the early 1990s. Recently, the economic situation and the general joblessness, estimated at 90%, has seen more people resorting to street trading.

The main problem is that the government is not sincere in handling the issue, for propaganda purposes, authorities count vendors among the employed, but with a shrinking tax base, the government is now desperate for means to tax the informal traders and that is where the clashes and tensions begin.

Traditionally, it was mainly children and women who were engaged in vending, but because more men are losing their jobs in the formal sector, they are now forced to resort to informal trading. With the informal sector growing, there is bound to be wars for vending space and this makes child and female vendors quite vulnerable.

Jobs for African women

As African city authorities crack down on street vending, is this the end of the line for African women street vendors? If so, where will jobs for poor, urban African women? This question was explored at last year’s Bridging the Gap for African women in business in Kampala.

Some of the key messages to have come out of that meeting were that some of the most vulnerable employment in the country is to be found in the informal sector and that women are overly exposed to vulnerable employment.

It was noted that, the contribution of women in the informal sector to Uganda’s economic development is huge and that this sector provides the greatest opportunity in bridging the gaps in the availability of jobs, however that the government of Uganda has a lot of work to do in order to benefit from the women’s efforts.

One of the suggestions the conference put forward was that, the government of Uganda should work towards commercialising agriculture in order to benefit women.

However writing in the June/July 2015 issue of the European Centre for Development Policy Management ‘s (ECDPM) Great Insights magazine, Cecilia Tacoli has argued that large scale and mechanised farming has led to increased rural to urban migration.

A balancing Act

There seems to be a degree of consensus about the fact that a large number of new jobs in Africa will come from the informal sector and that women are over represented in this sector.

It is for this reason that those charged with planning urban spaces in African cities and job creation need to strike the right balance between job creation and clean urban spaces.

There is a need to acknowledge and address the reasons why African women are over represented in the informal sector. This can be achieved by including women in the planning of urban spaces as well the planning and implementation of development programmes.

It is by listening to African women that policy makers will get a clear understating of what is required to mitigate the abject poverty that most African women still face today. The inclusion of women should be wide and far-reaching and not be restricted to the educated and well-heeled elite.

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