After promises, trucks round us up: The agony of vendors in Rwanda

Wednesday July 12 2017

Women street vendors. The government  has not

Women street vendors. The government has not offered them start-up capital yet. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION 

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June 27 is the day set by the United Nations to celebrate Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) but for Mukamana Beata, it is yet another day to endure the 14km from Busanza to Kimironko and back.

However, as we soon find out, the distance is the least of her worries. Mukamana is one of the several street vendors in the country.

Our first encounter is almost unsuccessful. When I ask to talk to her, she has a mind, fearing I may be a plainclothes law enforcer hellbent on arresting her and confiscating the small basket of groceries she was carrying on her head.

It is only after I send out a “friend” code that she relaxes, grins and puts down her basket.

Mukamana’s day begins at 5.30am, when she sets off for Kimironko, seven kilometres from her home, to replenish her stocks before embarking on the return journey to Busanza.

She walks all the way and back. Walking is as much a cost cutting exercise as an opportunity to meet buyers on the way.

Her daily capital is down to Rwf5,000 ($6) from a peak of Rwf 13,000 (16) after city law enforcers confiscated her stock recently. With that, she buys pineapples, tomatoes and oranges.

“I am just recovering. Everything was taken away while they bundled me onto the back of their truck. I lost Rwf8,000 ($9) worth of produce,” she recounted, adding that, “When that happens, you just stomach it and move on.”

Mukamana’s is not an isolated case. Hers is the typical life of a female street vendor in Rwanda.

Murekatete Jeanette, as yet another example, is finding the trade untenable: The risks keep growing and help is taking long to come yet she has to fend for her two children she’s raising as a single mother.

Murekatete lives in Masaka but buys yellow bananas, avocadoes and other produces from Kabuga to sell in Remera.

“I buy produce worth between Rwf10,000 ($12) and Rwf15,000 ($18), it depends on what I can carry. But the margins are thin, on a good day I can make Rwf2,000($2) but that is if I walk. Without volume you cannot afford to take a taxi,” said Murekatete.

According to 2016 statistics, there were only 1,700 women formally recognised as business operators by the Rwanda Private Sector Federation (PSF).
The rest, who form the majority, like Murekatete, are engaged in the informal sector.

Scenes of police and other city authorities chasing street vendors, some with children on their backs, have been common over the years and still continue, with analysts saying the commitment has tilted more toward enforcement than empowering these women with better trading alternatives.

PSF has tried to train women in business attain marketing skills, branding and packaging, but this has largely targeted and benefited those who are at a higher income level.

Despite pleas from different advocacy organisations for the City of Kigali to refrain from excessive use of force in cracking down on the vendors, the trend continues.

Last year, this resulted in the death of Theodosie Uwamahoro, a fruit vendor who succumbed to injuries sustained during a beating by law enforcers in Nyabugogo.

The city has been adamant saying the activities of street vendors are against business laws and regulations, so they will continue to enforce the arrests.

Vendors have noted that although the government has built some modern inner-city markets for the vendors, it has not offered the start-up capital needed, hence their decision to stay on the streets.

Globally, nine out of every ten businesses are MSMEs.

“MSMEs, whether registered or informal, are central to our livelihoods. They are responsible for more than 70 per cent of all jobs.

They help families put food on the table and send their children to school,” said Arancha Gonzalez, the director-general of the International Trade Centre during this year’s MSME’s celebration.

The women informal traders of Rwanda have tried to adapt to the difficult realities of their trade with most investing in Kitenge cloths — which they use to cover their baskets and eveade authorities.

“We are victimised. You hear of promises for capital and the next thing you see are trucks rounding up people, but you can’t see your child starve, so we go back,” said Mukamana, a mother of four.

Murekatete dreams of staying in this trade but under different circumstances. She is weary of looking over her shoulder while working.

“Even if I could get my hands on Rwf100,000 (119), I would get a stall in the market. That way, I would be able to work without having to worry about detention and confiscated stock,” she says.