EDITORIAL: Streamline operations of Kigali city street vendors

Saturday May 21 2016


Street vendors in Kigali are an integral part of urban economies just like in the rest of the world, offering easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces.

These street vendors provide the main source of income for their households. These informal workers have strong linkages to the formal economy because some of them source the goods they sell from formal enterprises.

Many vendors try to keep the streets clean and safe for their customers and provide them with friendly personalised service.

Street vendors create jobs, not only for themselves but for porters, security guards, transport operators, storage providers, and others.

Street trade also adds vibrancy to urban life and in many places is considered a cornerstone of historical and cultural heritage.

Yet street vendors face many challenges, are often overlooked as economic agents and unlike other businesses, are hindered rather than helped by municipal policies and practices.

Low barriers to entry, limited start-up costs, and flexible hours are some of the factors that draw street vendors to the occupation. Many people enter street vending because they cannot find jobs in the formal economy.

But surviving as a street vendor requires a certain amount of skills. Competition among vendors for space in the streets and access to customers is strong in many cities. And vendors must be able to negotiate effectively with wholesalers and customers.

Street trade can offer a viable livelihood, but earnings are low and risks are high, especially for those who sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

Having an insecure place of work is a significant problem for those who work in the streets. Lack of storage, theft or damage to stock are common issues.

By-laws governing street trade can be confusing and licenses hard to get, leaving many vendors vulnerable to harassment, confiscations and evictions.

Working outside, street vendors and their goods are exposed to strong sun, heavy rains and extreme heat or cold. Unless they work in markets, most don’t have shelter or running water and toilets near their workplace.

Inadequate access to clean water is a major concern in as far food vending is concerned.

Insufficient waste removal and sanitation services result in unhygienic market conditions and undermine vendors’ sales as well as their health, and that of their customers.

This calls for urban policies and local economic development strategies to prioritise livelihood.

Most urban renewal projects, infrastructure upgrades and mega events routinely displace street vendors from natural markets, leaving the most vulnerable without a workplace.

Also, basic infrastructure — shelter, toilets, electricity and water — can both improve vendor work environments and make public space safer, more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.