The Plight of Street Vendors: Economic Survival Versus the Law and Costs

All corners of Blantyre city streets are now filled with illegal vendors All corners of Blantyre city streets are now filled with illegal vendors - internet pic

Street vending is a myriad of implications lamped in one basket. It is an attempt at economic survival for most less privileged. Street vending is also a problem when it comes to sanitation and hygiene. Cleaning cities is difficult. It is also a loss of revenue in daily market fees for district or city councils.

Blantyre, the commercial city of Malawi, has a population of slightly over a million. Like all other cities in the country, urbanization has taken its toll here too.

It is estimated that as of August 1 this year, the city had 732, 518 permanent residents and that only 468,812 of the people living in the city were officially employed.

We estimate, therefore, that at least 600,000 are in informal employment in Blantyre. Blantyre city council runs 31 flea markets. These are designated places for vending.

Aside from providing space for these markets, the city council also uses the same to collect revenue for management of sanitation and maintenance of these flea markets.

But perhaps the markets are too few for those eking a living through vending. Or perhaps the market fees at K250 per day are too high for those vending for a living.

The result has been conflict; daily running battles between city authorities and street vendors. City authorities enforcing by-laws; Street vendors trying to earn a living.

Regina Sagawa is a street vendor in Blantyre. She says the capital for her business is only K10,000. Plying it in a designated market will mean parting with K250 every day in market fees. This, for her, does not make business sense.

This resident of Soche East, therefore, opts to sell freely on the streets.

"You can not go to the market with K10,000 as a start, you will need K50,000 or K70,000 to secure space and looking at my capital, this does not make business sense," she told us.

Ulemu Kammetani is 18-years-old. She walks around the city selling bananas daily. Her whole family depends on the profit she makes on a daily basis to survive. This is a family business. They invested between K7,000 and K10,000.

Selling in a designated market would mean paying fees, reducing the needs for home.

"I go back to square one every time the patrol officers get my goods, and that means no school fees for me and no meal at home. It’s only the three of us in our family and the other one dropped out of school because our parents could not afford.," she said.

The law prohibits wanton selling of goods and services on the street in councils. The idea is to keep places clean and orderly. It is also to allow for revenue collection.

Markets revenue helps the council manage market sanitation and hygiene for the benefit of both consumers and the vendors. But that is being dealt a heavy blow now.

Meanwhile, all corners of Blantyre city streets are now filled with illegal vendors.

And the environmental-risk consequences are evident; poor sanitation. Most street vendors leave the city space untidy, thereby, causing a public health threat.

Spokesperson for the Blantyre City Council Debora Luka says enforcing sanitation is hard for the council authorities. 

"Vendors are all over and it is hard for cleaners to clean the streets when these people are all over the streets," she said.

Local government minister, Richard Chimwendo-Banda, says part of the solution is to establish makeshift markets but that, he says, does not imply the law is selective.

"We don't allow illegal street vending and we will continue enforcing this and necessary action will be taken to ensure that more markets are put in place," the minister said.

Small-scale Business Operators Association secretary general Tennyson Mulumbira urges for dialogue and civic education, so that there is a win-win situation.

He agrees that while the council loses revenue, small-scale business operators lose their capital when they have to ply their trade in designated market places.

"They should find ways of accommodating these people by equipping them with necessary hygiene measures which can allow them to trade freely,"

But while small street vendors are policed by city council officials, others are not. Second-hand-car dealers are plying their trade openly on the streets. And illegally. They have no designated markets. They do not pay market fees. They are not policed

Amos Mtinkhul is a vendor selling vehicles close to the Clock Tower in Blantyre. He suggests establishment of formal trade sites for second-hand vehicles.

Close to 15 million Kwacha is lost in market fees revenue each month in this way. There are at least two thousand street vendors evading these taxes in form of fees. Ben Chirwa is Director of Commerce at Blantyre City Council. He observes that street vending financially obstructs formal businesses such those for shop owners.

Inadequate space and market fees, he argues, will not be an excuse to violate laws.  "We have markets and these vendors prefer to trade outside which is unfortunate that they do not want to go into this space," he said.

For social commentator, Wonderful Mkhutche, selective application of the law in any sphere of life breeds chaos. He says how street vendors are being treated matters.

He suggests development of a long-term strategic plan to end street vending. "We have to enforce and come up with measures that will ensure that there is no selective application of the law and that all vendors are selling in designated places," he hinted.

It is a fact that Blantyre City faces problems of lack of land for city expansion, low income levels, rapid urbanization, lack of housing finance and human capacity deficiencies among others. Street vending is not unexpected.

There is overcrowding, unemployment, sanitation issues, water shortage issues, and health hazards. Mitigating the problem of street vending starts with mitigating urbanization. The way to mitigate urbanization is to urbanize rural areas.

The problem in Blantyre is not only the problem of Blantyre.

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