By David Chishimba Association of Unemployed Youths President
Almost every research which has ever been carried out suggests that street vending should be legalized and factored into the developmental agenda.
It made a very sad reading on Saturday, 23rd October 2021 when Iness Munyeme, a woman in Kitwe was arrested and charged K200 for buying five bananas worth K10 from a street vendor. This implies that only people with a lot of money to afford licenses and own shops have the right to trade. It’s a world apart as we witness the rich getting richer and the poor subjected to conditions that can only make them poorer. Street vending is an entry venture for the poor who are unemployed and sometimes with little or no education. Therefore, outlawing this venture, which is ubiquitous in every developing nation across the globe, is not only abrogating the human right of the freedom to trade and compete openly but also not in tandem with the government’s developmental agenda of not leaving anyone behind. What a way to fight poverty!!
The official unemployment rate in Zambia is 11.4%. Statistics show that 80% of all employed people are in the informal sector and street vendors occupy about 70% of all non-agriculture informal jobs. Street vending is an occupation for the poor as it creates easy access for self-employment as an alternative for the unemployed. Despite their importance to local economies, street traders operate in challenging environments that limit their productivity potential, the decency, and sustainability of their businesses. Governments need to play a central role in improving the quality of work in this sector through policy formulation and implementation, particularly that it constitutes a large proportion of the nation’s workforce, and provides goods and services to so many people.
Regardless, Zambian authorities together with the majority of the population and major policy and law influencers hold the view that street trading is a nuisance because they associate it with chaos, congestion, and insecurity as they share the presupposition that they are disorganized and difficult to regulate.
The general perception is that the conditions in which vendors, for example, those who sell food, operate in make them and their customers prone to an array of sanitation-related diseases such as cholera and dysentery; vending may also lead to various environmental hazards such as flooding due to excess litter in the precincts of the city. Garbage becomes problematic for the local council as well.
Additionally, street vending also interferes with the formal economy by taking away buyers from off-street shops and lowering prices for merchandise. They Sell low-quality products to customers and they offer no warranty for their products to buyers. The congestion created by street vending makes it difficult for both pedestrian and vehicular traffic to navigate around town. Vending can also contribute to street crime as people crowd together. They evade Tax or levy collection And make noise as they sell merchandise.
If the above situation is the case, then why bring up the topic? Clearly people shouldn’t die because it creates employment right? Now here is the case.
Street vending is ubiquitous – meaning, it’s everywhere, not only in Zambia but the whole of Africa and also predominant in other developing countries outside Africa. No matter the number of policies and laws we can put up, it will still be there because street vending is an occupation mainly for the poor and vulnerable. Lack of adequate employment opportunities in the formal sector, a faster rate of urbanization, and high poverty levels in Zambian cities have driven many citizens to seek a livelihood in the informal sector and street vending creates the only easy way of making a living for millions of Zambians. It’s a very important employment opportunity for youths, women, anyone with very few resources, and the least-skilled people. Based on measurement by the absolute moderate poverty line of US$3.10 per capita per day, 95 percent of all workers from poor households are informally employed while 75 percent of informal workers are from poor households.
Street vending is only regarded as a big problem because authorities want to get rid of it as opposed to coordinating and cooperating with stakeholders. If authorities regarded street vending as a solution and a key factor in the micro economy and factored it in national development frameworks, the approach would change. Instead of outlawing street vending, the government should formulate policies aimed at formalizing the venture. This will turn vendors from being enemies of the state into partners and end the long war between vendors and authorities. Compliance levels would increase as street vendors would have the mentality that the government is looking out for their best interests.
Most of the resistance to policy direction and implementation by the government is due to the fact that Street vendors think the government is being hard on them because they are poor and government officials don’t understand what they go through. They think all that government wants to do is to get rid of them, so insecurity and uncertainty crop in because they don’t know what the future holds for them. In Zambia, street traders are usually occasioned by confrontation with local authorities, and in the end they lose their products and money which they had spent months or even years building in a blink of an eye. So they usually buy their freedom by bribing council officials to survive.
Street vending although categorized as part of small and medium scale enterprises, it has never received the legal and policy recognition it deserves. Policies of the informal economy should take into account the nuances and heterogeneity of the sector, in that, governments should come up with more inclusive policies that will accommodate all traders according to their practical needs and not perceived needs such as building formal market infrastructure for all. In any business, accessibility to customers is key, more especially for street traders, that is why this direction has failed to work for many years.
The inclusion of street vendors into the national developmental agenda should begin with the issuance of IDs and the prescription of a uniform. The selling of IDs by the government will raise a lot of revenue for local councils. IDs should contain the name of the vendor, phone number, and address.
Producing such IDs will allow authorities to have an account of all the vendors and hence will reduce criminality and tax evasion because just entering their NRC or ID number would bring all the relevant information about them including tax compliance. This would also increase the confidence levels which customers would have in them because they would know that should they be tricked into buying defective products, the vendors could easily be traced. Having a uniform will make it easy for easy recognition both by authorities and customers as people who are complying with the law and cooperating with government institutions.
Such interventions will also increase confidence levels with financial institutions and will be easier for them to access financial services such as loans. This will also make it easier for the government to provide empowerment such as capital or skills development because they will be dealing with an organized informal sector.
Some people are worried about the congestion of street vendors in pedestrian facilities, street vendors will be free to operate anywhere but not everywhere. They will be operating in designated locations. This system will increase compliance levels and reduce vices like throwing of litter anyhow. It will also reduce theft because only genuine street vendors such as hawkers will attract customers.
Street vendors and shop owners have always coexisted and have always both made profit, in fact a lot of street vendors are agents for shop owners. Besides that, a lot of people still prefer to buy items from shops as opposed to vendors. Having such a system will also be good for street vendors because it will give them the ability to negotiate for better pay as an agent and will be good for shop owners as it will attract customers for their agents.
With high compliance levels, will increase adherence to hygiene and reduce transmission of diseases like cholera or dysentery.
Having such interventions will also cushion vendors against easy vote-buying tactics of fluctuating political rhetoric’ involving periods of tolerance and intolerance when the country’s elections looming around the corner.
This is a major policy turnaround, offering to remove the hardships and lack of freedom of street vendors and to unleash their economic potential.
The challenges which street vendors face are caused by the fact that municipal planning continues to be influenced by western thinking hence they do not provide vending zones for street traders. In countries such as India and Tanzania where street vending is viewed as an asset, a more inclusive urban planning approach is taken, legislation governing street trade is significant and clear in its focus: to reduce poverty, to regulate street vending, and to empower street vendors.
The right to trade and the right to carry on a business is universal and the government cannot abrogate that law by outlawing street vending. Economic liberty stipulates that outlawing street vending violates principles of free and open trade and competing and is tantamount to discrimination and encroachment on individual human rights.
Despite simplification of licensing procedures in recent years, becoming properly registered in accordance with existing business, financial, and tax laws on national and municipal levels remains a tiresome and costly process, making compliance almost impossible for people with small capital such street vendors. This is an area that needs to be looked at as authorities factors in street traders in order to make it easy for them to comply with tax and licence payments.
The Government and relevant stakeholders need to understand holistically the challenges faced by street vendors and develop interventions that will enable street vendors to survive, grow and compete in a dynamic business environment. National and municipal administrations, on the other hand, should reconcile vendors’ needs with formal regulatory frameworks as well as with taxation and urban planning policies.
One sad part is that vendors associations in in Zambia which are present almost in all trading places, however, do not deal with licensing, vending sites and policy advocacy but focus mostly on welfare issues. Had their advocacy been in that direction, we could have seen a more conducive economic environment for street traders. Associations should change their focus and aims to fight for the rights of street vendors.
Legalizing street vending will be beneficial both to the government and street traders.