When the first light appears in the early hours of the morning, Margret Baathudi takes to the streets to ply her wares, which range from pirated DVDs, fruits and vegetables.
It is a daily routine she developed over the past five years and the only way to feed her family. Sometimes she is not lucky and sells only a few sweets as the informal sector is beginning to realise a decline in customers at her Gaborone West Industrial area. “I am struggling to get two meals a day for my family by selling snacks in the street,” Baathudi says. There are many Baathudis in Gaborone struggling to make a living amid a crackdown on vendors launched by Gaborone City Council (GCC). “Business used to be good but now there are no customers and it is hard to even stock,” Baathudi recalls.
Confrontations with GCC are not new to vendors, but experts say rising unemployment, particularly among youth, is driving up the number of vendors and inviting many more conflagrations on the streets. The informal sector is key to the economy and is believed to be contributing significantly to employment creation. This may be jeopardised as council authorities continue to frustrate hawkers, experts say. Senior lecturer at the University of Botswana, Gaotlhobogwe Motlaleng argues that majority of the small business operators do not aspire for growth and prefer to do business without the need to pay rental or subject themselves to regulations, inspection and record of the actual income they make to avoid paying for anything.
However Vendors Association chair Kagiso Masupane is adamant that the street vendors will forever be undermined. Established some 17 years ago, vendors association is still struggling to attract members and its membership currently stands at 200. Masupane said authorities never took notice of their association. Masupane pointed out that they have long asked for better trading shelters, but still the council ignores their plea.“They only respond by taking our ware at night like thieves, rather than finding a common understanding.” To them the council is only interested in their legislation and not their needs.
Official unemployment data in Botswana is largely meaningless because it wrongly includes people in menial jobs such as Ipelegeng, and backyard gardens, even when they work on monthly shifts and spend almost six months out of work. Botswana Exporters and Manufacturers Association (BEMA) interim president, Gideon Phiri contradicts Masupane and argues that a majority of vendors have no ambition to expand their businesses. “They want to be silent and be left alone to make money,” he explains. Statistics on small medium and micro enterprises (SMEEs) is sketchy and hard to come by. SMMEs are believed to have employed over 125 000 people, according to the BIDPA 1998 Task Force Report on SMMEs policy and is said to have contributed over 30 percent to the GDP.
Baathudi observes that , unemployment has pushed many into the sector, further saturating it and squeezing others out of business. Congestion and poor management by hawkers have put GCC under pressure to control the sector. Baathudi lives in constant fear that the city council might just show up anytime and confiscate her makeshift ‘shop’ like they did last month to hundreds of vendors at the main-mall and in Francistown. “They want us to buy better looking structures that I could carry home, but with the little I make it’s like they are requesting for the impossible.” As struggling street vendors continue to blame authorities for cracking down on them, GCC on the other hand argues that council has a responsibility to improve the poor state of the city caused by informal traders, especially with regard to noise pollution and poor hygiene. GCC blames informal traders for flouting hawking and street vending regulations, which forbid street vendors from leaving behind trading equipment after trading hours. GCC Public Relations Officer, Seeletso Lekgaba said they have made numerous consultations with traders and advised them to use designated trading areas in Block 8, Block 5 and the open space opposite the Old Library to trade but they have always chosen to use ungazetted points.
“Generally we believe our city should be kept as clean as possible if we all want to catch the investor’s eye,” she said. But this is unhelpful to hawkers, as the designated areas are not attractive to customers. Baathudi slams GCC’s proposal saying hawking is an infant business that can only grow if assisted with proper trading places and structures located in strategic areas within the reach of customers. “The council should not just fight us and at least try and work with us so that we can grow our businesses.” BEMA’s Phiri argues that hawkers lack ability to organise and have a united voice. “They should found an association that can provide a united voice,” he says. Another hawker blames GCC regulations for her loss of business.
Nchadi Motlalemetsi began operation in 2006 and says that due to shift in customer patterns, the quest for quality service keeps on increasing on a daily basis making it hard for small business owners to find customers. Motlalemetsi has no hope of attracting financiers because of lack of policies aimed at promoting informal sector. But UB don, Motlaleng is of the view that vendors delight in remaining in their comfort zone. “These people are enjoying the benefits of being in the informal sector and it will be a challenge to convince them otherwise.”