Street vendor: A venture that knows no bounds

Vegetable vendors sell their wares along 4th-Street in Harare.

Marshall Bwanya and Stanley Mushava
“Cheap bath soap, a dollar for two tablets, Cremora, baked beans and spaghetti for your husband. Do not ignore this affordable toilet tissue too,” a vendor on a pavement between Julius Nyerere Way and Rezende Street almost yodels as he markets his wares. The man has an assortment of other items that include lotions, camphor cream and salad cream.

He is but one of the many vendors who flood this area of Harare’s CBD between 4 and 8pm daily to try and make a sale to the masses that pass by to access either Copacabana or Market Square termini where they board commuter omnibuses.

For long, the pavements and sidewalks of Harare’s central business district were the sole preserve of sweet, cigarettes, fruit and vegetable vendors.

Informal “bookshops” then sprouted, and before long air time vendors joined them. It was only a matter of time, especially with the shortage of basic commodities in retail outlets during the worst years of the economic decline of the 200s, before all manner of goods found their way onto the streets.

But even when the economy stabilised, the business mentality of many Zimbabweans saw them continue to set up shop on city pavements in search of that extra dollar that makes all the difference in most people’s lives.

As such, a multifarious array of goods and trinkets has permeated the street trade with people increasingly looking to the informal sector to make a living.

Welcome to the era of the street supermarket, where vendors sell basic groceries at cheaper prices than many conventional retailers.
Half a kilogramme of a well-known washing powder goes for US$1.50 at the make-do stalls, 35 US cents less than in an adjacent supermarket.

These are savings of just a few cents per product but at the end of the year, they amount to potentially significant savings for families that do not earn as much as they would want and as they should.

The cardboard stalls — which offer a variety of foodstuffs such as sugar, soap, spaghetti, cooking oil, baked beans and washing powder among others at slightly marked down prices — are proving popular with customers.

Mainstream retailers are facing competition from these vendors. Besides the slightly lower prices, more appealing about street vendors who sell groceries on pavements to customers is their ability to sell groceries at “reasonable” prices, there is another bargain for customers, prices can be negotiated lower.

A street vendor who identified himself as Joe said the less than favourable economic situation means that they had to find ways  to survive.

“I could not find any employment over the years so I decided to sell groceries on the streets. My brother and I occasionally go to Musina (South Africa) to buy foodstuffs which we resell on the streets.”

Mai Chipo said she could not meet the hefty rates demanded for operating a grocery store hence she opted for the pavement stores.
“Selling my goods on the pavements has made it possible for some of us to earn a descent living,” she said.

Another vendor, Tendai, said: “I need to support my family because my husband’s salary is too little.
“People buy our products because they are slightly cheaper and in some cases we have to negotiate on the price of a particular product,” she said.

This is not to say there are easy pickings, street vending has its ugly side. Municipal authorities routinely go around confiscating goods from unlicensed traders. And bogus authorities also come in and fleece whatever they can from the many desperate vendors.

“We have running battles with the municipal police everyday and we have resorted to operating in the after-hours when council officers would gone home,” Mai Chipo said.

Mai Chipo, like many others in her trade, sets up shop after 4.30pm when city police knock-off.
“The economy is and cannot not accommodate all of us in the formal sector but we still have to make survive. The sidewalk business may not have the blessing of the city fathers but it is the only option for some of us who struggling to make a modest living.

“Business is slow as there are many stalls therefore bonding well with customers is key for ensuring a sustainable flow of consumers to your stall,” said Charles Makoni another street grocer along Leopold Takawira Street. But not everyone can wait for the magical hour of 4.30pm.

Mai Shenjere said that as a family woman, she cannot operate late in the day as she has children to tend to.  She braves the possibility of being raided by municipal police during the busy mornings and afternoons.

“The usual fine is US$15 which discounts much of the proceeds because business is painfully slow at times. We don’t always get to pay all the fines. Sometimes you can be lucky and get away with a US$3 bribe, depending on the officers on the day.

“If you are not so lucky, the officers will insist on amounts like US$10,” Mai Shenjere said.
These are the streets, and bribery seem to be normal.

The vendors often prey on impulsive buyers. The mere fact of seeing marked down rice on the street, even if one has 2kg at home, is usually enough motivation to get a couple of people to stop and pull out a few dollars.

Street vending is cut-throat stuff that requires one to defend “their” turf and have an eagle eye for potential buyers and municipal officers. There is a thin line between loss and profit.

And often making an extra buck means being on the street until around 10pm every working day. Others straggle on until midnight, hoping to attract the attention and pockets of drinkers who want to buy a little something to give the wife as an appeasement for coming home late.

Staying up that late has its obvious risks as well but who cares if one can make an extra dollar.And there are other vagaries associated with being on the street.

“The other problem is that we operate in an open space. Our wares are vulnerable to bad weather and when it rains it means we are out of business.”

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