Is the hawker chase finally coming to an end?

It’s a Thursday afternoon in Nyabugogo - Kigali’s gateway to rural Rwanda. It is business as usual, except for one novelty. The visible presence of large numbers of sharply dressed police officers.
A former vendor sells tomatoes at the new Nyabugogo market. Timothy Kisambira.
A former vendor sells tomatoes at the new Nyabugogo market. Timothy Kisambira.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in Nyabugogo - Kigali’s gateway to rural Rwanda. It is business as usual, except for one novelty.

The visible presence of large numbers of sharply dressed police officers.

For anyone who frequents Nyabugogo, it is also easy to notice the absence of street hawkers.

The usual woman carrying fruits, the young man selling fake perfumes or middle-aged man insisting on selling you a pair of jeans that is two sizes smaller were all gone.

This was not a coincidence.

The Mayor of Kigali Pascal Nyamulinda and the Police Spokesman ACP Theos Badege had announced that the issue of street vendors was going to be dealt with once and for all.

To achieve this, police officers would be deployed to enforce the law that prohibits illegal trade.

The genesis

The hide-and-seek between vendors and law enforcers has been ongoing for years but while progress to fix it has been made, both parties agree that there is still a long way to go.

The president of the Trade Union of Independent Informal Economy Workers (SYTRIECI) Jeannette Nyiramasengesho says that before the city council made the decision to ban street vendors, over a year ago, there were talks with their representatives on how best to go about it.

“We agreed on several issues and among them was that vendors cannot get off the streets unless there is an alternative. We agreed that markets would be built and they did build 14 markets and offered them to about 7000 street vendors,” she says.

According to the Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ARDHO), there are over 40,000 street vendors countrywide. At least 68.2 per cent of them are female and the majority are aged between14 to 29.

The vendors were also given an opportunity to operate in the stalls for one year, without paying rent or taxes.

Currently, the Council is organising former street vendors into cooperatives with groups of 30 where they are given small loans to be paid at an interest rate of 5 per cent.

So is it working?

According to Nyiramasengesho, there are two main reasons why the issue of street vendors is still complicated.

“First of all, you are dealing with people who are illiterate so their point of view is skewed. You will give someone a stall and if business is not good today and by bad luck they meet a street vendor claiming business is better, they will abandon the stall. It is hard to make them understand that business requires one to be organized, shrewd and patient,” she says.

Nyiramasengesho adds that the issue of poverty and lack of enough information as additional disadvantages.

“Some of these people are very poor. If they are to go to these stalls, they need capital. Though the city council advises them to join associations and be funded, the funding does not get to everyone and never always on time. There are instances when even those who have been funded have ended back on the street because they don’t have the skill to manage their money,” she said, adding that “they need proper and constant training,” she suggests.

Time for action

Mayor Nyamulinda is adamant that every avenue has been exercised to help vendors get off the streets and no more time can be wasted getting back to the drawing board.

“They asked for markets and we built them. We gave them a one year offer but it seems this has become a joking matter to some of these people. There are laws and it is our duty to enforce them and this time we will not be lenient,” the Mayor says.

Nyamulinda explained that the issue of vendors is not as big as it was before but it needs to be cleared so that the efforts to chase those who are still on the street is channeled into more developmental activities.

Nyamulinda added that besides trying to establish organized trading, vendors had become a security threat.

“When someone picks a stone, and throws it at authorized security personnel or physically attacks them, then the problem is taking on a different direction. We are a country that is governed by laws and we do not condone disregard for authority,” he said.

In Nyabugogo, Jean Damascene Niyonkunze, a 35-year-old clothes vendor attempts to justify the rogue behavior of hawkers.

“There have been physical clashes but that’s because of the way they were handling us. Someone is taking away something that you are selling to feed your children? Are you supposed to be happy about that,” he asks defensively.

Niyonkuze argues that relocating to markets is not a popular decision because the flow of clients is small compared to the busy streets.

For Veronica Mutamuriza, hawking is a strategy to beat her competition.

“I make my money from bus drivers. It is better than being in the market where so many people sell the same stuff as you do,” she complained.

Police Spokesman ACP Badege referred to such explanations as excuses.

“Vendors refuse to go to the markets because they claim the markets are off the main highways but how will people be motivated to visit the markets when the stalls are empty. Let them go to the markets and we can fix all the other issues when they are off the streets,” Badege said during press conference recently.

Ending the chase

The head of the Vendor’s association, Nyiramasengesho believes that with additional training and efforts to change the mindset of the street vendors, the issue can be solved.

In the past, attempts to organise informal sector workers such as motorcycle taxi riders has proven successful.

It is time to perhaps to look at the issues of the vendors more closely. Solutions like grouping them in cooperatives and giving them loans in a more timely manner can go a long way in addressing the issue.

One other important person to focus on is the buyer of the goods.

Vendors keep returning to the streets because of clients.

The City Council has previously said that both the vendor and client will be fined Rwf 10,000 if caught in the act.

But, when security personnel show up, it has been obvious that they are more interested in confiscating the merchandise and arresting the vendor while the client walks free.

Probably, more strict strategies like hefty fines for clients will help put an end to the chase.

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