I was at a police station this week and was saddened to see so many illegal street vendors and hawkers arrested, they formed around 70percent of the inmates.
They are usually bailed out and fined but will repeat their crimes in order to make a living, on one hand they are breaking the law, but on the other hand they are just small-to-medium sized entrepreneurs.
One of the reasons Kigali is clean and orderly is that hawkers are swept off the streets, hawkers often attract crowds which are hotbeds of crime, but they are a necessary part of any economy, even New York City has street vendors and legalized hawkers.
Other than look at hawkers as a scourge, we must look at them as the final link in the chain to the lowest niche in the economy. We want to stimulate Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and yet we penalize some, we must find a way to facilitate, register, tax, and even protect them.
They are providing a service; they lack capital, so this leads them to break the law in order to make a living. The lowest niches of our economy are often neglected when they are the bedrock of our structure. I do not advocate allowing anyone to just lay a mat on a pavement and start selling tomatoes but in certain areas, street-vending can really be of use.
Kigali often gets static after dark; there isn’t that open street culture you see in most regional cities like Nairobi or Kampala. That is partly down to our nature and culture but also due to restrictive practices that penalize street vending.
I believe registered stalls, trolleys and even uniformed hawkers can help stimulate growth in lower segments of the economy and bring large parts of the black economy and informal sector into the tax base.
It is all about regulations, registration, regularization and taxation, this is how we can benefit. Street-vendors are plugged into the economy and can see certain aspects that trained economists cannot see. They are perfect partners for development.
So when we talk of growing the economy from the grassroots up with an emphasis on SMEs then the vendor is one of the building blocks of this endeavor and cannot be ignore. Quite often these vendors are employed by shops, they are given stock to sell but when they are arrested they incur a debt when the stock is lost.
The shop owner is never punished, they win either way. But for the vendor it is a double loss as they are imprisoned, then have to pay the shopkeeper.
It would be better to register and legalize the practice and tax them, otherwise it is a pointless game of cat and mouse. This segment is a pillar of our economy; we must strengthen it and link it to the other pillars of industry, technology and agriculture.