Nuisance or necessity? street vending in Malawi

City mayors in Malawi say they intend to put a stop to street vending in the country’s major town centres. According to Malawi’s laws, street vending in urban areas that have designated markets in line with council by-laws is illegal.

Malawi’s decentralization policy empowers councilors to deal with street vending. After a 10 year absence, councilors were elected during the tripartite elections in May this year.

In Zomba, Malawi’s former capital city, Mayor Joana Ntaja has argued that the point raised by vendors that they go into the streets because they do not find adequate space for their wares in government provided markets is lame. “We are going to engage them on the need to go back into the market,” she said.

In capital city Lilongwe, Mayor Willie Chapondera said the council will engage vendors to appreciate what the laws and by-laws on vending say and why it is important to maintain a clean city.

Despite being illegal, street vending has become a feature of urban life in Malawi.

“The government must first provide alternatives to street vending since some of us are people who have gone through secondary education and even tertiary education but cannot find employment in the job market,” said Gift Yoshua, a tinsmith in Zomba city.

Street vending a prickly issue

Howard Mzumura, a physical planner, observed that rapid urbanization, liberalization of the economy and proliferation of informal sector economic activities after 1994 combined to escalate vending to unprecedented levels in the country.

“Vendors, encouraged by political support and weak urban management systems have encroached on the streets or opened trading places in undesignated areas,” said Mzumura.

He blamed the practice for contributing to environmental problems and noted that vendors erect structures that do not conform to building codes or zoning regulations. Street vendors hog sidewalks and force crowds out into the street creating serious traffic situations.

Street food vendors are noted for generating excess litter, which stretches the capacity of council sanitation departments to keep cities clean. Critics say street food vending also poses health risks. Street vending is also said to be a security concern as it encourages criminal activities.

But Mzuzu University geography lecturer Dr. Ignasio Jimu has argued that it is critics, often from middle class orientations, the educated and those highly placed in society, who perceive street vending as a social problem and the vendors as saboteurs of the urban economy.

“Street vending is also perceived to be an inefficient, backward, irrational, and frequently unhygienic form of economic activity,” said Jimu. “Often street vendors are paraded as tax evaders and illegal consumers of public services and spaces”.

Jimu noted that because of the conduct of some vendors, city authorities argue that street vendors compromise efforts to institute order in the organization and utilization of urban space.

Vending is a way out of unemployment

While Malawi does not have reliable statistics on vending, it is estimated that there are about 200, 000 hawkers pushing goods and services in the streets of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu. Most of them are young men who have finished school but cannot find jobs.

According to official data, some 40,000 students finish high school every year, and about 5,000 go on to university. Less than 10 percent, however, find formal-sector jobs.

The national employment rate, including those in the informal sector, stands at 97 percent with the highest unemployment rate among people aged between 15 and 24, according to the Ministry of Labour. There are no known figures for unemployment rates in Malawi’s urban centres. “The informal sector is one of the largest employers in Malawi,” the Ministry has said.

Malawi has a youthful population, about 46 percent of which is older than 18, according to the 2008 Population Census. In terms of the labour market, 54.1 percent of those aged 15 and above are employed. The overall labour force participation rate (the proportion of those who are employed or actively seeking work) is 86 percent, with the highest rate being for women (86 percent) and the urban rate hitting 79 percent. This is according to statistics from the Ministry of Labour.

Vendors, who are mostly youths, ply their trade in fruits and vegetables, newspapers, cosmetics, jewelry, ladies bags and wallets, and secondhand clothes. They are also seen shining shoes on the streets, highways, sidewalks, and avenues. Some vendors are also commissioned by formal retail outlets to expand their market outreach.

Mike Chisasula, Coordinator of the Society for Social Advancement, Literacy and Development, observed that with the many issues that have characterized urban problems, councilors have their work already cut out for them.

Jimu thinks that the best way to handle street vending is to institute proper regulation and control within the parameters of freedom to economic opportunity and success.

“Street vending could be a positive though not a core force in the socio-economic transformation and development of poorer urban communities,” he writes in his paper titled ‘An exploration of street vending’s contribution towards Botswana’s vision of prosperity for all by 2016.’

“Street vending contributes to job creation, income generation and distribution, and conveniently provides goods and services,” said Chisasula. “In this regard, street vending provides a viable alternative for subsistence living in urban areas to formal employment and the parasitic or anti-social occupations like theft, prostitution and destitution.”

“Instead of engaging in criminal activities, a considerable number of people settle for street vending to make ends meet at the same time providing conveniently, cheap consumer goods at negotiable prices,” he said.

But Mzumara, the physical planner, offers a different perspective.“Such thinking creates a situation of anarchy with serious repercussions for the urban environment and local authority revenue generation initiatives.”

Vendors say they lack alternatives. But government has in the past argued that it set up the Technical and Vocational Skills Training Colleges to train unemployed youth in carpentry, motor vehicle mechanics, electrical installations, computer skills and other engineering components so that at the end the youth can establish their own business.

The government has also set up the Malawi Entrepreneurial Development Institute (MEDI) to train Malawians in various entrepreneurial skills while the Youth Empowerment and Development Fund and the Malawi Development Fund are revolving funds to help Malawians including youths and women to loan money for business set ups.

Despite these mechanisms, vending remains popular in Malawi’s urban centres.

Image: vendors on the street in Lilongwe. Charles Mkula.

Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.


Read older posts from this section

One Response to “Nuisance or necessity? street vending in Malawi”

  1. Denko

    This is an interesting article Charles. I think there is no one way out for street vending. The importance of vending to urban dwellers cannot be overemphasize. The creation of informal employment and creation of channel for flow of goods are just a few. I was doing an academic study on street vending recently. I discovered that street vendors give various reasons for staying in the streets. Lack of space in designated markets is becomes less of a reason for clinging to the streets. Economic reasons are mostly cited. These need to be considered in the face of political environment if the situation is to change.


Leave a Reply