There’s still some way to go before Kigali’s street vendors secure decent work

There's still some way to go before Kigali's street vendors secure decent work

Female hakwers sell ripe bananas and pineapples in Kivugiza, one of Kigali busy areas. Despite the crackdown on street trading, many people have no choice but to continue making a living by selling goods on the streets.

(Nasra Bishumba)

At only 22, Claire Agiraneza, a single mother, left her hometown in Rwanda’s Northern Province and headed to the capital city of Kigali where she hoped to earn enough money to take care of her one-year-old son. In Kigali, she bought some fruits from one of the bigger markets and became a street vendor, selling her goods to customers on the city’s busy streets. From that money, she paid her rent, fed her child and bought local health insurance for both of them.

But one year after she arrived in Kigali and just as she was getting on her feet, the city authorities began to clampdown on street vending.

While there is no explicit law to prohibit street vending, Kigali City Council says that various trade laws make it illegal to do business on the streets.

Urban development is key to the government’s plans to establish Kigali as the ‘Singapore of Africa’. In a bid to bring both cleanliness and order to the city, and to increase its tax base, for the past two years, Kigali City Council has zeroed in on the strict enforcement directives designed to stop unauthorised street trading.

On 18 July 2016, the City Council clarified its position in its official gazette, stating that: “In accordance with the law and other penalties stipulated in other laws, anyone caught in the act illegal act of selling goods on the streets will be fined Rwf10,000 [US$13] and asked to return the money to the person buying. Similarly the person buying will be reprimanded and fined Rwf10, 000 [US$13] for buying goods in areas not designated as markets”.

In addition, vendors face having their goods confiscated, as well as arrest and detention.

The authorities claim that street vending hampers authorised trade, promotes the sale of substandard products, causes traffic jams and affects urban hygiene. But street vendors say they have few other options to make a living outside of the informal economy.

They also say they face a barrage of obstacles such as the lack of clean and safe vending spaces, a lack of income security, little if any social protection and harassment from both the authorities and the general public.

And now that her livelihood is under threat, like so many other street vendors (approximately 8000, until recently according to Kigali City Council), Agiraneza is stuck.

“When I came to Kigali, my child was underweight because of poor feeding but from the little I have been making, I have been able to put him on a proper diet and life has been getting better. What am I going to do now?” she said.


Help or punishment?

In an interview with Equal Times, Kigali City Council’s vice mayor for social affairs, Judith Kazayire, said that the move to end street vending was motivated by the Council’s duty to advance the welfare of the people – not to punish them.

“We think that if their [the vendors] welfare has to improve, they should have a decent job. Constructing markets and making sure that they work in areas that are decent is important to us as people who are in charge of welfare,” she said.

“Street vending is illegal according to trade laws. We try to make sure that these people work in places where they can get shelter and clients at the same time as part of our responsibility to protect them,” she said.

Kazayire also told Equal Times that the construction of new market spaces for the vendors is a priority.

“Our target is 12 markets. Some are complete and others are under construction. So far, we have settled 6000 street vendors but we are hoping that we can settle many more. We are giving them a grace period of one year where they won’t pay any taxes or rent, so we are encouraging them to save,” she said.

But some international NGOs are still condemning the move to clear Kigali’s streets of informal traders.

In July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Rwandan authorities of rounding up street vendors as well as homeless people and street children, and detaining them in “transit centres” where some inmates were beaten.

Rwanda’s Justice Minister Johnston Busingye denied the charges and accused HRW of making “unsubstantiated allegations”.

However on 7 May this year, Theodosie Uwamahoro, 27, a juice vendor at one of Kigali’s main bus stations, was killed after she tried to run away from local hygiene and security officers. Three men have been charged with her death.

“Street vending is here to stay”

In an email to Equal Times, Pat Horn, the international coordinator for StreetNet – an international alliance of street vendors – called for more dialogue between Kigali City Council and street vendors to reach a sustainable solution.

“Our advice to [the] authorities is to accept the fact that street vending is here to stay. It provides a livelihood to many who would otherwise be unemployed and indigent, it provides an important market to poor consumers who would otherwise be unable to afford to buy their basic needs, and it plays an important role in food security.”

Jeannette Nyiramashengeso, president of Syndicat des travailleurs indépendants de l’économie informelle (SYTRIECI, or the Trade Union of Independent Informal Economy Workers in English) which is affiliated to StreetNet, told Equal Times that before the city council made the decision to ban street vendors, the authorities were able to hold talks with some street traders. She said that many of the vendors expressed a willingness to work in the new market spaces, if such a move was possible.

But there is still a long way to go before Kigali’s street vendors manage to secure decent work.

“Though there are many people working in markets right now, there is an issue of numbers where many vendors have not yet been allocated stands in markets and are finding it difficult to make a livelihood since they are also not allowed to be on the streets,” Nyiramashengeso said.

She also pointed out that as most vendors end up working on the streets because the don’t have the capital to invest in scaling up their business, more should be done to support vendors in this area.

Currently, the Council is organising former street vendors in to cooperatives in groups of 30 where they will be advanced small loans to be paid at an interest rate of 5 per cent. Previous attempts to organise informal economy workers such as motorcycle taxi drivers, has proven successful in Kigali and other parts of the country.

But Nyiramashengeso said training for the vendors and support for trade union rights is also vital. “The authorities should also try to build the vendors’ capacity so that they can improve their lives, specifically with skills. We also would like the authorities to give our union the power to help current and former vendors with their day-to-day problems. Though they engage us, we would like to be more involved by for instance signing [collective bargaining] agreements,” she said.