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These Street Vendors, Are They A Blessing Or A Curse?

If you are a resident of Thika Town, you must have noticed an influx of street vending (hawking), especially in the evenings, along specific streets within the C.B.D. Commercial Street and Kenyatta Highway along the Thika Stadium walls and Mukiriti are usually a beehive of activity, flowered with all kinds of merchandise.

By the way, these traders are very strategic in their choice of location since they basically operate at busy commercial areas with heavy human traffic flow.

These vendors offer a wide array of goods and commodities – from daily needs like vegetables, fruits, fish, and snacks to occasional needs like flowers and ready-made garments and mitumba wear, at very consumer friendly prices. You see them exhibit remarkable entrepreneurial skills as they call out loud to attract buyers.

Most people prefer buying from them as most of the goods offered are good and cheaper than in the regular shops in town. Their market base consists of a mass of consumers who are happy to access the inexpensive goods and services that they provide.  In fact, it is right to conclude that street vending has now become an integral part of our urban economy, offering easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces. 

It would be hard to find an urban Kenyan who doesn’t purchase something from a hawker. The middle and lower class consumer specifically prefers to purchase from them, though even well-off citizens purchase many commodities given reasonable prices.

Unfortunately, these vendors have of late started being a public nuisance. In the scramble for space and an eye from the customer, they have ended up endangering the lives of the same clients they are seeking to serve. They have generally taken up all pavements meant for pedestrian walkways, parking spaces and even set up their ‘shops’ dangerously by the roadside.

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Due to their tyranny of numbers, they are able to intimidate anyone who claims their right of way or space claiming that they are in their “business spots”. They have been frustrating motorists within the C.B.D. when they cause congestion due to such irresponsible actions.

I sought the people’s opinion and one lady said to me…

“These vendors are invariably evicted by the county government askaris without provision for a proper place for them to work. They offer us with quiet a variety of items at very reasonable prices unlike in these shops. As long as they are not in the way of traffic or endangering lives, they should be allowed to operate here,” she said.

One taxi driver who plies his trade along Kristina Wangari Gardens, was not of that opinion though. He said that these people were a threat to security.

“This overcrowding and heavy human traffic creates a haven for pickpockets who pose as genuine buyers wanting to buy, or squeezing their way out of the ‘jam’. They bank on such moments as people jostle to select their wares to make a kill. They primarily target cash and mobile phones and leave immediately after accomplishing their mission, or when their cover is blown. As innocent as they look, these are professional pick pockets who earn a living from stealing from unsuspecting people who only realise that they have been victims when they are away from these spots. These hawkers are also endangering the lives of people by blocking the way, leaving very little space for people and vehicles to move,” he said.

When I asked one of them why they were depriving pedestrians of their space and causing traffic jams, this is what he had to say…

“It's a daily fight for survival. If at all you ease off a bit you will find yourself pushed out of business and who wants to get back to ‘Gicagi’ anyway? We will not move anywhere else but sell in here because this is where our crowd is and this is where we started,” said one of the hawkers who trades his wares near Kassmatt Supermarket.

This issue of street hawkers is frowned upon by the authorities but the problem still exists. You will occasionally witness a scuffle between a hawker and a motorist or with the county government askaris, but despite being a thorn in the flesh, illegal hawking still continue to thrive due to demand.

Vending has been a profession since time immemorial, with hawkers forming an integral part of our urban history and culture. Shopping and marketing, in a traditional Kenyan sense, has primarily been informal.

Pushed to the urban centres in search of employment, street vending has turned out as the most obvious means to guarantee self-employment, perhaps the most promising avenue for the poor. Majority of the rural youth have migrated from the outskirts have migrated to Thika Town and Nairobi to eke out a living for their families, hoping that this metropolis would offer better prospects.

Thika’s urban set-up has today become an engine of growth, the main job provider. With an alarming percentage of the population living below the poverty line, these citizens gather meagre resources to employ themselves as hawkers and street traders. They create jobs, not only for themselves but for porters, security guards, transport operators, storage providers, and others. Today, vending is an important source of employment for a large number of urban poor as it requires low skills and small financial inputs.

All in all, the County Government of Kiambu needs to formulate their own policies and come up with legislations, rules, and guidelines in the context of addressing this situation before we end up crying out ‘I wish I knew’.

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