OPINION: Enabling a healthy and vibrant street market economy

LEBOWAKGOMO— These vendors have been here forever, they change, move and age, but they sell and sell and sell. Located at the town center, between the taxi rank and the shopping complex these vendors are among many who sell on the edges of sidewalks. There is a dedicated space for their retail, but it is already crowded and not all potential clients walk past there. It makes more sense to sell on street— like parking on street, or having a bus stop on street. One guy said it’s a type of marketing.

LEBOWAKGOMO— Streetspaces hold towns and people together. Leading up to the local taxi rank, local trade in Lebowakgomo holds important significance. With just over 40% of the population here earning R 1 500 per month, these traders are making both a living and providing much needed affordable foods, clothing and other life items. Without solid shelter on rainy days, they’re goods are open to risk. Given that much of what they sell is locally sourced if not handmade, these entrepreneurs make arrangements to transport their goods to the town centre. Sourcing from the best they can find, and pricing in groups or individuals. In any case, the storefront is always full, but there is seldom sufficient space for both their business and their customers on the narrow western sidewalks.

“Montfort Mlachila, International Monetary Fund’s resident representative in SA, says that compared with the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, the informal sector in SA is relatively small at 25% of GDP. In Nigeria it makes up 60% of GDP.”– Sunita Menon, Financial Mail, August 2018

From a place making perspective there are important opportunities here: first many of the sellers are not selling on weekends or certain days of the month– they sell every day of the week, without leave, holiday or any type of regulatory support. This is an opportunity to expand the the idea of retail, especially as many vendors here, live off the revenue generated. It is in some cases the only source of income, and stands a much better change in both dignity and value compared to begging without doing anything. What Kgafela oa Magogodi once called a theatre of poverty in the mail and Guardian is the practice of people asking for money without rendering any particular service. At a regulatory level, these vendors need to be taken much more seriously than before because at some point they could cumulatively reflect a different type of middle-class. A class of people who are funding their children’s education, fueling local economies and increasing the value of local through their innovative and adaptive approaches to retail and customer service.

The second opportunity is through the street itself. Sidewalk designs need to be rethought for their specific purpose– not only for pedestrians but for enabling a professional, attractive and enticing interface for retail. Proliferating shopping malls can be exclusive to certain classes, and on-street retailers will tend to sell something outside or down the city street. In many cases this makes the walk way narrow and way-finding difficult, but it serves a purpose: keeping customers close. One vendor told me it’s like an advertisement, right in your face– unavoidable, cheap and ready to use tonight. That’s in the case of vegetables. This quick exchange needs to be understood in a world where cashiers may disappear, and there’s no one to ask about a local area other than pedestrians on the street.

GA-RANKUWA— As one enters this township, you drive past a recycling facility, a huge wholesaler, cross a railway bridge and then face these salespeople ready to offer fruits and vegetables. It’s a great place to pile stock and head home ready to cook a hearty meal, or at least five the kids some fruits over the snack packs at most retailers.

The broader debate around retail may hinge upon retailers and tuck-shop competition: taking local income circulation potential and streamlining it. In popular terms, big retailers are arguably taking tuck shops from neighbourhoods and driving people to make more frequent trips to malls and complexes–especially in new suburbs between townships and cities. While retailers provide stable and secure income to cashiers, stock takers, security guards and packers, the few local grocery brands highlight a missed opportunity. In Kenya, a family retailer like Nakumatt collapsed because it grew from tuck shop to retail giant at a good pace– but when it had to expand (double) it’s stores the supply chain requirements overwhelmed the tuck-shop business model. It is an unfortunate turn-out, but grocers like Choppies in Botswana and Nakumatt are interesting examples of how retail can grow. In South Africa, the retail industrial complex has a few mega retailers, anchoring shopping malls and grabbing household pockets while employing a substantial number of people. However, this perpetuates a service sector trap and may not cultivate the business acumen that can come from street retailers who eventually grow their business into something bigger. Not everyone has the talent, work ethic or capacity to do this– and not all customers buy any product– but it is important for regulators and city planners to enable a healthy, open and vibrant market economy.

The topic is very sensitive now as township conflicts may emerge as a result of the proliferation of tuck shops ran by other African and Asian nationals. Foreign nationals enter the retail sector in cartels, supply chain clusters and tight circles with budgets that out price the rental value of the tuck shop. In addition, they seem to do thorough research –at least heuristically to price products, and rent space. However, their need to drive costs down has lead to various traces of bad quality goods, expired goods and other practices in some of them. These tuck-shop renters are micro retailers who are as vulnerable to the streetscape as the ones I discussed earlier. More on this some other time.

This piece was inspired by an article from the Financial Mail by Sunita Menon. She wrote about the informal economy in SA, interviewing various retailers and enhancing their perspectives within the context of the national economy.

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