By Mohamed Haji
When traveling to and fro Nairobi we pass through a bustling small village called Bangal in the county of Tana River. Travelers are presented with, through bus windows, different merchandise ranging from jerricans of the precious camel’s milk to the ubiquitous Mandazi and Sambusas.
Hard-working female hawkers shout by the windows, sometimes hurling their merchandise at you for peanuts in a desperate attempt to sell. Sometimes the bus leaves with a jerrican of milk on your lap while you have not paid the vendor, sometimes it’s the vendor who gets the money but fails to pass on the goods because the bus moved on. It is a chaotic scene where someone walks from the bus dejected because she has not been paid or a buyer leaves his money without the goods he or she has paid for.
A great majority of the hawkers are female and while the flexibility of the business avails women the opportunity to make some money, augment their husbands’ income and take care of their children, the subtle cause of this domination of the sector by the womenfolk is because of gender bias in employment and education. This is a matter for government policy makers and is not a subject of discussion in this piece.Despite the occasional loss suffered by buyers and sellers, these hawkers safe time for travelers and contribute to the economy of the town.
There is however a much greater concern among the buyers about the quality of what they are buying. Village legend has it that the milk is of poor quality, purposely polluted by vendors or simply quantity increased using water or some other things. There is no concrete evidence to support this as buyers do not present food poisoning symptoms nor reports of an outbreak of cholera or dysentery reach health authorities. However these legends are costing hard-working merchandise vendors loss of business and buyers the confidence to buy the precious camel milk on the cheap.
The apparent lack of legal status, the poor location they sell their merchandise, the right to hawk without harassment are some of the challenges faced by these mainly women vendors. They lack a strong representative voice and governments lack the capacity to regulate the sector.
As hawking is an important part of Bangal’s economy the County government ought to come to their aid beginning with measures to discount the health hazard allegations, introduce quality control measures and improve the lot of these enterprising vendors that will improve the living standards of the hawkers and earn the county government tax revenue. The county government should invest in these entrepreneurs, build their capacity to conduct business, train them in financial management and buy them basic facilities where they could store their merchandise as they wait for passing travelers or create a safe and secure environment where they can sell their goods.
The government could purchase cooling systems, build electrified sheds where vendors can use coolants and dispensers. It could negotiate with bus companies on minimum waiting times that bus companies can factor in their journeys. This will give travelers the comfort to leave the bus and buy the goods and services from the vendors in their designated sheds as it will increase business volume.
The county government could look into ways to help these hawkers expand and extend their businesses to other bigger markets such as Garissa and Nairobi. The hawkers should be encouraged to form associations, raise funds and buy specially modified vehicles to transport their milk to these markets. The government could help educate the vendors on safer and better means to advertise their merchandise and phase out the dangerous jerrycan-hurling sell tactics that can result in serious accident and loss of business and productivity.
The public health department should train the vendors in health and safety measures and improvise on anti-bacterial measures to keep their goods clean and healthy and educate them on healthy measures to counter contamination. Public health officials should actively counter the contamination allegations and introduce fines and penalties if required to discourage those who may engage in such malpractices. These will have the effect of catching the attention of the buyers whose confidence will improve and hence increased business activities for the vendors.
As the plastic jerrycan is understood to carry carcinogenic elements, the county government could encourage these businesswomen to revert to the healthy traditional ameel (special wooden traditional cup) and dhiil (wooden jug). This will improve the health of the travelers, increase business activities as more people gain the confidence to buy the merchandise which will in turn fill the coffers of the county government. It may seem impractical to sell milk in these traditional facilities due to the volume required but if this becomes an ameel, shiika and dhill making industry so be it. It is an industry that makes the ubiquitous jerricans with all the potential health hazards and a healthier traditional industry that will specialize in the making of these traditional milk-vending items will only make the milk healthier and expand and employ more local dhiil- making industrialist.
County governments all over the country are desperately on the hunt for investors and are keen to promote and encourage investors to come to their counties. They have introduced incentives that may encourage foreign and indigenous investors. However, the most important assets of any county are its local people and small business men and women. Counties should build the capacity of these local wealth creators, incentivize them to engage in business and expand their ventures. Interest free loans should be availed to these small enterprises to fairly compete with big companies that may try to monopolize a certain market or county.
As governors travel the world in such of wealthy investors, their policy advisers could guide them towards the local hawker who sustains the livelihoods of many more people and businesses in the county. This will reduce future resentment, create wealth, employ the youth and create a permanent revenue stream for the county governments as foreign mega investors’ loyalty to stay will be dictated by the profit volume and may decide to move their businesses whenever profits nose-dive or business environment changes.