Street Vendors Associations in Kenya: Political or Economic Resource?
Nathan KARIUKI. “Street Vendors Associations in Kenya: Political or Economic Resources?” Mambo!, Vol. XIX (4), 2022.
Street vending plays a crucial role in the urban economy in most countries, especially in the Global South: it provides self-employment, income to those practising it, jobs to others, and it makes goods available to the public at low prices. Street vendors sell different kinds of goods such as secondhand clothes, vegetables, fruits, plastic goods, and various household necessities, which are manufactured in small-scale or home-based industries. In Kenya, like elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the urban poor prefer to buy clothes and accessories from street vendors since the goods that they sell are usually more affordable than those found in formal retail shops. Bhowmik (2005) defines a street vendor as a person who offers goods for sale to the public without having a permanent built-up structure. Street vendors are self-employed workers in the informal economy and are either stationary or mobile: the street or location of their business may be set in enclosed premises or covered workspace on street pavements and sidewalks, but also at bus stops and main road junctions, and in other public places.
This paper focuses on street vendors associations in Thika town in Kenya. Thika town is located 40km northwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. It is strategically located along the Superhighway, a road that acts as a node of the Nairobi metropolitan area and connects it to the eastern and north-eastern regions of the country. Thika town is the biggest commercial town in Kiambu County and also amongst the leading industrial towns in Kenya (after Nairobi and Mombasa). It has become a place of multiple mobilities especially for street vendors from the surrounding towns who in the evenings appropriate its public places, considered prime areas, to earn their livelihoods.
Like any other group of workers, street vendors in Kenya are organized in various ways. According to Kinyanjui (2010), in African cities those who feel excluded from the formal economy form a host of social networks. The vendors form associations according to their needs. The networks they belong to are responsible for negotiating for the betterment of the lives and livelihoods of their members. The associations are created to address welfare issues, such as to reduce vulnerabilities during calamities, and even provide support on happy occasions such as childbirth, dowry negotiations, weddings or graduations (Kinyanjui 2010). Cross (1988) observes that members of the informal sector organize themselves to further their economic interests. Therefore, most vendors will come together for the purpose of economic empowerment. A few associations go beyond welfare to address other issues affecting vendors, such as access to trading and vending sites and advocacy for the rights of street vendors. Vendors will push for their representation in any major decision made by the County Government especially in the policy areas affecting them, such as urban planning.
Policies and regulatory frameworks that sometimes impede street vending have been discussed in the literature. Racaud et al. (2018) investigate the contradiction between the socio-economic contributions of street trading in the urban setting and a very hostile legal framework in Thika town and Dar es Salaam. Schlegel (2018) also conducted research on street vending and local governance in Thika town. His conclusion shows that during the election period, the governance of urban spaces changes because it is a time when the regulating and eviction tools deployed by the local government tend to disappear. This leads to street vending being tolerated up to the time when politicians are elected and sworn into office before “strict” regulations resume. This observation matches the data collected in the framework of my PhD studying the appropriation of urban spaces by street vendors in Thika’s Central Business District (CBD), which seems to have been accelerated in the run-up to the 2017 general elections. The election and campaign periods are indeed characterized by a relaxation of regulations by local authorities. Politicians view street vendors as ‘vote baskets’ and for this reason favour them during electoral campaigns.
In Kenya, a lot has also been written about the harassment and relocation of street vendors but less about the common and recurring issues street vendors associations have to deal with. Lubaale and Nyang’oro (2013), carrying a study on street vending in Nakuru town in Kenya, found that harassment by city authorities and lack of space for vending account for the major factors impacting informal activities. The study by Opari (2011) on street vending in Nairobi focuses on how this informal activity is a source of daily livelihood for many people and a stepping-stone towards permanent jobs in the future. Morange (2015) carried out a study on street trade, neo-liberalization and the control of space in Nairobi’s CBD. She details the emergence of the Nairobi Central Business District Association (NCBDA) as a major actor in the governance of street trade and in their own relocation from the streets to Muthurwa Market. This association is formed by formal business operators and caters for their welfare. Her study is relevant to my own study as she analyses formal business associations that are similar to the Thika Town Hawkers Welfare (TTHW), which is the main focus of this paper. Alila and Mitullah (2000) wrote about enhancing the lobbying capacity of women street vendors associations. In their conclusions, they discuss the strategies aimed at mitigating the challenges experienced by the associations.
This literature review shows that little has been written about the daily experience, work and involvement of street vendors associations, especially in their fight to defend and empower street vendors. In this paper, I discuss the role of the TTHW association in empowering its members against a background of often being used as a political tool during general elections. More particularly, I ask whether street vendors associations play a role of economic and political empowerment and which role, especially focusing on the question of the facilitation of participation in urban governance. I also ask whether they are just platforms for politicians to ascend into power while being insensitive to the needs of the associations’ members, leaving them worse off than before?
The analysis outlined in this paper is based on data collected between 2019 and 2020 in Thika town through surveys aiming to record the aims and organizational means of street vendors associations, focusing on the TTHW association. Primary and secondary data were collected for this purpose: I conducted 47 semi-structured interviews with street vendors and 17 in-depth interviews with key informants, as well as participant observation. I also analyzed several documents such as the constitution of the TTHW together with by-laws governing market traders at Mukiriti Market. The key informants included the chairpersons of traders’ associations, both formal and informal. Thika town was selected because of the growth of street vending activities that has been on the rise since the beginning of 2016 and its accessibility to the researcher (Schlegel 2018).
Challenges for Street Vendors and their Associations in Thika
A majority of street vendors may choose not to belong to street vendors associations because of challenges associated with them, amongst them issues regarding good leadership and governance practices as noted by Alila and Mitullah (2000). In her studies on Nairobi’s CBD street vendors, Kamunyori (2007) discovered that association membership represents only 15% to 23%. Many associations do not follow the conventional methods of periodic elections of their leaders, and some leaders stay in charge even when they have no vision for the group or do not represent them in effective ways. Others are not accountable or transparent, especially with regard to financial matters. As a consequence, tensions and suspicion arise within the association and deter membership.
Other association leaders use their leadership positions as a way of becoming popular in order to vie for political positions in the general election. Being an association leader is used as a springboard to enter the political arena. A good example is the current Member of County Assembly (MCA) for Thika Township Ward who was formerly a street vendor. Yet there are other leaders who are less successful in their bid to stand for election: this was the case of the former chairman Mr. Zack Mwangi of Mukiriti market traders who stood as an MCA in Hospital Ward in the 2017 general election.
In Thika, poor membership is also attributed to vendors’ perception that their businesses are not permanent. Others think that it is a waste of money to keep on paying subscription fees while the benefits are not visible. Jean, a street vendor at Commercial Street, states: “I left my association because of misuse of our subscription fees for the association and lack of accountability. This completely demoralizes members from continuing to support the associations with any finances” (interview conducted on 10 April 2019, Thika).
In addition to problems within the association, individual street vendors also encounter problems with the police and/or County law enforcement officers. A good example is the Nairobi CBD standoff between shop owners and hawkers in Eastleigh in September 2016. This event made the headlines in most Kenyan dailies (Daily Nation, 2 March 2017). The conflict lasted for several days. Business resumed after a while, but in March 2017 the shop owners and the hawkers were at it again. The authorities consistently addressed the issue through repression, using teargas and batons to evict the street vendors.
Street vendors or hawkers may be seen as unfair competition for formal businesses, as they do not pay taxes, but they are very much in demand by the general public. Their operational hours are mainly late afternoon into the evening. This is the time when commuters are going home in Thika and in the nearby towns. Tired as they are or in a hurry to reach home, they lack the time and energy to go to the market or to supermarkets, thus relying on hawkers to provide the food and other goods they may need.
Thika town has had cases where street vendors battled with the police and local authorities. During the 2017 electoral campaign, one of the Kiambu County gubernatorial candidates (who eventually won the seat, Hon. Ferdinand Waititu) promised the street vendors that he would give them space at Mama Ngina Gardens, in the Thika CBD, to carry out their daily activities. On the night of 4th to 5th September, 2017, the street vendors went to Mama Ngina Gardens to get the space supposedly allocated to them but their plan aborted. Many reasons can be invoked. Some market vendors from Mukiriti claim that the promises of the gubernatorial candidate did not materialize because they were not involved in the different planning stages of space allocation. They complained that “foreign” vendors from Githurai and Murang’a were allocated the space within the CBD while those from Thika were confined in Mukiriti Market. This raised the question of who has the right to the city. The police evicted the street vendors who had occupied the Mama Ngina Gardens. Ultimately, the governor ruled out any plans to appropriate the Gardens due to pressure mounted by the market traders in Thika town. The governor advised all traders to go back to their initial working areas while he looked for a solution to the issue.
These different examples illustrate the consequence of weak management of street vendors associations, which lack the capacity to negotiate with the local authorities on policy issues affecting them. As a result, local authorities have ignored the claims of street vendors, such as allocating them appropriate vending sites, involving them in urban planning, and providing them with various services in the urban center. Street vendors are consequently reluctant to join street vendors associations because they are not able to negotiate for their rights. Yet a few associations in Kenya stand out, such as the Thika Town Hawkers Welfare association, a unique success story that will be explored in the next section.
The Thika Town Hawkers Welfare Association
Thika Town Hawkers Welfare (TTHW) is one of the street vendors associations in Thika with an inspiring story of how street vendors can organize themselves for welfare purposes, then grow into a powerful association that can advocate for the rights of their members. It was formed in 2010 as a self-help group with about 100 members. The monthly contribution for joining the association was then Kshs 500 (USD 4.58). Its members include different types of street vendors who engage in a wide range of business activities. Some of the members sell second-hand text books, whereas others sell vegetables, hardware goods and second-hand clothes. The aims of the group are to deal with the usual welfare issues which street vendors are faced with. The chairman of the association, Mr. Duncan, is quoted saying: “When one of our colleague vendors lost his brother, we came together in order to assist him in funeral arrangements. It is at this informal meeting of assisting our fellow colleague that we thought about starting a group that could assist is solving issues such as death, dowry payments and other welfare issues”(interview conducted on 18 July 2019, Thika). The association also tries to secure the future of their members by exploring investment opportunities. They got into the real estate market so as to enable them to make a profit for the future, as street vendors do not get any pension when they leave the streets.
According to TTHW chairman, the association had the choice between venturing into the transport industry and investing in real estate. In an interview, one of the members of the group stated: “We had to decide to venture in real estate because we thought that transport industry will divide us. We wanted to venture into an investment that could take care of our future and act as a retirement scheme when we are too old to run up and down hawking in the streets”. By 2012, the group had contributed more than Kshs 300,000 (approximately USD 2,748), which was used to purchase a piece of land in Kangagu, Maragua constituency, in Murang’a County (approximately 65km north east of the capital Nairobi). The membership of the association by this time had dropped to 50 individuals due to absenteeism and non-payment of membership fees.
In Thika town, the real estate business has been on the rise since the completion of the Thika Superhighway in November 2012, especially because it is cheaper to work in Nairobi while living in Thika. The group purchased a plot measuring 50 by 100 m (0.115 Acres) in Kiganjo Estate in Thika at a cost of Kshs Sh1 million (USD 9, 160, 86). Besides members’ contributions, the association sought a loan of Kshs 9.6 million (USD 87,944) from a financial institution, Unaitas Sacco Society Limited. It also approached a financier in order to start building. Before getting this loan, the group had to change status and become a limited company because most financial institutions shy away from dealing with self-help groups. The reasoning is that self-help groups are unstable and therefore banks cannot risk extending loan facilities to them. Therefore, Thika Town Hawkers Welfare changed its name to Thika Town Vendors Limited (TTVL). The rental project under construction by the association consists of several one-bedroom houses (Photo 2). Once completed, this investment may earn the street vendors’ group a total of Kshs 400,000 per month. This would provide a good income for each of the remaining 43 members of this association. And this renting project may only be the first of several new ones. As stated by the chairman of the association, “The eventual plan of the group is to fully get into a real estate business where we will be purchasing big parcels of land and either subdividing and selling them or building houses in the plots and selling them or building rental houses to rent out”.
The perceived success of TTHW attracted different actors from Thika public life, notably local political leaders. During the 2017 general elections, some politicians tried to have street vendors campaign for them by engaging their associations. This shows how influential these associations can be in local politics. In mid-July 2018, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Thika town visited the TTHW housing project and promised to donate Kshs 1million towards its completion. The MP’s visit points to the fact that street vendors associations are political resources that politicians try to mobilise during the election year. Unfortunately, the MP’s promises were not honoured and the supposed donation turned out to be a loan. Yet, the association’s investment success story became publicly known and ingratiated them with the local authorities. The TTHW chairman explains the association’s achievements as follows: “We have been able to successfully negotiate for two vending sites for our members within the CBD with the Kiambu County authorities. The first one is along the Thika Stadium wall with 80 vendors and the second one is along the Mama Ngina Drive where there are 60 street vendors. Our third project was to accommodate 250 members at Mama Ngina Gardens near the Hindu temple, but politics infiltrated the whole project and the Governor had to shelve the whole idea”.
Like any other group, TTHW has had its own share of challenges, the major one being the dismissal of some members. This dismissal occurred in some cases because of chronic absenteeism from the group meetings, while others were due to non-payments of the monthly subscription. Another challenge has been their conflict with “foreign” traders who come from other towns and appropriate the space in Thika, thus representing competition. These so-called “foreign” traders come from the towns of Githurai, Ruiru, Juja and Murang’a. The chairman also underlined issues with individual members selling second-hand textbooks. Some of these members operated at a loss because most of the older books in their stock are not relevant in the new school curriculum. The education curriculum in Kenya is in fact changing from the 8-4-4 to Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) 2-6-6-3. As a consequence, new textbooks are required and the second-hand book vendors have difficulty keeping abreast with these changes. The government is also currently providing free textbooks to all public secondary schools for the four years of schooling. This has greatly reduced the market share of street vendors selling second-hand textbooks. The street vendors are now forced to only sell textbooks to private secondary schools which usually have very few students compared to public schools. The same reform is targeting primary schools, forcing street vendors who sell books to find an alternative business. In the above cases the street vendors associations seem to be ineffective in protecting its members against changes in the education curriculum and the government move to issue free textbooks to students.
Are street vendors associations pivotal to the economic empowerment of their members as well as to their participation in urban governance? And why are they used as platforms by politicians to mobilize votes among their members and beyond? The example of TTHW in Thika town shows that such associations can indeed greatly empower street vendors. The monthly subscription by members seems to instill discipline and trust in collective savings. Secondly, TTHW has enabled street vendors to play a role in the urban governance of Thika, which resulted in the allocation to them of vending sites by the local authority. Members can now trade without fear of harassment. The achievements of the TTHW gave visibility to the association and several local actors, among them politicians, approached TTHW when campaigning and mobilizing for votes. The street vendors can cause a wave by supporting a given politician in a given constituency. Thirdly, while it is often assumed that street vendors are unorganized, the Thika example shows the opposite. Street vendors can come together and organize themselves in a manner that can efficiently address both their welfare issues and their economic empowerment. Lastly, the TTHW association, like most street vendors associations in Kenya, is faced with challenges that its members cannot solve on their own. The case of the second-hand book street sellers is telling, as it is caused by changes in the education system about which street vendors have no say.
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 A self-help group is an informal group of people who come together to address their common problems. Their main motive for forming an association is the need for mutual support.
 In Kenya, SACCOs (Savings and credit cooperative societies) are financial cooperatives that aim to meet the financial needs of all members, in particular by encouraging savings and granting loans to members. It is up to its members to manage it democratically.