Love them or loathe them, street vendors are here to stay
Street vendors are a common sight in Kigali, even if they are not allowed to be there. Thus they lead a hazardous existence of trying to sell their wares while avoiding police. Some shopkeepers also would like to see them disappear. Yet there are always clients.
The hassle between Kigali street vendors and both local defense and police goes on as the vendors have vowed to keep to their heels. After being told to find a decent place to work from rather than roaming the streets, and the effort by Kigali city council to avail Biryogo market for them, the street vendors have chosen the hard the hard way: playing cat and mouse with the local defence forces and police in the city center.
Damascene Twagira is a street vendor who specializes in second-hand women clothing. Living in Nyamirambo, he wakes up at five o’clock in the morning and leaves for Nyabugogo to purchase his merchandise. Afterwards, he gets his goods in order, which includes ironing the few clothes he will be presenting to whoever is interested in buying on the streets. “After getting ready with my merchandise, it is time to battle it out on the streets,” he says.
There, he meets fellow vendors and they start roaming about flashing their second-hand goods to passers-by, all the while trying to convince potential clients of the quality of the wares, and haggling prices. “It is not easy on the streets,” he remarks, “because every other second you expect to be caught by the police who will take your clothes away, and sometimes even take you to prison.”
Yet even with all these tribulations, the vendors are not ready to quit because their business is quite lucrative. “I cannot quit my job, because it profitable; it earns me and my family a living,” says Damascene. “For instance, a blouse I buy at Frw 300 at Nyabugogo market, I will probably sell it for between Frw 700 and 1,000.”
Buying your merchandise back from the police
According to Claudine Uwamariya, a vendor who specializes in selling vests and socks, there are times when the police get tough on them and confiscate all that they are caught with. “In this business you have to be very watchful, because when you are busy negotiating prices with the client, the local defense people can easily get hold of you and confiscate everything.”
She adds that sometimes police and local defense disguise themselves in civilian clothes, so it becomes even harder to recognize them. Asked what happens when her merchandise is confiscated, her body jolts and she starts watching both sides of the street more often as if the question has triggered her worries.
“It is terrible because you might not get your merchandise back, and sometimes if you follow up they charge you a lot of money – even up to twice the value of your merchandise. Then you have to start all over again,” Uwamariya laments.
A policeman, who didn’t wish his name to be mentioned, said that the vendors are not allowed to operate on the streets and that they have orders to stop them from operating on the streets. Asked what happens to the confiscated goods when the owners don’t show up to get them back, he said that it was not part of his job to know what happens with the confiscated goods, but to act upon orders and stop vendors from roaming the streets.
As the street vendors business is booming, some of the clothing and shoe shop owners within the city center are not happy as they claim that the street vendors are robbing them off clients, while others seem to be content with their freelance trading.
Robert Gatare owns a clothing shop on Commercial Street, and is not happy with the street vendors. For him, they are a hindrance to the prosperity of his business. He says that people buy clothes from the streets due to the cheap prices. “I pay rent for this shop, I pay all the taxes, and since some of my merchandise comes from across the border, I also incur heavy transport costs. So I cannot afford to sell at the same price as the street vendors.”
He says that people who own shops like his are facing unfair competition, because the people they are competing with do not pay taxes and they sell their merchandise at too low prices.
While Robert Gatare complains, Albert Mugisha, who owns a wholesale shop, has no problems with them. He says that they are useful to his business, as they buy their merchandise from him. “I sell my merchandise at wholesale prices, which is lower than the retail price; therefore, vendors come to my shop in big numbers,” he says. His stock never lasts long.
Jean Bosco Muhire, a client bargaining with a vendor, says that he opts to buy on the streets rather than in retail shops, because it’s cheaper to buy from a vendor than from the shop. “The price of a thing in the shop is two times higher than on the streets,” Muhire explains.
He adds that the quality of the goods is almost the same. “Some second-hand clothes and shoes are as good as those we buy from the shop.”