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Dealing with street vending

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Walking along urban streets of Malawi, you will be welcomed by hordes of pedestrians and the hooting of vehicles while paving the way for them to pass through a heavily congested road.

Among other things that are taking place in urban cities of Malawi, street vending is the principal cause of accidents as this is making the already narrow roads narrower when the space for pedestrians is occupied by vendors selling merchandise.

But how can we deal with the issue of street vending?

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According to Malawi laws, street vending is illegal as it raises debate on individual right to work and the collective right to public space.

Public space is understood as a collective space that every citizen is obliged to occupy without infringing on the right of fellow citizens to have it.

Mzuzu University geography lecturer Ignasio Jimu argues that it is critics, often from middle-class orientations, the educated and those highly placed in society who perceive street vending as a social problem and the vendors as saboteurs of the urban economy.

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In addition to this, street vending is also perceived to be an inefficient, backward, irrational and frequently unhygienic form of economic activity and street vendors are paraded as tax evaders and illegal consumers of public services and spaces.

It has been noted that street vendors compromise efforts to institute order in the organisation and utilisation of urban space. Therefore, street vending really needs to be dealt with.

In the process of dealing with street vending, the city councils have been engaging the police to drive the people out of the streets.

This is once in a while and some people say the police demand something to do this good work. What if the government, through city councils, joined hands to deal with this illegal behaviour?

When he was Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika said: “You will get out of the streets into designated marketplaces whether you like it or not. I cannot lose elections because of 17,000 vendors”.

As someone who has sworn to defend the Constitution and make sure that all the citizens are enjoying the benefits of the mother land, the President really needs to put a hand in dealing with this non-hygienic behaviour.

One of the vendors in Blantyre market complained that he pays city rates and monthly rentals to the owner of the shop to sell his clothes, but before customers find him to buy these clothes, street vendors who don’t pay any tax to sell their staff or rent swerve the mind of customers and make his potential customers buy from them, leaving him with nothing to pay for rent and tax.

Sometimes building more markets might be viewed as a solution to street vending as some students doing social work at DMI St John the Baptist University Lilongwe campus put it.

But we can see that street vendors are not in the streets because of lack of market space. Among some of the reasons for them to snub designated areas fear of tax, following customers and running away from shop rentals.

Some vendors complain that markets are too small to accommodate people running small business. As a result, they resort to go to the streets and sell their commodities to people who are passing by while some are saying they assist customers who do not have time to go to the market by taking the commodities to the streets.

Despite all the reasons people give, street vending exposes weaknesses in urban management systems and it is the duty of the city managers to find ways of dealing with this illegal activity.

Informal vendors are now taking the very scarce space that was meant for pedestrians. Yes, illegal activities will always be more profitable than legal ones. But this is not how things should be. Let us clean our urban areas.

The author is campus librarian at DMI-St John the Baptist University, Lilongwe campus

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