Vital Contributors to Urban Economies
Street vendors are an integral part of urban economies around the world, offering easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces. They sell everything from fresh vegetables to prepared foods, from building materials to garments and crafts, from consumer electronics to auto repairs to haircuts.
The Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS) revealed ways in which street vendors in five cities strengthen their communities:
- Most street vendors provide the main source of income for their households, bringing food to their families and paying school fees for their children.
- These informal workers have strong linkages to the formal economy. Over half the IEMS sample said they source the goods they sell from formal enterprises. Many customers work in formal jobs.
- Many vendors try to keep the streets clean and safe for their customers and provide them with friendly personal service.
- Street vendors create jobs, not only for themselves but for porters, security guards, transport operators, storage providers, and others.
- Many generate revenue for cities through payments for licenses and permits, fees and fines, and certain kinds of taxes. This was true of two thirds of street vendors in the IEMS sample.
Street trade also adds vibrancy to urban life and in many places is considered a cornerstone of historical and cultural heritage. For example, street vendors who sell chai, called "chai-wallahs," are an important part of India's cultural heritage. See photos and video of chai-wallahs in action and read about how they are innovating this centuries-old practice to meet the demands of the present.
Despite their contributions, street vendors face many challenges, are often overlooked as economic agents and unlike other businesses, are hindered rather than helped by municipal policies and practices.
Roever, Sally. 2016. "Street Vendors and Cities." Environment and Urbanization. Vol 28, No. 2.
Roever, Sally. 2014. IEMS Sector Report: Street Vendors. WIEGO.
Street vendors are a large and very visible workforce in cities, yet it is difficult to accurately estimate their numbers. Official statistics are available for some countries, though they may underestimate the population engaged in street vending (see Challenges of Gathering Statistics on Street Vendors).
Street trade accounts for a significant proportion of informal non-agricultural employment in Africa. Street vendors make up 13 per cent in Dakar, Senegal; 19 per cent in Cotonou, Benin; and 24 per cent in Lomé, Togo.
In some Asian and Latin American cities, street vendors form a large portion of the urban workforce:
- Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam: 11 per cent
- Lima, Peru: 9 per cent
National level statistics reveal that street vendors account for 11 per cent of total urban employment in India and 15 per cent in South Africa.
ILO and WIEGO. 2013. Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture. 2nd Edition. ILO.
Herrera, Javier, Mathias Kuépié, Christophe J. Nordman,Xavier Oudin and François Roubaud. 2012. Informal Sector and Informal Employment: Overview of Data for 11 Cities in 10 Developing Countries. WIEGO.
Street Vending and Gender
In many countries, especially in Africa, the majority of street vendors are women: 88 per cent in Ghana, 68 per cent in South Africa, and 63 per cent in Kenya (ILO and WIEGO 2013). Only in a few countries where cultural norms restrict women’s economic activities do women account for 10 per cent or less of street vendors.
Women’s and Men’s Informal Employment in Street Trade (%)
Available evidence suggests a higher share of women than men sell perishable goods (Roever 2014), which are more likely than other goods to spoil or to be confiscated. Other research has shown that women street vendors typically earn less than men—and in many countries, less than half as much as men (Chen and Snodgrass 2001).
Low barriers to entry, limited start-up costs, and flexible hours are some of the factors that draw street vendors to the occupation. Many people enter street vending because they cannot find a job in the formal economy.
But surviving as a street vendor requires a certain amount of skill. Competition among vendors for space in the streets and access to customers is strong in many cities. And vendors must be able to negotiate effectively with wholesalers and customers.
Street trade can offer a viable livelihood, but earnings are low and risks are high for many vendors, especially those who sell fresh fruits and vegetables (Roever 2014). Having an insecure place of work is a significant problem for those who work in the streets. Lack of storage, theft or damage to stock are common issues.
By-laws governing street trade can be confusing and licenses hard to get, leaving many street vendors vulnerable to harassment, confiscations and evictions. The IEMS research found that even vendors with a license had trouble finding a secure vending location, and those following the regulations sometimes had their goods confiscated. Learn more about Street Vendors and The Law .
Françoise, Carré. 2014. Location, Location, Location: The Life of a Refugee Street Barber in Durban, South Africa.
Occupational Health and Safety
Working outside, street vendors and their goods are exposed to strong sun, heavy rains and extreme heat or cold. Unless they work in markets, most don’t have shelter or running water and toilets near their workplace. Inadequate access to clean water is a major concern of prepared food vendors.
Street vendors face other routine occupational hazards. Many lift and haul heavy loads of goods to and from their point of sale. Market vendors are exposed to physical risk due to a lack of proper fire safety equipment, and street vendors are exposed to injury from the improper regulation of traffic in commercial areas.
Insufficient waste removal and sanitation services result in unhygienic market conditions and undermine vendors’ sales as well as their health, and that of their customers. Read about a project to address occupational health and safety issues in Warwick Junction, South Africa here.
Vulnerability to Economic Downturns
Economic downturns have a big impact on vendors’ earnings. In 2009, an Inclusive Cities research project found many street vendors reported a drop in consumer demand and an increase in competition as the newly unemployed turned to vending for income.
A second round of research, done in 2010, found demand had not recovered for most vendors, and many had to raise prices due to the higher cost of goods. Competition had increased further as large retailers aggressively tried to attract customers.
The 2012 Informal Economy Monitoring Study confirmed that rising prices and increased competition were still affecting street vendors in several cities. Vendors said their stock was more expensive, but they had difficulty passing on rising costs to consumers, who expect to negotiate low prices on the streets. More competition means vendors take home lower earnings.
For more information and links to reports, see The Global Economic Crisis & the Urban Informal Economy.
Street vending generates enormous controversy in cities throughout the world (Bromley 2000). Debates involve registration and taxation, individual vs. collective rights, health and safety regulations – especially where food is involved – and urban planning and governance. See Street Vending: Key Debates.
Urban policies and local economic development strategies rarely prioritize livelihood security for informal workers. Urban renewal projects, infrastructure upgrades and mega events routinely displace street vendors from natural markets, leaving the most vulnerable without a workplace.
Good practice documentation shows vendors can help with urban management challenges like crime and cleaning. Also, basic infrastructure – shelters, toilets, electricity and water – can both improve vendor work environments and make public space safer, more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.
Some cities are working with street vendors’ organizations to formulate innovative policies, programmes and practices that enable vendors to have a voice in making their cities more inclusive.
Bangkok is possibly one of the world’s “jewels” when it comes to selling goods and services in public spaces both day and night. Vending in Public Space: The Case of Bangkok (Yasmeen and Nirathron 2014) examines how this situation came to be, especially given the country’s evolving political and economic agenda.
Kumar, Randhir. 2012. The Regularization of Street Vending in Bhubaneshwar, India: A Policy Model. WIEGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 7.
Membership-based organizations help street vendors navigate their relationship with the authorities, build solidarity and solve problems with other vendors. Several have developed innovative ways to work with cities to keep the streets clean and safe while gaining a secure livelihood for vendors.
- The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), members of the WIEGO Network, were instrumental in making India’s National Law on Street Vending a reality. This national law recognizes, regulates and protects the livelihoods of street vendors. Read about their struggle in the WIEGO MBO newsletter (April 2014).
- In Durban, South Africa, street vendor organizations came together (supported by Asiye eTafuleni, StreetNet, unions and other civil society organizations) to fight the threat that the Warwick Junction market would be demolished to make way for a formal mall. Read Saving the “Mother Market”.