The daily grind of street vendors comes with a host of obvious business challenges: sourcing and preparing goods to sell; attracting a steady stream of customers; and generating enough take-home pay to survive. It’s a hustle, and one that these roadside entrepreneurs know well.
But the hustle only goes so far.
Conducting their livelihoods in public spaces, street vendors face difficult challenges extending beyond their everyday business transactions. Woefully inadequate infrastructure, particularly around access to clean water and toilets, often wreaks havoc on their working lives. Multiple costs – including trips to the toilet and water delivery – cut into already meagre earnings. Limited access takes a toll on vendors’ mental and physical health, further reducing their earning potential.
Woefully inadequate infrastructure, particularly around access to clean water and toilets, often wreaks havoc on their working lives.
These are key findings from research by WIEGO and International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) with street vendors in Nakuru (Kenya) and Durban (South Africa). Funded by DFID’s ICED facility, the study was conducted with WIEGO partner Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) and StreetNet International’s affiliate Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders (KENASVIT).
The partners examined how inadequate access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) has affected vendors, and found that the resulting economic, health and environmental burdens can have long-term consequences that may further entrench workers’ poverty and exclusion.
In Durban, water and toilet expenses cut out 8-12% of vendors’ monthly earnings. In Nakuru, these cost burdens were even higher: vendors spent approximately 20% of their incomes on WASH.
In Nakuru, vendors spent approximately 20% of their incomes on WASH.
“Improving economic opportunities for the poor cannot happen in a vacuum,” explains Laura Alfers, director of WIEGO’s social protection programme. “Street vendors are out there every day trying to earn an income, but policymakers need to address these structural inequities that hinder those at the base of the pyramid from making a living and a life.”
Charges even for toilet paper
Street vendors already struggle to make enough to survive; the cost of accessing toilets and clean water only adds to that burden. WASH services are needed on a daily basis and often several times in a working day, which means that these recurring fees can be endless.
Most vendors use pay-per-use toilets in Durban and Nakuru, where some facilities may even charge extra for toilet paper. Paying for services, however, doesn’t guarantee quality. Many vendors still struggled to access clean or convenient sanitation, even when free options were available. In Durban, free toilets may fall into disuse, often close early, or have excessively long queues.
In addition, many vendors need WASH to conduct their businesses and for women, the burdens of meagre WASH are especially challenging. Women often need to visit toilets more frequently and may also bring their children, who often accompany them to work.
“Street vendors are out there every day trying to earn an income, but policymakers need to address these structural inequities that hinder those at the base of the pyramid from making a living and a life,” explains Laura Alfers, director of WIEGO’s social protection programme.
Food sellers are overwhelmingly female, and these vendors particularly depend upon water to wash their dishes, hands, and vegetables or other foods. However, WIEGO's Informal Economy Monitoring Study found that only 28% of vendors in Durban had access to water and 47% in Nakuru.
As a result, vendors in Durban must pay for water drums – R5 for a 20-litre or 25-litre drum – plus extra delivery charges (another R3 to R10 per drum). That also means that female food-sellers are unequally burdened with WASH-related costs of conducting their livelihoods.
All of these fees – multiple trips to the toilet, toilet paper, water delivery costs, water itself – are just part of the economic losses for vendors lacking adequate WASH.
Time away results in lost customers
For these small entrepreneurs, time is money – and running after all these services takes a toll on their business in myriad ways.
In Durban, more than 35% of surveyed vendors spent upwards of 30 minutes to access water – and nearly 10% spent over an hour a day. In the cut-throat world of street vending, potential customers can easily be snatched up by neighbouring sellers.
As one respondent from Durban noted: “Sometimes when someone is at your table without you being there, another trader will say, ‘come this side’”.
In Durban, more than 35% of surveyed vendors spent upwards of 30 minutes to access water.
Even more insidious are the extractions from local officials for leaving goods unattended, which represent a violation of Durban’s bylaws.
Mental and physical health stresses add up
Alongside the economic costs, there are the major yet invisible burdens upon vendors’ physical and psychosocial well-being. Finding, waiting and paying for toilets multiple times a day is a stressful endeavour.
Vendors also recognised that inadequate water and sanitation may affect their relations with customers and with fellow traders. In Nakuru, vendors linked the lack of toilets to business closures, several health impacts, environmental pollution, and family- or employment-related conflicts. As they explained: “Lack of toilets can lead to conflict between employers and employees if the employee takes long to access toilets, and this becomes a source of stress for the employee”.
Alongside the economic costs, there are the major yet invisible burdens upon vendors’ physical and psychosocial well-being.
Traders in both cities also identified several pathways between inadequate WASH and health burdens, including medical expenditures and the opportunity costs of seeking treatment.
Addressing WASH has far-reaching potential
Clean, safe and affordable WASH facilities are among the most vital infrastructure that municipalities can provide. With adequate provision, there can be multiple positive outcomes, both for the workers and the city overall.
Hygienic conditions can address customer-confidence issues, reduce stigma against vendors, and improve their workplaces. These outcomes not only significantly improve vendors’ earning potential, but can also create safer and healthier communities.
To meet the Sustainable Development Goals for ending poverty while providing decent work and universal access to WASH, solutions must address the daily challenges faced by those at the base of the pyramid.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, and for real change to happen, informal workers should be given a voice in key decision-making processes affecting their lives. Only then can we begin to measure and achieve meaningful progress.