Hawking is employment and a socioeconomic right, not crime

Many hawkers in Kenya, from anecdotal evidence, have been women. They educate, feed, shelter and clothe their children with the income from what they knew best and how they knew best: Selling wares in the streets and markets. It is their sense of dignity.

But they are now being stripped of their pride and dignity through all the negligent demolitions.

Hawking has become a source of employment for many Kenyans. Young and old, men and women. Even university students have taken to hawking and running small food kiosks around campus to supplement their student loans. That is a reflection on the level of unemployment in the country.

It is also a reflection of the zeal, determination and initiative Kenyans have. The least the counties can do is to help and support hawkers by giving them an environment in which they can trade freely and contribute to the economy in their own small way. Blaming insecurity on hawkers alone is unfair and short-sighted.


Nearly 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to official statistics. Equally, youth unemployment is at 40 per cent and rising.

The violent way of approaching all our problems is not the solution. It is reminiscent of Hollywood trying to fight an invisible ‘alien’ in sci-fi movies with a machine gun when an exorcist would suffice. There are many global cities that have markets and kiosks within their CBDs and I fail to see what is so special about ours that small-scale traders are not welcome.

Many European cities encourage pop-up markets and restaurants, even during freezing winter, to entice people to come and spend. I love them.

They are colourful, buzzy, fun, cheap and cheerful. Most importantly, they keep people employed and still have clean organised cities.

My humble knowledge of economic science says every penny helps. We are not a welfare society, where unemployed citizens can get some subsistence from the government to survive. For Kenyans to have to turn to the streets to trade, it means opportunities are limited.


Hawkers should be lauded and not beaten for being creative enough to come up with solutions to their socio-economic challenges. They are one step ahead of the lazy official who is, clearly, sleeping on the job. How else can we explain the bribe-hunting county officials who, instead of supporting traders, usually rob them of their legitimate earnings created through blood, sweat and tears?

Leaders say they are frustrated by voters turning them into ATMs through constant begging. What did they expect, if they stand by and let injustice continue to be meted out on hawkers and all others ejected from the slums and markets? Demolition of slums and kiosks denies hawkers and slum dwellers their socio-economic rights, contrary to Article 43 of Chapter Four of the Constitution, at the core of which is decent shelter and the right to earn a living.

Inhibiting free movement of persons is equally against the law. That is why I disagree with the idea by a section of our leaders of relocating slum residents to their villages. What if they have no village to speak of? Some slum residents, like in Kibera, Nairobi, run into third or fourth generations and the slum is their village and city. The relocation idea is elitist.


The ‘Big Four’ agenda has manufacturing as one of its pillars. But that is still in the distant future. With hawking, we have a ready-made industry that has grown organically over the years and offered opportunities to many Kenyans. It might be worth looking at regulating it fairly and sympathetically to create order and expand it to help even more people.

We can’t cut everyone to the size of our cloth. Herding everyone towards white-colour jobs is not a realistic way to tackle poverty and joblessness. Some people fit where they fit for lack of an education, skills or ‘tall’ relative or due to a physical impairment.

Suggesting that a locality is only good for the super-rich and saying small-scale traders are not welcome smacks of discrimination. If this was apartheid South Africa, we would be crying foul and shouting racism.

Hawkers are like plants necking for sun to survive. They will, therefore, pitch tent wherever they feel they can get the only shilling that day for food and rent.


The onus is on those mandated to help them to meet them halfway.

All the government needs to do is provide markets and temporary shelters, toilets, clean water and security. It may also insist on training in food hygiene to stave off perennial cholera outbreaks.

Wira ni wira (any job will suffice). Let hawkers be; they deserve that slice of ugali, too, as much as the cool and urbane professional.

We need to be kinder and much more humane, especially to those working hard and trying to rise above poverty through the ‘kadogo economy’.

Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. kdiguyo@gmail.com

Story first published in the Daily Nation: https://www.nation.co.ke/oped/opinion/Hawking-is-employment-and-a-socioeconomic-right–not-crime/440808-4762648-7e6ghf/index.html

24 September, 2018

The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.


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