• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Hawking and the road not taken

Street Trading

Beyond running after moving vehicles to sell their goods and facing some challenging situations, most hawkers have dreams they may never actualise, as street-trading influence lingers beyond their imaginations write OBINNA EMELIKE and MABEL DIMMA

 
Beyond the recent threat by the Lagos State government to invoke the law against hawking in the state, the pathetic aspect of the story of the hawking business is that it is like the opium which, once sniffed, cast its hold on the sniffer. Nigeria may have lost many engineers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc to that hazardous venture.
When the 14-seater Peace Mass Transit Toyota Hiace bus left the garage to Lagos that beautiful morning of October 10, 2013, Hilary Ugwu did not bid farewell to Abakaliki, his city of birth.
There was no need to be emotional because the teenager was sure of returning to the city in April to write the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination.
His trip to Lagos was to join his hustler cousin at Idumota market in Lagos Island in hawking fairly-used cloths in order to raise money to buy JAMB form, register, sit and pass the examination in fulfillment of the conditions given by a foundation offering him scholarship.
Three years down the line, the poor but brilliant Hilary still hawks fairly-used cloths. He cannot recall what happened to his ambition of becoming the first lawyer in his kindred, but always groaned at the seven Alphas (7As) he made in the West African Senior School Certificate that is lying waste.
While Hilary, (now in his early 20s) can still retrace his steps if helped, Tosin Kazeem, a 28-year fruit hawker in popular CMS Lagos, has resigned to her fate after dropping out of school at Senior Secondary One (SS1) in 2004 due to teenage pregnancy. Though the once brilliant student wanted to return to school after having stillbirth, the prevailing situation then forced her to self-help, and eventually hawking groundnut from Orile in 2006 to Ojuelegba and now fruits in CMS. That was how her hope of becoming a chartered accountant was dashed.
As well, Enuma Mordi, a snack and soft drinks hawker at Cele Bus Stop, Lagos, regretted that his dream of becoming an international footballer is dying at the expense of hawking. “I started hawking to raise money for foreign club trial in Madrid, Spain in 2014. We were to go by road through the desert and I was asked to bring N400,000 for the trip. Having no helper, I decided to hawk because one of my friends used it to raise money to travel to South Africa last two years. But raising that money through hawking has not been easy”, Enuma disclosed.
The young man joined street boys to play to keep fit some weekends, but feared losing form and may not travel again.
However, Hilary, Tosin and Enuma are not alone. Of course, there are over 50, 000 hawkers in Lagos alone, who ply their trade on streets, open spaces, major roads and especially on highway during traffic jam. Out of the over 50,000 hawkers are dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, pilots among professionals that never materialised.
But one common denominator of the hawkers is lack of skills. This also buttressed the fact that the hawkers can engage in apprenticeship or acquire skills in other endeavours to better their lives as education eludes them. Yet, 50 percent of hawkers in the country today, especially Lagos chose to hawk.
“One madam that likes me once asked me to come and learn hair dressing free of charge in her salon, but I declined because of the small profit and freedom I think I am enjoying hawking my fruits”, Tosin said.
“One NGO came here promising to guarantee us in acquiring skills in plumbing, alumaco, welding, tilling, hair dressing, fashion and design, movie making, bartending among others that will make us self-reliant. It was in partnership with Lagos State government and they promised to give us startup capital or buy us equipment. We doubted their sincerity, but five hawkers that followed them are working for themselves now. I truly regret not making that move because you have to pay now, fill forms and bring guarantors who pay tax to participate”, Elvis Uduma, a plantain chips hawker, said.
What is bothering Elvis, who is now 24 years, is how long he will keep hawking considering the meager profit he makes daily due to the economic downturn. He makes an average of N1,500 for selling around five bags of plantain chips a day, Tosin makes N2000 from hawking fruits every day. But the guys who sell snacks and cold soft drinks make the most money. But that was then and not now that commuters are struggling with high cost of transportation.
It is obvious hawkers make money, but amid risks, molestations and negative influences. “On January 19this year, a fellow hawker was knocked down by a bullion van while running to collect his money from a customer on a moving commercial bus. With siren and armed occupants, the van meandered through the traffic. We took our friend to hospital, but he cannot hawk again due to broken legs”, Elvis said.
“I always pay my hawking permit; sometimes N500, N7000 or N1000 depending on the local tout group that is collecting it. However, I always pray not to fall into the hands of KAI brigade. That is the worst because they will arrest you and seize your goods for hawking”, Tosin said.
But the worst for Hilary is that some criminals pretend to be hawkers and rob unsuspecting motorists and bringing bad name to them.
“One day, I witnessed a well-dressed young man change his cloth to sometime rag and forcefully collected a carton from a hawker. Within 20 minutes we heard gun shots. He was alone and robbed motorists on gunpoint. We could not do anything because police vehicle was parked nearby and they should have heard the shooting”, Hilary said, but not holding brief for some hawkers who due to bad influence do all sorts of things to survive.
But the bombshell for these hawkers is the decision by the Lagos State government to enforce the Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law 2003 which restricts street trading and hawking in the metropolis. The enforcement took effect from July 1, 2016 and many hawkers have already been arrested and some are facing prosecutions for hawking. The law, which recommends 90,000 fine, six months jail term or both for hawkers and even those who buy from them, might be a blessing in disguise for those who lack the will to leave hawking.
Besides those whose goods are seized and others facing prosecutions, the foremost casualty of the enforcement is a street hawker who was knocked down by an articulated truck while trying to evade arrest from officials of Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) along Maryland Bus stop on Wednesday last week.
But the big question is what will they do now? “I still want to go back to school”, Hilary said. Elvis insisted on traveling out, though he has a balance of N150,000 for the N400,000 required for his trip to Spain for football trial.  But Tosin is hoping to learn hair dressing if anybody can help her access a little from the Lagos State N25 billion Employment Trust Fund to enable her open a saloon afterwards.
But majority of the male hawkers think commercial motorcycle popularly known as ‘Okada’ is the easiest way of staying in Lagos and out of KIA’s dragnet, as if the law will not go after Okada riders as witnessed in the past. But a few who cannot cope are thinking of relocating to other states and cities where hawking is allowed.
Putting herself in the shoes of the helpless hawkers, Oby Ezekwesili, a foremost activist, asked: “Hawking is option of last resort. How many if they had better options would choose hawking?”
She noted that they are hawkers because of lack of skills, even the ones with skills and education are forced into hawking because of no jobs, and are all the result of poor economic opportunities.
For her, hawkers, which are part of the informal economy in Nigeria worth 41.1 percent, according to Nigeria Bureau of statistics (NBS) 2015 GDP report, are usually threatened with bans because: “Not just Nigeria public sector, but other economies sadly treat informal sector with a lot of suspicion. The reason Public Sector mostly suspects informality is it equates it with criminality; a policy dilemma”.
Instead of the ban on hawking, Ezekwesili said a “soft system of organising’ is an incentive to separate hawking from illegality, hence recommends licensing with Targeted Support.
Based on the Targeted Support, Kelvin Iyaste, a lawyer, noted that a few of the hawkers who are of school age should be encouraged to go back to school, while those who can learn skills should do so in order to better their lives.  “Whenever I see a hawker, I keep asking why he or she chose to do that. You can take up a job in the many shopping malls opening everyday because you need little or no qualification to get in there. The hotel sector offer many job opportunities as well. For me, instead of hawking, I will go for something that has future. Of course, I did bus conducting to augment my school fees. Today, some bus conductors I know then are still around from one bus and garage to the other. That is not life and same as hawking”.
Well, while all these sound ‘Greek’ to most hawkers. The only language they understand now is what else to do beyond hawking as the hard economic realities of our time is enough to lure a few of them into crime to make ends meet. “Nobody cares if I live or die, so why should I care if someone is dying”, a hawker was heard saying to probably a relation on phone.  If he can say that to a close person, he can do anything to others if situation pushes him to the wall.
This is the time the services of business development consultants are needed most, NGOs, social clubs and even religious organsiations. All they need is to help gather and organise some hawkers who are willing into groups to enable them access the Lagos State N25 billion Employment Trust Fund, change their business, go back to school or learn some skills.
 But who will bell the cat as the hawkers are truly on their own?
OBINNA EMELIKE and MABEL DIMMA