Street Hawking and its Impacts on Urban Space


Most capital cities are fast undergoing rapid urbanization which has been associated with a number of development challenges. Key among these challenges is deterioration in urban environment and urban poverty (Macharia, 2013). Most capital cities in the world are expanding rapidly both in human population, buildings and infrastructure. These cities face many problems such as mushrooming of slums, environmental degradation, unemployment and urban poverty. Due to inadequate opportunities in acquiring formal employment, many people set up informal enterprises such as hawking to earn a living. However, the potential of hawking activities is believed to cause many environmental concerns such as pollution of the rivers, air and noise pollution. The urban space are not designed to empower people or provide vibrant places for small entrepreneurs and informal activities (hawkers) can trade and manufacture at viable location hence the purpose of Environmental Planning and Management is to create a healthy city with sound environmental conditions and to integrate these hawking activities into Nairobi city planning.

Worldwide there are six identifiable problems of street traders which are, cost of regulation, harassment, bribes, confiscation and evictions, lack of services, and infrastructure and lack of representation. Women in employment globalizing and organizing (WIGO) has spearheaded research and policy dialogue in six Africa counties, namely, South Africa, Ghana, Cote d ivoire, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Experts reveal that women dominate street hawking. This is due to limited economic opportunities for women in both the urban and rural areas, gender bias in education and augmenting husband income. Besides these facts street hawking has a special appeal for women due to flexibility.

Street trade is an important economic activity that sustains a significant percentage of rural and urban dwellers especially the developing countries. The activity falls among the small and micro enterprises that form a main thrust for economic development in developing countries. This sector operates outside the mainstream economic development, and falls within the informal economic activities in the urban space (Macharia, 2010).

According to Macharia, difficult economic situation and high poverty levels has seen made many to consider hawking as one of the channel to fostering the private sector’s contribution to both growth and equity of development (Macharia, 2010). International labour organization estimates shows that small and micro enterprise account for 59% of sub-Saharan African’s urban labour force. However, their activities, working condition, relations with authorities, policies and regulations governing them are not well observed.

Historical Development of Street Hawking

Many sub-Saharan African countries have been experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization from both natural increase and high rates of migration into the cities and large towns (Obiri, 1996). The contemporary situation is that of the migration of young people from the hinterland into the main centres of commercial activity. In the cities and towns, most of these young persons have difficulty in finding jobs in the formal economic sectors due to their often limited education and lack of skills for formal employment. In their quest to make a living, many of these persons, have no other choice than to take to the streets to fashion out a living. They live on the streets and are exposed to the vagaries of street life, including rape, commercial sex work and crime. This growing segment of the vulnerable urban poor population is often overlooked mainly because they have no recognized addresses and are usually seen more as a liability rather than a potential labour force that could contribute to the national income if their interests are properly taken care of. The huge number of people on the street that have often fuelled successive governments promises of job creation (Obiri, 1996).

Hawking in Nairobi dates back to the coming of the railway in 1899 when Nairobi was founded and settlement started (Macharia, 2010). Nairobi owes its origin to being a construction camp for the railway being built between Mombasa and Uganda. A number of Indian employees began the process by planting fruits and vegetables along Nairobi River. Some of this was sold to Europeans. African employees realized the gains inherent in hawking and started their own hawking businesses in urban spaces. As more Africans opted for hawking instead of wage labour, the activity started to be controlled restrictions especially on fruits and vegetables the number kept on growing. By 1914 there were an estimated 2000 hawkers and by 1920s the municipal council had to include a special provision in the by-laws granting free hawking licenses to cultivators selling their own produce. By 1941, 41% of hawker’s licenses were for fruit and vegetables.  When the state of emergency began in 1952, the number of hawkers licenses issued to Africans was reduced from 732 to 594. In 1953 the hawking of charcoal and tea was completely abolished. In 1954 the only street trading permitted in the commercial and residential areas of Nairobi were selling of newspapers, and even this was restricted.

When the state of emergency was lifted in 1961, the number of hawkers increased with population growth. Many people especially those coming from Kikuyu areas near Nairobi, opted for hawking after failing to find employment. At this time, the issue was not whether they should be allowed to hawk but how hawking could be organized and how many to be licensed. This led to the building of new markets on the eve of independence and thereafter. Since then the number of hawkers has constantly increased. According to Nairobi city council licensing superintendent, there were about 30,000 hawkers in the urban city space in 1984, but the press maintained it was 45,000 or more despite these enormous numbers the city council issue only 5,000 licenses a year. The negligence of the street vending activities has resulted in the lack of accurate estimates of the numbers of street traders. In 1999, street based workers in Kenya were estimated to number 416,294. This accounted for 5.2% of the non-agricultural labour force of which women were 3.9 %.

Empirical Literature

According Mitullah (2003), the majority of the street vendors are women made up of all marital status groups – the married, single, widowed and divorced. Mutullah’s study also reports that often widows and women who have been deserted by their spouses opt for the street trade. Again, these traders are reported to have very low levels of education and few have had any professional training. Also important is the finding that men tend to join street trade while young and leave early for other jobs, while women join street trade later in life and continue till old age. These studies further document some of the negative factors that affect street vending to include high levels of personal insecurity particularly in the Uganda, Ghana and Kenya case studies (Mitullah, 2003). Due to the informal nature of their activities, street vendors‟ associations are weak to engage in any meaningful dialogue with city authorities. Consequently, where the associations exist, they are not in a position to do any effective negotiations with city authorities on behalf of the vendors (Amin, 1994). One fundamental issue Mitullah’s study highlights is the fact that women who are involved in street vending are often pushed to paying bribes to obtain licenses to operate and in some cases, offer sexual favours to law enforcement officers, a situation which is detrimental to their health, especially in this era of HIV/AIDS (Mitullah, 2003). From the available literature, a number of factors affect the decision of persons to go into street hawking. These include principally the poverty situation of individuals, their age and sex, employment opportunities in the formal sector, level of education and migration status. Other factors that may push one to the street as a hawker are the household living conditions especially of children, spousal desertion, perception towards alternative jobs and non-enforcement of city authority bye-laws. Once on the street as hawkers, they are involved in several behaviours and practices for the sake of survival (Mitullah, 2003). These include their life-styles, sexual relationships and the emergence of associations primarily to seek the welfare of the hawkers as well as negotiate on their behalf with city authorities. These developments tend to have short and long-term effects on the individual hawker and his/her household/family (i.e., in terms of security, risks, welfare, etc.), the national income, city planning and development. When all these effects are considered at the individual and national levels, it could result in one of two possible outcomes: (i) the sustainability of street hawking as a permanent occupation as more and more people continue to hawk or join the trade on account of the benefits they derive from it or (ii) the decision to abandon street hawking for other alternative jobs either in the formal or informal sector. Again, depending on the preparedness of city authorities to evolve and implement appropriate policies and bye-laws, street hawking would continue to thrive, be minimized or curtailed completely (Mitullah, 2003).

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Nature of Street Hawking

Street hawkers and street vendors were one of four categories of informal workers identified by the 1993 International Conference of Labor Statisticians in their efforts to address the “place of work” of informal workers. The categorization gives no further details or clarification of who comprise the two groups of informal workers. Experts also identify a class of “street-operated businesses,” by which they mean the informal economic units who located “inwards to the streets from the building line or in circulation areas of public places.” Similarly, Yankson (2000) identifies informal units who operated in public spaces in central city areas and residential neighborhoods. Exactly who qualifies as a street trader or street vendor still remains unclear. There are interchangeable usages of the expressions, „market vendor, ‟ street vendor, ‟ street trader, ‟ vendor‟ and “hawker” in the informal economy discourse and these terms are loosely defined both across and within cultures. In some countries, the term, “street vendor” encompasses vendors in organized marketplaces, pavement sellers, mobile street hawkers, and home-based vendors. In others, marketplace vendors are a separate category and depending on the context, street vendors may be legal or illegal.

Researchers recognize street vending as a key feature of the urban informal economy and defines it as the production and exchange of legal goods and services that involves the lack of appropriate business permits, violation of zoning codes, failure to report tax liability, non-compliance with labor regulations governing contracts and work conditions, and/or the lack of legal guarantees in relations with suppliers and clients. The City of Durba in its policy on informal street trading defines informal trading as the economic activities undertaken by entrepreneurs who sell legal goods and services within a space deemed to be public property (where private property rights are not well defined and non-excludability may lead to congestion and negative externalities), within the informal sector.

The Prevalence of Street Hawking

The prevalence of informal economic livelihood activities in the public spaces of developing cities is gradually attracting research attention (Macharia, 2010). Over the past decade or two, municipal, city councils and metropolitan governments in many developing cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been grappling with the urban spatial problem. This involves the urban management challenge of accommodating street vendors and dealing with some environmental externalities associated with their unauthorized occupation and their activities generate in the urban natural and built environment. Once overlooked in national statistics, there is now a growing recognition of the informal economy as an important component of the urban and national economy, employing more than 80% of the workforce in Kenya and 40% in the Nairobi and its environs. Informal trading activity is a major feature of informal employment in the city of Nairobi and its growth in recent times has been associated with a corresponding spatial importance in terms of location of informal traders. Vendors‟ quest for commercial space in Nairobi has led to the occupation of public space with particular prominence in the central city. The unauthorized occupation of public space e.g. the streets and the negative impacts of informal vendors on urban natural and built environment e.g. littering pose important policy challenges for city management in Nairobi thus, recently attracting policy attention. Nairobi faces a spatial problem of making commercial space for informal traders, reclaiming of illegally occupied public space and solving some environmental problems associated with street vendors. Empirically, in the Nairobi, areas such as Moi Avenue, Tom Mboya Street and Ronal Ngala , just to mention a few are often seen filthy as a result of the activities of street hawkers comparatively to those areas where the activities of street hawkers are minimal. These pose a lot of health hazards not only to the street hawkers but those who buy from them and the entire country (Macharia, 2009)

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Vehicles driving along the main Nairobi CBD roads are bombarded with women, men, girls and boys selling items ranging the market to buy products such as dresses and food stuffs like fruits. The ease of receiving item at your window however comes with a price. Street hawking puts the hawking puts the hawkers‟ lives at risk as they often hit and sometimes killed by moving vehicles. Hawkers in the CBD locate themselves at strategic point where there is heavy human traffic such as main roads and market and where they can be seen by pedestrians and motorists. While the urban authorities in the cities view vending sites as temporary, the vendors view them as permanent. Street hawking attracts those who have limited access to formal employment and education and has proven to be a lucrative business for immigrants to Nairobi.

The Frequency of Street Hawking

Urban space in developing cities is a key element of the physical capital in the livelihood strategies of a good number of urban residents, mainly the poor (Brown, 2006). This is because most households in developing cities obtain part or all of their income from informal economic activities such as petty trading and manufacture, which rely on access to urban space making it a critical physical livelihood asset (Brown, 2002).  Experts classify urban informal workers by their degree of visibility. The least visible workers (the majority of them women) operate from homes selling or producing goods and services. The less visible workers operate from small factories and petty commodity manufacture or repair workshops. The most visible informal workers are those with a ubiquitous presence in urban public spaces; who operate in the open air, especially along main transportation routes and arteries. Vibrant informal vending activities transpire in streets pavements, walkways, and other venues in public space (Yankson, 2000). Other areas along major thoroughfares and streets; areas around market places, bus stops, work sites and preferred downtown locations attract large concentrations of street vendors and other informal operators. In many of these locations in the public spatial domain, high pedestrian traffic provides ready market for informal goods and services. Being the most visible of all informal activities, informal street vending and affiliate activities tend to influence the nature of the urban environment and landscape and hence, attract the most attention from local government and urban policy makers.

Although, street vending is a phenomenon least acknowledged in daily discourses it is possibly the most visible and significant aspect and manifestation of how far informality has clipped the structure of urban economies in developing countries. Generally, the spatial manifestation of intense informal activities tends to gravitate towards the street and other public spaces in cities and towns. Witness this narrative by which researchers capture a typical scene of intense informal activity occurring in streets of developing low-income cities. City streets are lined with barbers, cobblers, garbage collectors; sellers of vegetables, fruit, meat, snack-foods, or a myriad of non-perishable items. In many countries, head-loaders, cart pullers, bicycle peddlers, rickshaw pullers jostle to make a way through the maze of cars, trucks, vans and buses on city streets. Also, most of these street hawkers start hawking as early as five o’clock in the morning and close as late as nine o’clock in the evening.

Characteristics of Street Hawkers

Street trade in Africa is an activity for women, men and children. However, women dominate the trade. Most hawkers are aged between 20 and 50 years, with few traders falling below 20 years and above 50 years. Children as young as ten years of age have been found hawking along streets and roadside. Some of these children assist their parents and relatives, whereas in some cases they are entrepreneurs in their own right. Majority of those engaged in the activity are married and have formal primary education.

Those dealing with street vendors are often concerned about whether street traders are doing their own businesses or are hired by others. In Kenya, the new breed of street vendors who sale expensive electrical equipment and leather products has often attracted attention. Most of these new breed of vendors are agents of formal firms and sell on commission. Many argue that street vendors might not be as independent as they appear. They may purchase or hire the goods they sell from the same supplier; they may be given goods by the supplier who pays more or less the equivalent of salary. However, all street vendors are informal workers and are exposed to similar problems. Street traders use different methods and structures for displaying their commodities. The methods include: piling commodities, for examples fruits, onions and tomatoes, loose vegetables; and using measuring equipment such as tins, spoons, and baskets among others. The structures used for displaying commodities include tables, racks, wheel burrows, handcarts, and bicycle seats. Others traders display their goods on the ground, over mats or gunny bags, while others simply carry their commodities on their hands and shoulders. There are also those that hang their goods such as clothes on walls, trees, fences and an advanced group that construct temporary shades with stands for displaying their commodities (Mitullah, 2003).

Street traders operate in sites that lack infrastructure and services such as shelter, roads, toilets, water and sewerage, and garbage collection. This exposes them to poor working conditions. While secure sites for operations remains a major pre-requisite of street trade, research from most African cities points out that very few cities have planned sites for vending. Most city authorities expect street vendors to move into markets, or stop operating illegally. This expectation has not been fulfilled and few innovative cities in South Africa such as Durban have initiated programmes that integrate street vendors in urban development. Nairobi, have accepted the operations of street vendors by setting aside specific lanes outside the central parts of the city for vendors, they however, are still to have specific policy relating to the informal economy and street trade in particular. Although relocation of street traders is a major step, the sites still lack services, while others are located away from busy areas and the vendors are reluctant to move to them. Most of them had been driven into the streets due to landlessness, retrenchment and poverty (Yawson, 2000).

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Across Africa, street vendors have indicated several reasons that have driven them into the streets: lack of space in the markets, lack of school fees, search for economic opportunity and income, strategic nature of street vending, family influence in form of supporting family member, entrepreneurship, lack of finance for larger business, evading taxation, orphan-hood, widowhood, low level of education and poverty. Trading life in the street is quite difficult. It begins as early as 4.30 am and ends as late at mid night depending on the country and city. A recent survey of 7,500 informal traders in Johannesburg, indicate that traders work on average between 8 to 11 hours a day, but in certain areas like Alexandra township the hours are much longer. In Kenya and specifically Nairobi, street vendors begin work as early as 5:30 am but trade until around 9 pm. Those trading late are located in areas with concentration of people such as transport nodes, bus parks/stops, clubs and other night spots. They serve customers with spicy foods and beverages at reasonable and affordable prices (Yawson, 2000).

Locations of vending also vary across countries and cities. They include: streets, parks, pavements within shopping centres, around public facilities such as religious institutions, schools, and clubs and at prominent corners of streets and roads where the vendors are visible to pedestrians and motorists. The Johannesburg City Council 2003 by-laws prohibits street vendors from blocking pavements or obstructing traffic; selling goods in public places such as parks, government and council buildings, churches, monuments, operating on sections of public roads that are close to residential buildings, using storm-water drains or manholes to dump rubbish, defacing or damaging public roads and public or private property, making fire in public place, sleeping in a place where street trading takes place or erecting structures for shelter (Tendai, 2003) Commodities of trade are many and vary across countries and cities. The most common commodities include fruits and vegetables, cereals, fish and meat products, processed food products, cosmetics, second hand clothes, plastic products. Other commodities include: cooking oils, sugar, stationary, detergents, curios, cigarettes and services such as hair dressing, shoe and watch repairs, sale of traditional herbs and medicines, transporters and newspaper vendors (Tendai, 2003)


Hawking is a source of daily livelihood for many people, especially as steppingstone towards better and permanent jobs in the future. Most hawkers start hawking after 7am sells their wares between moving vehicles in traffic and closes after 6pm. Also it can be concluded most hawkers who had been for 1 to 5 years do not own the items they sold. Categories of street hawkers commonly sold items such as fruits, sachet water, toys, mobile phone credit cards, shoes and sandals. Hawkers who hawked on full time basis do not do any alternative job apart from hawking and do not belong to any association of hawkers.


In order to curb the problems related to street hawking the following recommendations will be of great importance:

  • Firstly, the hawkers should be encouraged and assisted by non-governmental organizations, governmental organizations, and civil societies among others to from more vibrant association that will advocate for their welfare and champion their course.
  • Secondly, government should tax the hawkers and their contribution must form part of the national income accounting. This is because street hawking forms an integral part of the informal sector and accordingly contributes to the growth of that sector in particular and the entire economy in general.
  • Thirdly, alternative places must be made available to hawkers to display their wares at affordable price. These places include market stalls, shop or store and containers.
  • Fourthly, government and other private financial institutions should provide financial support in form of loans and grants to these hawkers to engage in other business ventures. This is because from the findings it is obvious that most hawkers wish to do other business.
  • Fifthly, Street hawking should be modernized and accepted as part of the informal economy and appropriate agencies to create room for them to operate.
  • Sixthly, in fact the authorities as a matter of agency should provide both formal and non-formal education for the street hawkers. Thus they should sponsor those hawkers who wish to continue school and train others in technical and vocational education to improve their livelihood that would guarantee a better future.
  • Seventh, government should effectively enforce the bye laws to regulate the activities of street hawkers and ensure that the rules and regulations are obeyed to the latter. With this in place our street will be virtually devoid of congestion, chaos, filth, human and vehicular traffic. It is recommended that the state should consider introducing a licensing regime under which all hawkers would have to obtain a license which should spell out the conditions under which they could operate.
  • Finally, the government should regularly engage waste management companies in cleaning of our streets to ensure the sanitation problems on our streets are drastically reduced.


Brown, A. (2006) Contested Space, Street Trading, Public Space and Livelihoods in Developing Cities, Warwickshire, ITDG Publishing. Development Studies”. School of Working Paper No. 51, ISBN 978-1-86840-662-3

Macharia. (2010) Street Hawking in Kenya Cities .Nairobi, University Of Nairobi.

Mitullah, W V (2003) Street Trade in Kenya: Contribution of research in policy dialogue and response, paper presented to Urban Research Symposium for Urban

Obiri, D.D. (1996). “A Survey on Street Children”, Thesis submitted to ISSER for the award of Diploma in Statistics (unpublished). University of Ghana, Legon.

Tendai Dhliwayo (2003). `By-laws Bring Order to Street Trading‟. Johannesburg

Yankson, Paul W. K. (2000) „Accommodating Informal Economic Units in the Urban Built Environment: Petty Commodity Enterprises in the Accra Metropolitan Area, Ghana‟, Third World Planning Review Vol. 22 No.3, 313-334

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