Nairobi — Antony Macharia regards the sidewalk on Nairobi's Ronald Ngara Street as his office.
The kilometre-long stretch along that street in the Nairobi Central Business District (NCBD) buzzes with hawkers selling a wide range of goods from 4:00 pm when offices close until past 10:00 pm.
Macharia has been selling shoes there for more than three years to support his family of four. "The business has given me the opportunity to buy a piece of land and a motor vehicle, as well as to educate my children and support other family members," he told Sabahi.
However, Macharia and the other hawkers are not legally permitted to sell their goods there.
Mary Wekesa, a 34-year-old mother of three who sells peas, said city police use harsh methods to enforce regulations that prohibit street vendors from operating in the NCBD.
"Police officers and Nairobi Municipal Council officials beat us, seize our merchandise, and arrest us whenever they find us in prohibited areas," she told Sabahi.
She said the Muthurwa Hawkers Market, where vendors are authorized to operate, is far from the city centre, and most city employees are unwilling to make the trip there.
Robert Kiriago, senior superintendent in charge of Muthurwa Hawkers Market, said the government spent 700 million shillings ($8 million) to build the market in 2006 at the request of street vendors who complained they did not have a designated place to do business.
The market stretches over 12 hectares of land on the eastern periphery of the city and is serviced by a bus station.
"The last four years started great, as most hawkers operated from the market," he told Sabahi. "But in the past six months, hawkers have abandoned the market for the city centre pavements."
City authorities look to shut down illegal hawking
In a December 13th incident between city authorities and street vendors, two hawkers were killed and several other people, including a policeman, were injured after police officers shut down a number of vendors operating along River Road in downtown Nairobi.
NCBD United Hawkers Association Chairman Stephen Waweru said police use excessive force when enforcing laws that restrict street vendors.
"We understand that hawking in the city centre is against the law, but we are asking the government to allocate us sections of the streets to operate temporarily," he said. The vendors employ more than 10,000 people, he said, many of whom might otherwise turn to criminal endeavours.
Nairobi Municipal Council Town Clerk Tom Odongo said city officials are trying to promote economic growth, but even though street vendors represent an important part of the economy, they must abide by law and order.
In addition to the congestion that hawkers cause, there are health concerns to selling food in the streets, he said. Vegetables and fruits are displayed on pavements, exposing them to dust and engine fumes. "They leave paper wrappings and garbage from vegetables all over the town centre, making it an eyesore," he told Sabahi.
Odongo said the city is working to address the challenges facing the Muthurwa Hawkers Market, such as water, sanitation and infrastructure, in an effort to make hawkers feel as though they do not need to overrun the city centre.
Nairobi Area Police Chief Moses Ombati told Sabahi that the congestion caused by hawkers represents a security threat. "Hawkers take over the sidewalks, endangering pedestrians who have to compete with motorists on the main roads. This creates traffic snarls," he said.
Such congestion could provide militant groups such as al-Shabaab with a perfect environment to strike, he said.
Negative effects on legitimate businesses
Street vendors are also in conflict with business operators who view the hawkers as unfair competitors.
"The hawkers' influx causes unease among business operators in the city centre," said Timothy Muriuki, chairman of the NCBD Association. "Their sheer numbers overwhelm those genuinely operating in the city centre. Most of the business operators do not like the hawkers and want authorities to find a long-lasting solution."
Muriuki said during confrontations with the police, properties are damaged and business is disrupted in the city, which impacts the bottom line of business owners and their employees.
"Business operators have to pay rent for the premises, business licenses and other charges to operate, but the hawkers do not pay anything, as they are on the run," said Rajput Singh, who operates a general store on Tom Mboya Street in the NCBD.
Nonetheless, Sheila Atieno, a 24-year-old hotel waitress, said she buys goods from street vendors in the business district because it is convenient. "By 6:00 pm, most of the shops have closed and the hawkers save me from walking more than two kilometres to the Muthurwa Hawkers Market," she told Sabahi.