On a rainy Tuesday morning in Lekki, Lagos in Nigeria, 12-year old Ezinne Ibrahim runs frantically after a moving bus balancing a heavy load of bottled groundnuts on a tray on her head with one hand and a bottle in the other hand.
As she gets closer to the bus’s open window, a passenger hurriedly reaches out to snatch the bottle from her and tosses N500 ($1) on the ground before the bus speeds off. Ibrahim bends to pick up the drenched note, narrowly avoiding being hit by a truck from the opposite side of the road. She quickly scans the oncoming traffic for potential customers before crossing the road to get cover from the heavy downpour.
“I am here from six in the morning until 10PM with my mother,” says Ibrahim. Her mother, 45-year-old Sade, expertly weaves between traffic lanes, sells two bottles of groundnuts before joining us under the shed.
“I have been selling on the streets for the past eight years now and that is how I earn a living to feed my family. We used to sell in Victoria Island last year but we changed locations because this area has a lot more traffic and that means more money. I know it is dangerous for Ezinne and I never wanted her to do this but I cannot afford to put her into school,” says Sade.
On a good day, they make roughly N20,000 ($55). If life is already hard, it has gotten a lot harder for the pair over the past couple of years.
Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI), Lagos state’s environment law enforcement unit established in 2003 by the government to enforce environmental law in the state, is a constant threat to street hawkers.
“We get harassed several times a week by the task force. They arrest us and detain us for hours before releasing us if we pay them something,” says Bayo Adesina, a gum and sweets seller.
“We have a look at who calls whenever KAI is coming and we all stop selling and run. They cannot stop us from trading because this is the only way we know to survive,” says Sade.
In July 2016, in an attempt to escape the tight leash of the law, a street hawker was run over by a bus, leading to widespread violence and destruction by a mob. The incident led to even tighter regulations being enforced by Lagos State governor Akinwumi Ambode who declared a fine of N90, 000 ($250) or a six-month jail term.
“Things have really gotten a lot tougher for us because you never know when the task force will detain you. We move about a lot so they do not find us and take away what little money we have,” says Adesina.
However, Lagos State says the clampdown on street hawkers is necessary as it causes traffic jams and puts their own lives at risk.
Yakubu Mohammed, 25, sells watches on a busy intersection in Ladipo.
“Competition is tough here because there are so many of us. I make about N35,000 ($100) a month which I use to feed my wife and child,” he says.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), over 55% of Africa’s GDP comes from the informal sector, accounting for about 80% of the labour force. Many of those are street vendors like Mohammed who have traded in everything from windscreen wipers to mobile phone chargers in the past year alone.
“You sell what you can get your hands on. Sometimes there is a lot of supply of certain types of products and they are easy to get your hands on so you get them and start selling,” says Mohammed.
That supply is driven by an insatiable demand by customers who prefer the convenience of picking up items on their way to their various destinations.
The constant ruckus between government enforcement agencies and street hawkers has led to a debate about tighter regulation of the informal sector in Nigeria.
According to a Reuters report, unemployment in Africa’s most populous economy is at 14% and climbing. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims: “By 2035, sub-Saharan Africa will have more working-age people than the rest of the world’s regions combined. This growing workforce will have to be met with jobs.”
“Unless the government gets a firm grip on these critical macro economic issues, the potential of the informal sector can never be realized. A lot of the stress of unemployment has been taken up by the informal sector who pay no taxes but contribute significantly to the country’s wealth,” says Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Financial Derivatives Company in Lagos.
According to the IMF report, most entrepreneurs in the informal sector reported doing what they were doing out of necessity and given the chance would rather work in the formal sector.
Bashiru Amusha dreamed of becoming a doctor but his parents could not afford to send him to school. He now owns a kiosk selling airtime vouchers in Victoria Island.
“I try to make do with what I have. I used to be a security man for a company sometime ago but things didn’t work out and I had to leave. I am hoping someone can help me get a car so I can turn it into a taxi and pay him back with interest,” he says.
In view of the economy, the informal sector presents both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it is a great representation of entrepreneurship development and growth in the number of start-ups on the streets.
However, this growth is negligible when you weigh up the low productivity and the poorly-skilled workers prevalent in the informal sector.
“This is actually detrimental to the Nigerian economy because the informal sector accounts for about 50 to 65 percent of GDP and that represents reduced growth for the economy. So it is actually important to provide skilled training to improve productivity and regulate the informal sector through taxation,” says Rewane.
As Africa’s largest economy struggles to come to grips with growing unemployment rates and barriers to entry, the informal sector is the only way out for thousands of unemployed Nigerians whose only need is to somehow make ends meet.