Worldwide, the statistics on informal economies are as appalling as the conditions of the people in them.
About 61% of the world’s population earns its living in the informal sector, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations. Closer home, in Africa, 85.8% of employment is informal.
For many, this means substandard or inhuman living and working conditions, lack of social protection, unending suffering, abuse and no hope. And sadly, women are the most vulnerable victims in this cycle of pain and penury.
“Of the two billion in informal employment worldwide, over 740 million are women,” says ILO.
With educational opportunities lacking, and rising unemployment and cost of living, the low-income groups are the hardest hit. Women in the informal sector have no choice but to take on the onus as bread winners, compelled to start small businesses or trades for survival.
In the hustle and bustle of the grimy streets of Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD), it’s the survival-of-the-fittest-entrepreneur – and for the women, it means fighting every form of injustice.
They turn to the streets to keep their families off them.
Rosheda Muller, President of the South African Informal Traders Alliance, says the hardships female traders experience include isolation, vulnerability when doing cross-border trade, bribery, theft, rape and abuse of all kinds. All this as they try to put food on the table for their families.
“There’s no social protection for our women. We are working towards the formalization of the informal sector; to ensure informal traders have protection, maternity leave, and leave when they fall ill,” Muller tells FORBES AFRICA.
At 5AM on a cold Tuesday morning in Johannesburg’s CBD, this writer witnesses the sun awakening the streets, the immigrant traders and the pigeons flocking to scavenge off the remnants of the night. On Rahima Moosa Street, popularly known as Jeppe Street, the smell of piping hot magwinya (deep-fried doughnuts), pervades the morning air. It’s a filling snack at only R1 ($0.08).
Shops here sell everything from clothes to accessories and hair. Together, they contribute to the sights, sounds and smells of the City of Gold.
“Johannesburg is one of the most diverse places when it comes to informal trading,” Muller says.
In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA speaks to three female traders from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Limpopo Province of South Africa, on how they have turned these street corners into their business hubs.
From Harare, Zimbabwe
“They say a person working on the streets is someone who has no dignity.”
We wait by her tin stall on Jeppe Street. Muteto shares her space with a Malawian man and a Congolese woman. They watch out for each other’s stall at break-time. This time, it’s Jay Jay, the Malawian’s turn to watch Muteto’s stock.
Muteto’s stall is held up with crates, a wooden top and cloth covering. She sells clothes and magwinya. A few minutes later, she shows up, dressed in a woolen winter hat, black sweater and chitenge (African print wraparound). She welcomes us to her humble abode, offering the only chair.
Five years ago, Muteto decided to start her own business on the streets.
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“They will say that a person working on the streets is someone who has no dignity,” says Muteto.
The 33-year-old fled Zimbabwe due to the political instability. She had a business selling second-hand clothes in Harare but it failed. That’s when she opted to chase a better life in South Africa. But the barriers bewildered her.
“When I came here, I found out this is also becoming difficult for me. To work and gather up my finances and go back is difficult. I thought, ‘why can’t I just stock here and sell here’?”
Muteto’s first job in Johannesburg was as a saleswomen in an Indian shop. She worked for a pittance; she barely made enough money to send to her 12-year-old daughter in Zimbabwe. And she also had to support a sick mother.
“I knew I was making too much profit for them [her employers] because I know how to sell,” says Muteto.
After a year at the shop, Muteto garnered the courage to set up on her own. Although she has often had to keep criminals from stealing her stock, and deal with harsh weather conditions and low profits, Mutato wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Doing business is in my blood. I am satisfied making my own money, even if it’s small,” she smiles.
Muteto remains hopeful that one day her business will flourish and create jobs for others.
“Women must be very strong. They must sacrifice for their business. They must not lose hope too early because everything has got its own time.
From Maputo, Mozambique
“God gave me this skill to do hair so I love it.”
Five mannequin heads are lined up on a raised wall by a pedestrian walkway on Jeppe Street in the Johannesburg CBD. They are adorned with wigs and weaves of all textures. They all belong to Langa, a self-taught hair dresser from Mozambique.
The 33-year-old speaks fluent Shangaan, a Bantu language similar to Zulu, allowing her to blend in with the locals.
Langa knows the streets of Johannesburg like the back of her hand. But unlike the others, she does not have a permanent stand.
Every 30 days, she makes the five-hour trip to the border to renew her stay in South Africa, a technique many immigrants adopt in order to make a decent living without cumbersome paperwork. It’s a price she is willing to pay.
“God gave me this skill to do hair so I love it,” says the soft-spoken Langa, focusing on a mannequin head, but wary of her surrounds, and the omnipresent policemen.
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“They took two wigs of mine last week. We followed them and asked them to bring them back but they didn’t,” she says sadly. The wigs cost about R300 ($24) each.
It’s either fight or flight for these hair traders in the CBD.
Langa has to make ends meet somehow; she had run away from an alcoholic husband and has four children to look after. So she has to be street-smart. During the interview, she ably intercepts passersby, goading them to buy her wares.
Langa hopes to make enough money to one day open her own salon in Maputo, miles away from any intrusive metro policeman.
From Limpopo, South Africa
“We sell [on the streets] because there aren’t any jobs.”
Born and raised in a small village in Thohoyandou, Limpopo, Khashane left her home at the age of 21 to seek work in big city Johannesburg.
In 2001, she got her first job in the informal sector as a domestic worker. Nine years later, Khashane decided to become a street vendor.
“You can end up the whole day without selling nothing,” she says when we meet her.
“Like today…yet I will come back in the morning and open my shop again,” she smiles, concealing her disappointment.
Khashane had no idea what she was getting into and sought guidance from her husband who had some experience selling on the streets. They sold socks for a living.
Back then, they didn’t have a stall; they would place their goods on a potato sack and lay them on the concrete street floor. The couple would lose out on thousands each time the police patrolled the area and forcibly removed their goods.
Khashane recalls the pain of having to wake up early, carrying a heavy bag of goods, every day. Their business has grown. Today, they own two stalls between them. She sells accessories, makeup, clothes, underwear, cigarettes and watches.
“When you are selling here in the street they think maybe you are not normal, but all of us went to school. We sell here because there aren’t any jobs,” she says.
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The thoughts of feeding her five children keep her going. Four of them are in Limpopo with her mother while the youngest lives with her. Every day, she drops off her two-year-old son at a crèche.
Next to her stall, two Nigerian men sell fruits and clothes. They keep a close watch for thieves. A block away from us, metro policemen are patroling the street. For Khashane, it’s a sight she knows all too well. It’s time to quickly wrap up, run and return tomorrow.