Monday, May 17, 2021

Botswana’s Street Vending Economy: A sign of Boom or Burst?

While reliable data on the socioeconomic impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic on the poor and vulnerable households in Botswana is scarce and fragmented, some clues are now available. One of the clues that is emerging is the emergence of roadside jobs across the country.

Ever since the end of the second national lockdown sponsored by Covid 19 pandemic, many Batswana have found refuge in roadside jobs. The most common one lately has been outdoor eateries – which are not entirely a new concept in the country. In the Covid 19 pandemic era, outdoor eateries – mostly with a catch-line ‘Dijo tsa Setswana”  are surely making a big difference for many Batswana who either have lost their jobs, have had salary cuts or just worried about what will happen post the State of Emergency (SOE) currently in place until September 2021.

While no study has been carried out yet, it is becoming clear each passing day that possible Covid-related job losses and lockdown-inspired lifestyle changes has led many locals to look for new opportunities and start their own businesses.

An economist working at the University of Botswana – Professor Brothers Malema says the booming of roadside jobs, more especially eateries could be a sign that there are serious economic hardships in the country and people are feeling the pain.

 “You then get to wonder how many out there are trying to survive but they can’t do what these other ones are doing because some might have suffered the worst side of the economic landscape.” He stated.

While professor Malema calls the new trend a wakeup call, he also maintains that there are positives from the consumer side is that when there is competition – that is visible among outdoor eateries it means there is a variety to choose from.

He also cautioned that Botswana has experienced this in 2009 but seems to not have responded accordingly.

Professor Malema says if the government was to draw from the 2009 experience it would realise that most of the countries that are within its radius and Botswana was considered to be way above them they were able to resist the 2008 global recession more effectively because it looks like there is something that these countries are doing locally that could sustain their economies even if there were to be another global meltdown.

“Unfortunately we have had an economy that is rested on one method without necessarily developing certain industries that would require internal inputs that we can keep on producing to continue sustaining our economy even when diamonds and any other minerals may not be doing well globally,” he noted.

Malema says the way this economy is structured is such that it depends and it thrives on the global economy’s booming which is something the Professor admits happens with other countries as well but his observation is that Botswana is more on the extreme such that whenever the global economy is not doing well Botswana is more hard hit than some of the countries that are behind it in terms of the developmental rankings.

For him it’s a sign that if nothing is done about it now there would be a crisis and also that things are tougher than what they actually seem on the ground.

He is of the belief that government is not doing enough. Though he acknowledges the negative effects that Covid-19 has had of the global economy he notes that even with the absence of the pandemic he doesn’t think Botswana has upped its game. And with what is currently happening he sees Botswana becoming like other African countries if no action is taken.

He says the starting point for this country is to do things that are easier for it.

“We cannot think of making an electric car when we cannot make a bicycle. We need to do basic things. We have the fertile soils, the big rivers. We need to have an economy that is more focused on development rather than thuggery and corruption because if we are the least corrupt country in Africa like they say and you look at the level of corruption in this country then there is no Africa. We need the big minds to think big.”

THE BOOM AND POSSIBLE BUST….

The boom in outside eateries in urban areas which is now spreading its roots along the Highway – A1 road from Lobatse all the way to Francistown has a common features – most of the informal businesses are either just at a break-even point or making very little profits.

A couple that is based just before the Otse Landfill on your way from Lobatse to the capital Gaborone, Tuna Moilwa and Fidzani Nkobodo agrees that sales have since gone down due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The couple is regarded as the longest serving food eatery at this spot located just along A1 road.

Unlike those who lately joined the roadside economy, the duo started the catering business in 2015 largely due to the fact that there were no jobs and thus it became difficult to take care of their children as well as their extended family.

They share that before venturing into an eatery, they were selling snack in the form of peanuts before some of their then customers encouraged them to start cooking traditional food.

Nkobodo tells Sunday Standard that the first Covid-19 national lockdown was tough on him because he had to depend on government hand-outs to feed his family whereas he is used to being the provider.

He says some of their customers feel that their food is expensive without realizing that he has to buy stock and take care of other bills.

“Our operational expenses have gone up because we have to buy thermometers, sanitizers and lots of soap to adhere to the Covid-19 protocols. And customers do not want to look at it that way,” he noted with concern.

The couple noted that they are not intimidated by the looming competition as they have seen people come and go.

“It requires a lot of hard work and they will feel it for themselves. We have been doing this for the most part of our lives. We know the challenges and I am from a family of business owners which puts me in a better place to understand challenges that come with being a business owner”, says Fidzani.

The couple says the money comes in but profit margins are very low because they use the money to sustain their homes and pay their employees.

“We are very patient because we know that we might not get rich now, the riches might come well into our old age. We are doing this for our children and if they are smart enough they might turn this into something big, so this is their foundation.” They noted.

A few kilometres from Moilwa-Nkobodo trades another Motswana – Pinkie Boroboko. Boroboko has been operating on the roadside in the past three years. She is also selling traditional food.

The 56-year-old lives in Letlhakane east and goes to Lobatse every day to sell.

“We do this because we are running away from poverty and unemployment. This is for our children to lead better lives and not go to school and to bed hungry. We live from hand to mouth. It’s not like I can save. And we are also here to avoid depression. There are days when business is good and some days we go back home with food,” she noted.

Sunday Standard also spoke to a new eatery that has been there for a month and their reasoning was that they used to sell from their home where there was little to no business and therefore this new place has become some sort of a holy grail for them as they are now seeing minimal profits. As  new eateries gets established at each and every corner across the country, only time will tell if the boom will results in wealth creation for the locals or a burst for the local economy.

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