It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun is at its peak and the heat is scorching. An elderly woman who plies her trade hawking an assortment of sweets, airtime and soft drinks on the streets of Commerce Park is huffing and puffing behind a wheel barrow. The squeaking trundle contains all her business enterprise.
Like most hawkers trying to eke a living on the unforgiving streets, she is never Ms so and so. A few customers who address her by name only know her as Mma Grace. Her day started at 4.30 this morning as she prepared to leave home before the early birds start arriving for work. Today it looks like one of those mornings, as she hissed under her breath, serving a rude well heeled customer who sneering at the merchandise, quick with a harsh remark. For Mma Grace, it is just another day at the office. Sometimes it gets worse. She has to divide her attention between serving fussy customers and constantly looking over her shoulder for Gaborone City Council bye law officers who harass them, confiscate their table and merchandise blaming them for littering.
She has long applied for a hawker’s license and has been waiting for it for as long as he has been pushing her wheelbarrow on the streets of Commerce Park. To government policy makers responsible for Botswana’s business development initiatives, she does not exist. In her late sixties, she is too old for the youth development assistance, her business which hardly makes a bulge inside a wheelbarrow does not count as a business on the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency and the Local Entrepreneurs Authority (LEA) manuals. She has simply fallen through the cracks and her business has been trapped in a rut for years.
Like other street vendors, she has to compete for customers with big retailers who enjoy the benefits of economies of scale. Mma Grace says the profit margins are very tight and innovations such as Orange money and Mascoms My zaka are driving them out of business as customers prefer to buy their airtime through these systems to gain bonuses and free minutes which vendors cannot provide.
Most vendors are in the twilight of their years and are not as swift on their feet. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. But they have to keep at it because they have hungry mouths to feed at home.
The eternal optimist, Mma Grace has found a silver lining to her hard knock life. She has given new meaning to the phrase retail therapy. In between serving her customers, she also counsels those who are frustrated with their work and are contemplating quitting. She uses her life experience as a tale of caution that it is tough out there.
The tough as nails septuagenarian also appreciates the small gestures like kind customers offering to carry her stock in their vehicles and the donations of large umbrellas by Orange
A simple “hello” from a customer is enough to turn a bad day to a really pleasant one.