Beneath the Economic Glass Ceiling

Women play an indispensable role in our economy

They play an indispensable role in our economy. But at the end of the day, there is a glass ceiling. It’s not exactly the proverbial glass ceiling that used to bar women from leadership – in domestic and professional capacities – alongside or above their male counterparts. Perhaps, just a minute form of it.  This time, however, the glass ceiling is purely economical.

These are women who work in what could be considered just above the lowest ebb of the economy, vending wares that are the dietary staples and other bare necessities of our society.  Yet, the prospects of profitability and growth of these gallant economic foot-soldiers remain dim.  Living “from hand to mouth” with many unemployed husbands, children and other dependents, the reality of their dual roles as street vendors and as a critical component of the livelihoods of both poor urban and rural households – this reality – bears countless stories yet untold, of women trying to beat the odds, challenge the status quo, and simply make a living.  Essentially this is a story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things out of the sheer necessity to provide for themselves and their families.

Offices on Wheels & In Stalls:

If you observe the trend of street or road-side vendors in Monrovia, you will notice that the women are beginning to feature more prominently in this informal sector of our economy.  Very few of them are ever stationed at a particular street corner and this is made possible because they have their wares on wheels. Most street vendors at the corner of Broad and Mechlin Streets, at the corner of Benson and Mechlin Street, on Mechlin Street (between Broad and Carey Streets) and elsewhere around the city are women. Day-in and day-out, these women brave the orders of the day by ensuring that there is food on the table for their little ones by the close of day. Firmly grounded in their determination to beat all odds, these women are often seen tightening the knots at the ends of the lappas around their waists to parade the streets with their wares in wheel barrows.

The significance of the sale of their wares on wheels and in stalls in the streets of Monrovia can be traced to the collapse of alternative sources of income or limited economic opportunities for these women, due principally to gender biases in education. Let’s note that women do combine street vending with other household duties including childcare. Therefore, compelled by the inevitable need to augment family income, these women defy the raining torrents, scorching sun, wheeling their goods from community to community.

Take for instance the case of the Benson Street vendors: As early as 8 a. m., these women are already established in their mobile/wheel offices; ready to serve the nearby neighborhoods with all kinds of ingredients needed to nail that sumptuous meal. However, the growing number of women and their economic contributions to the informal economy tend to be underestimated due to the fact that they engage in home-based work and petty trading. Let’s note that these women beat all odds as leaders, innovators, and achievers in their own world of business.

Their petty businesses put them among the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that form the main thrust for economic development in third world countries, like ours. The entrepreneurial energies of these women in developing economic empowerment – in a gradual manner – has enabled them to make tremendous contributions toward economic sustainability in Liberia. Their endless strives and progress in economic growth and development are equally noteworthy.

It must be noted that the women’s world of entrepreneurship is large, diverse and of great economic significance. Empowering them economically has the potential to create multiplier effects. The resilience and boundless mental power of these women are a great source of inspiration for people. Enabling them to reach their full potentials through the development of their skills, boosts income generation which automatically translates into societal well-being. Such initiatives make women more productive.

Strategic Selling Place/Space Competition:

Road-side vending, on every street of the city, is a typical characteristic within the broader economic identity of municipalities all over the world.  Some municipalities have managed to organize the conduct of such activities through ordinances and regulations.  Others, like Monrovia and many other cities in Liberia and other developing countries, are still trying to bring these activities under control.  With specific regard to Monrovia, the tussle between the City Corporation and the road-side vendors for order and for a living, respectively, is a daily affair, with the authorities having the upper hand.  But this tussle has its roots in the competition amongst the vendors themselves for consignment, customers and selling space.

Women street traders of all ages either utilize unused public or private places or encroach on high-traffic public spaces such as street corners, busy lanes and outlets of residential areas across the city. Occupying strategic locations where their potential buyers pass through is very significant to these women. Be they in fixed stalls or kiosks; semi-fixed stalls, like folding tables, collapsible stands, or wheeled pushcarts, displaying their merchandise in tubs, on cloth or plastic sheets; or mobile vendors who walk or bicycle through the streets as they sell, the significance of the selling space cannot be overemphasized.

Take, for instance the case of the widows of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL widows) perched at the corner of Lynch and Benson Streets.  Majority of these women migrated from different parts of the country to converge at this street-corner-base with the hope that by pressuring government, through several street protests, the salary arrears of their deceased husbands ‘who were killed’ during the country’s decades-long civil strife would finally be bequeathed to them. While they ‘continue to wait’, these women have resorted to using their strategically-located base to do some street vending. They sell goods like limes, dried edible clay (commonly known as putter), sugar palm nuts, cold water, traditional herbs, bitter kola, roasted plantains, among others.  As early as 6 a.m., their wares are displayed along the main street to catch the attention of passers-by.

Martha

Ma Martha is one of several widows who sell roasted plantains at the corner of Benson and Lynch Streets: “I came from Nimba. I have 7 children. My children are spread out between Bong and Nimba counties. I came here some 7 years ago because we were told to come for the arrears of our dead husbands, but nothing like that has happened. So, I started going to Gobachop to credit plantains for sale. A bunch of plantain is L$300 and when I finish roasting them, I’m able to make L$100 as profit.”

These women vendors and their families typically rely on the meager profits from vending as their primary source of household income. Gradually, Ma Martha became independent; she now buys the plantains with cash – no more credits. She told me that the issue of selling space is very critical to their street vending activities. According to her, “If you sold your plantains here today and the others see that your business went faster, they will make sure they jump in that space the next day. And that brings about confusion.”

No special demarcation is carried out along these streets for these vendors. In most cases, it becomes a first-come, first-serve scenario and the women are often seen scuffling over prime locations along the street. There are some who rotate among two or more locations, taking advantage of different types of clientele and different patterns of urban movement over the course of the day.

The women at the corner of Mechlin and Benson Streets as well as those on Mechlin Street (between Broad and Ashmun Streets) are usually embroiled in fights over selling space. Everyone wants to be at the front for their wares to impose on the attention of buyers. This issue of site of operation and right to trading space stands out as one of the greatest challenges facing women street traders.

Seasonal Vendors:

Findings of a sample survey conducted by me on women street vendors across central Monrovia revealed that majority of the women trade in perishables, especially those permanently established along busy lanes (Benson & Mechlin Streets, Randall & UN Drive, etc) and outlets of residential areas or in front of stores, overflowing from the sidewalks onto the street. These women vend veggies, fruits, etc. Coming next are those who trade dry goods, especially those located between Broad & Front Streets (on Mechlin Street); on Broad Street (between Randall & Gurley Streets). Their goods include fashion jewelries, make-up, slippers, handbags, etc.

Wheeling her wares across the city

Taking up street trading as a means of survival and livelihood, the population of women street vendors normally swells around Christmas, Independence Day, and at least every other holiday. Some refer to these auction sellers or new comers on the scene as ghost sellers. But the fact is that while some rely on street vending as a regular primary or secondary occupation, others vend only when an opportunity presents itself to earn extra income. The thing here is that, though most vendors work as independent self-employed entrepreneurs, some sell goods on commission for formal or informal firms – in this case, the Fula, Lebanese and Indian stores down Waterside, and in the Duala, Rally Time and Red Light commercial centers.

Face-to-Face with City Police:

These women street vendors do experience numerous problems including harassment through destruction and confiscation of their wares and operating tools; demolitions, arrests, fines and evictions, particularly from the city authorities. The sight of the city police is only enough to get these women running helter-skelter with their wares on their heads. The unfortunate ones are caught, their goods seized and sometimes never returned, even after paying what fines are required of them. As a result, they lose their wares, capital and livelihoods which subsequently exacerbate poverty and increases their vulnerability.

The Monrovia City Corporation does not collect any fees from these vendors who, according to the MCC, are not even supposed to be on the street. The City Corporation told Women & Family that its aim is to get these vendors into market places, because they dirty the streets. The MCC also said it once attempted at organizing these street vendors into a petty traders’ association, through which it would have issued them badges and have them pay some fees. Unfortunately, it said, that did not work. But the army of vendors not just women, but many young men, is too numerous for even the City Police to tackle all at once, at any given time.  Thus, some consider the police ‘harassment’ to be a necessary evil to keep street vendors under control, until the City Corporation can put the right policy framework into place to govern street vending.

Profitability:

Though women street vendors are active members of our society, the lack of education and competency continues to hinder their progress. Majority of them are not organized among themselves, such as a union. Also, as conveyors of affordable goods and services, street vendors provide consumers with convenient and accessible retail options and form a vital part of the social and economic life of a city.  And because of this, the decades-old activity has become embedded in the urban culture of many African societies.

However, profitability tends to suffer since many vendors in the same location sell the same products, thus, the intense competition among them in terms of prices (and again selling space).   At the end of the day, the quality of a day’s work depends on each woman’s business acumen, her relationships with her sources and suppliers, her customers, and her God since, in fact, she would rely on Him to bring it all together successfully.

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