Vendors: Partners for Cleaner Cities

I did a lot of travelling this past December and managed to see different towns in Zimbabwe and made a few old observations from a different perspective. I noticed that there were common features in our towns which are DIRT, VENDORS, FEW BINS and CITY COUNCIL. I also noticed that it was easy to identify city council police wherever vendors were highly placed. It was also easy to spot high piles of dirt wherever vendors were selling even when there were bins nearby.

Generally there were few bins everywhere; Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and other towns; in proportion to the number of bins our towns really need. However, this did not necessarily translate to more dirt or more vendors or more council police in some parts of town. I guess this is because the vendors only frequent places where there is a higher population of people coming into town. This also means that where there are fewer people, the bins do not fill up fast and council is able to keep these parts of town clean using whatever cleaning routines it has in place.

I also noticed that contrary to popular belief that the city council does not clean up, it DOES clean up our streets. However in some parts of town, dirt collects faster than the system our city fathers have set up to keep our towns clean. It is understandable to some extent given the numbers of people that fill up the streets of downtown Zimbabwe and the ever rising rate of urbanisation.

It then occurred to me that maybe our city fathers have a solution for cleaner towns right before them and they do not realise. This solution is a VENDOR!

I know it sounds crazy but if you do your economic calculations you will realise that Zimbabwean vendors will remain on our streets much longer because of the ever increasing economic hardship. There little foreign direct investment, industry is crushing and companies are closing everyday. We should expect periods when the vendor numbers will balloon like next year right before the elections and the politicians need a happy vendor for a sure vote. Their numbers will drop when their vote will not be required. The sure and constant thing is that they will not be off our streets anytime soon!

So having checked my economic indicators I checked the organisational capacity indicators of city councils and also came to a conclusion that it will be a long time before we see remarkable institutional turnaround of councils. I really do not expect that they will soon be able to pay their workers on time or hire more cleaners sustainably or buy the right and modern  equipment to keep our cities clean. Our councils have not yet expressed considerable political will to spent more on service delivery.

I then strengthened my perception that vendors are an opportunity for cleaner cities and here is how they can help. Firstly they need to know how they contribute to an unclean environment when they sell their produce and goods in undesignated areas. Vanoda kuudzwa kuti vanoita hutsvina! At the same time we need to invoke their good side simply because vendors are good, respectable and responsible citizens  who earn an honest living. If the city fathers acknowledge their human value and work towards trust building then they can begin working together.

Secondly, they need to know they can change and be taught a few tricks on how to keep their selling spaces clean like making sure that they is a bin close by. A vendor will need to be the person to reeducate those who walk the streets of our towns on the need to keep a clean city. In any given day they have a high incidence of “people contact” that surpasses environmental organisations, city workers and many other interested stakeholders. In essence they can spread the word faster. This information is not complicated it’s just a matter of giving a customer simple advice like “ndinokumbirawo kuti mupote muchirasa marara mubin amai” (please be sure to put litter in the bin always madam).

Thirdly, the city councils would need to make sure we have more bins in the places where vendors sell from. I do not think this is a difficult task if they put their minds to it. I believe there are way too many Zimbabweans who are desirous of a clean environment who would help the city place more bins. In fact our cities have already been engaging various stakeholders, including private companies, to donate bins at varying scales. If bins were put in place it would be easier for our esteemed vendors to tell a pedestrian to use a bin when ever they throw litter on the ground.

Finally, vendors need to play a role in cleaning up where they sell from; the same way they clean their own houses because they stay in them and the same way we clean our offices because we work in them. They should share the responsibility of making sure that no litter is thrown in gutters, on road sides and if it is thrown around they should feel responsible enough to pick that litter. After all pabasa.

Of course I still believe that vending needs to happen in designated areas and this is the responsibility of our city fathers to provide the right space and this a topic for another day.

I believe that if such a model would be pioneered we could find our selves pioneering a new way of relating with our councils. Beyond the vendor, there is more room to birth people to council partnerships and even greater room to grow in their scope. I believe we have beautiful and strategic thoughts about improving our cities and we can only do that if we start seeing each other as critical resources.