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Roadside businesses a regulatory problem

Kongowea Roadside Market
Traders back at the Kongowea Roadside Market on November 14 2019. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT 

A few days ago, Raila Junior Odinga on his twitter account shared the image of a young man washing a car by the roadside and went on to question why roadside car washing trade is not illegal. In his argument, the county government should have bylaws that zone safe car washing bays as well as provide them with the relevant safety standards.

The tweet attracted anger and fury with those who differed with him claiming that he was speaking from a point of privilege and cannot relate with the ordinary mwananchi’s day-to-day struggle. The young men washing cars by the road side were hardworking wananchi striving to put food on the table.

It’s unfortunate that the debate ended up in personal attacks but Raila Junior had a point in his argument, same as those who differed with him that those young men were simply trying to put food on the table. Both were looking at the same coin, but from different positions.

Giving much credit to him, he started a good public conversation because manifestation of such informal businesses are always visible, but they mostly attract less attention by local governments and urban policy makers, when they actually signal a structural problem of urban economies. When informal businesses start operating in public spaces like streets, roadside or parks it mostly indicates poor urban planning where local government has not zoned formal spaces or it may also mean the number of informal business people is growing much faster and urban planners are not taking note to adjust their relevant policies.

Street/roadside vending is always a feature in a rapidly expanding urban informal economy. In Kenya, the informal economy is estimated to employ 70 percent of the working population and despite existence of bylaws that govern against setting up open air business along the roads, there has been increased proliferation of roadside car washing services along Nairobi roads and they continue to be more prevalent.

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In fact, for a period of time now politicians have been the ones sponsoring Youth self-help groups to establish roadside car wash services along many Nairobi neighbourhoods when they are fully aware of the governing bylaws.

On the other side, those opposed to him were also right because the rise of informal business units signals search for economic opportunity and income, especially where we are today as an economy where formal economy is contracting and those displaced have no choice but join the informal sector.

Going by the fact that we see politicians being among the main financiers of car washing business, it indicates that it’s a business with least cost to establish as long as you find a water stream and avoid the zoned formal space.

It is a known fact that the process of formalising a business in Kenya is quite expensive, the cost of registration alone always disincentives informal business units.

So even where a county government zones or even builds a market for roadside business unit to stop operating illegally, they will always shy away from relocation – and this has happened in most cities around the world.

So, Raila Junior is right that there should be strict enforcement of bylaws to regulate the rapid proliferation of roadside informal business units.

At the same time, urban planners should be pro-active in providing alternative zones because the business units are a source of daily livelihood for many and a steppingstone towards better opportunities in the future.

The Nairobi county government sometime this year proposed the County Trade Licensing bill, which intends to license all informal vendors at an affordable rate and provide formal space on the presumption that it will ensure conducive environment for fair business practices and also promotes self-regulation and accountability since the county will have a register of all traders in the county. The proposal is a good initiative but needs further fine-tuning.

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