Covid-19: Informal traders return, but can they bounce back?

30% of SA's food is distributed through the informal market segment, says Agbiz CEO

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If everything goes to plan the 54-year-old Bukelwa Mbuli, a fruit and vegetable vendor from Khayelitsha in Cape Town, will return to the streets today after receiving a green light yesterday to continue trading despite the covid-19 lockdown.

Mbuli has been hard hit by the first seven days of the lockdown that also forced traders in the informal sector to stay at home. Now Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, says they will be allowed to trade in the remaining 14 days of the lockdown with a valid permit from their municipalities.

“I am a hustler,” says Mbuli, who has been a trader since 1986. The lockdown has made it nearly impossible for her to feed her family. “I sell fruit and vegetables which has gone bad since we were told we can’t sell in the streets. Because of that I haven’t been able to put food on the table for my children or take care of my responsibilities.”

Every month Mbuli contributes to a stokvel in her community. Since the lockdown she has also not been able to contribute to her group that pools money together to increase their savings.

Over 11.5 million people are estimated to be involved in one or more stokvel, according to the National Association of Stokvels.

“As women we play a big role in our communities and we have the responsibility to take care of communities. We join stokvels to generate money. I’m suffering because I won’t be able to pay stokvels.”

She says she is disheartened by the rapid spread of the new coronavirus because it is negatively impacting her business and it seems like things won’t pick up anytime soon. Although informal traders are back in business as of today, the majority of South Africans are in lockdown and have also not been able to earn money to buy essential groceries.

While many are looking forward to the end of the lockdown, Mbuli says she has nothing to look forward to.

“My fruit is rotten. I don’t have money to buy new fruit to start my business over.”

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Mbuli adds, “This is very painful for us and law enforcements are also strict because they beat us and chase us away. As a result our stock becomes rotten. We’ve lost out a lot as street vendors. We are just independent hustlers who work really hard for our children. Some of my colleagues are single parents and what hurts us the most is that (up until now in my community) Somalians that are not from here are allowed to sell while we can’t. That really hurt us.”

Confusion about spaza shops

In the initial announcement about the 21-day lockdown it was confirmed that spaza shops were allowed to trade. In South Africa, a large number of these shops are owned by foreign nationals. During a media briefing yesterday Dlamini-Zuma said she is not sure how the confusion around the operation of township businesses started. In many cases they have been prohibited from trading by police officers.

Ncamile Sotyu, fruit and vegetable seller who owns a spaza shop in Mbekweni in Paarl.
Ncamile Sotyu, fruit and vegetable seller who owns a spaza shop in Mbekweni in Paarl.

Meanwhile Ncamile Sotyu, another fruit and vegetable seller who owns a spaza shop in Mbekweni in Paarl, told Food For Mzansi that since the lockdown, business hasn’t been good. He can operate during the lockdown because his spaza shop provides a so-called essential service, but business has been rather slow.

Sotyu says, “It hasn’t been easy, but we are obeying government’s rules. First and foremost, I’m doing business. I have a spaza shop that sells fruit and veg. I can’t say I am doing well because it’s not like before the lockdown. Times are really hard, but I am coping.”

In Food For Mzansi’s podcast interview the CEO of Agbiz, Dr. John Purchase, confirms that one of the biggest constraints currently is food distribution through the informal market segment, which has been badly disrupted by the lockdown.

Purchase says, “Roughly 30% of South Africa’s food is distributed through the informal market segment. That’s through the bakkie traders that procure on the Johannesburg and Tshwane fresh produce markets who then service all the vendors across Gauteng, and then also into the townships and informal settlements.”

About 30% of South Africa’s broiler chicken production is also by means of live fowls that enable people without refrigeration capacity to process the meat at home. The disruption of this supply chain hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.

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