At one time, Mzuzu was one of the cleanest cities in the country. Not anymore today. The city has almost earned itself the status as one of the filthiest.
Garbage and waste live side by side with vendors in most of its markets and streets. And now, a new eyesore is emerging—street vending.
Alice Kawonga is one of the street vendors. She has risked her life as she trades on the edge of the M1 Road at the heart of the city.
At sunset, the road reserve area that splits a taxi rank and Mzuzu Main Market is the busiest. Taxis, minibuses, pedestrians, vendors and buyers all scramble for the same stretch of land as they go about their businesses.
“I have no choice but to risk my life here because that’s where we make more money than inside the market,” says the mother of four who sells green maize.
Kawonga started the small-scale business after her husband abandoned her five years ago. The husband left home in 2002 without a word. Since then he has never returned.
And Kawonga has had to struggle to raise her children singlehandedly.
“This is the only source of income to bail me out of poverty,” she says.
At first, Kawonga was selling her produce at Chibavi Market, but decided to relocate to the streets after struggling to make profits at the township market.
“We make fast money in the streets unlike in township markets because people buy our products on impulse,” she adds.
Illegal vending has become a nightmare in Mzuzu. Early this year, the Mzuzu City Council (MCC) launched a 10-day operation to relocate street vendors with a budget of K5.8 million.
However, the operation did not meet its objective as the police abandoned the exercise because the council could not remit allowances for its officers.
Secretary for Mzuzu vendors, Scrivina Dzonzi, says legitimate vendors in markets feel shortchanged with the scenario. He says they no longer make profits because street vendors have taken up business.
Ironically, it is those in markets who pay market fees whereas those on the streets do not.
“Illegal vendors have for long suffocated our businesses to the extent that most of our legitimate members are shutting down their businesses,” says Dzonzi, adding: “The illegal vendors occupy areas outside our markets and outside legal vending places and barely contribute to market fees. Meanwhile, our members suffer consequences of market fee hikes while illegal vendors trade without any impunity.”
He says street vending has also increased theft, garbage amounts and reduced security for women and children.
“This has made our city lawless to a greater extent. Vendors have engaged various stakeholders on the matter but have noticed a reluctance and neglect of duty by both the council and the police,” he adds.
The vendors have since asked President Peter Mutharika to intervene on the matter.
Dzonzi says if all relevant stakeholders do not address their concerns then vendors will boycott the market fees as well as arrange street protests “until our grievances are taken seriously once and for all”.
However, chairperson for the street vendors Lastone Godfrey says the city does not have enough markets to accommodate all its vendors.
“Mzuzu is the fastest growing city in the country. As a result, there has been an increase of vendors who visit the city for business. But our infrastructure does not match with the growing population. We need more markets for vendors,” he argues.
Indeed, Mzuzu is the fastest growing city in the country. Its population is growing at the rate of 4.4 percent.
However, MCC spokesperson Karen Msiska says the council has enough space in markets to accommodate all street vendors who are estimated at over 400.
He says the council has a flea market with a capacity of 1 200 vendors. He, however, says the market continues being shunned.
“There are a lot of spaces at the Flea Market to accommodate all the vendors. But the market is almost empty,” Msiska says.
He says the council also has markets in locations which vendors can occupy and do their businesses.
Mzuzu deputy mayor Alexander Mwakikunga says the council together with the police will launch another operation to force vendors out of the streets.
He says if that fails, the council might consider engaging the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) to assist.
“In Blantyre and Lilongwe, the MDF was heavily engaged to clean up the cities of illegal vending. So, we might consider doing the same if the police fail,” he says.
MDF commanding officer for Moyale Barracks, Colonel Saiford Mandiza Kalisha, says the soldiers will be willing to assist if invited.
However, Kawonga cautions that involving the MDF is not a solution to address the problem permanently.
She says government needs to address issues of poverty, urbanisation and high population growth as a solution to the problem.