Streetside Stories: Getting By

Business January 11, 2013 3:51 pm

The sidewalk hustle: hawkers, vendors, merchants, traders, and craftsman, their wares lined up on tables or spread out on plastic tarps. The shouts, sounds, and smells of streetside commerce are unique in every corner of the world, with each culture putting a local twist on this brand of work.

Living in Liberia between 2008 and 2010, this roadside hustle caught my attention. At the time, the country’s official unemployment rate sat at 85 percent. Of course, much more than 15 percent of the population was working, day in and day out—the government statistic only counted “formal” jobs, those offered by registered companies or organizations. And in a nation then just five years past a 14-year civil war, still trying to resurrect essential services like water, police, and an electrical grid, the formal economy was not at full strength.

I started poking around the capital, trying to figure out how sidewalk stalls and wheelbarrow salesman were propping up the weak economy. I wrote a few short pieces about moto taxi drivers, water salesman, and coconut vendors, mostly people earning on the order of USD 5 per day.  I mainly asked people how their businesses worked: cash in and outflows, the risks involved, the necessary skills to navigate the underground economy, and what their income meant in the local context. While many officials criticized Monrovia’s “unruly” street vendors, street sales seemed to play a hugely important role in keeping thousands of families afloat during the vulnerable post-conflict period.

Flash forward a few years.  Makeshift, now over a year old, has contributors in all corners of the world, many of whom spend a lot of time roaming their respective streets. Through this network, we keep coming across fascinating stories of street markets: from local staples like dumpling chefs, roadside mechanics, and phone chargers to more obscure street professions. They offer much-needed flexible, affordable, and available services and provide income even when jobs are scarce.

We hope you enjoy this series. And if you spot some interesting street vendor culture around you, we’d love to hear from you—wherever you are. Drop an email to myles@mkshft.org or justin@mkshft.org with the subject title “Getting By”.