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How do you maintain a business when you work on the streets? The informal vendors of Yangon

Accessing the space, power and storage facilities one needs to work as a street vendor poses a number of logistical problems. Zach Hyman visits informal workers in Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and still its largest city, to learn how they solve them.

Zach Hyman

Cities: Yangon

Topics: Informal economy, Labour and livelihoods

A locksmith uses the window of the adjacent building to display keys, locks, doorknobs and a sign advertising his services. Photo: Zach Hyman
Mobile strawberry vendors in Yangon. Their mobility means they do not benefit from the cooperatively managed generator in the adjacent street-based fruit market, but still hope to profit from the customers it attracts. Photo: Zach Hyman
Night-time fruit market, with lights run by a cooperatively managed generator. Photo: Zach Hyman
A vendor's kit stored informally in the branches of a tree. Photo: Zach Hyman
A vendor's kit stored informally on top of a power transformer. Photo: Zach Hyman
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Robert Neuwirth, arguably one of the foremost advocates of informal workers, has proposed the size of the world's informal economy to be approximately 10 trillion US dollars annually and to include as many as one half of all jobs in the world. The locksmith pictured above is one member of this thriving system, as are the uncounted thousands who carve out small spaces upon the sidewalks of Yangon to run their business. But how exactly do they go about it?

Choosing a location

One constraint some street vendors face is access to electricity. One option is to negotiate grid access: if a sidewalk vendor can build a personal tie with a nearby formal business that is plugged into the grid, fees for access to their connection may be negotiated. Prices vary by both area and season, and during the final three months of the dry season (April through June) grid access becomes unreliable on account of Yangon's heavy reliance on hydropower.

Working next to this woman was a pineapple seller who stored his inventory in a nearby restaurant ... another vendor stores his inventory at the train station.

A second option is to generate one's own power. Well established clusters of vendors that assemble on a daily or near-daily basis may invest in a cooperatively-run generator. This works best when each vendor's power consumption is relatively equal. Other vendors choose to generate their electricity individually, purchasing or renting battery-powered lights to illuminate their goods, or obtaining their own generator as the locksmith has done to power his key-cutting machine.

The time of day a vendor is open also determines whether they will require electricity. Some stores may be open to negotiating grid access, but will not be operating at night, precluding vendors from hooking into their connection.

Foot traffic patterns also change as night falls, influencing the desirability of a section of sidewalk based on how many potential customers walk it. Besides variations in footfall between daylight and nightfall, the overall level of ambient light also influences the value of sidewalk, with positioning around streetlights being most valued, saving a vendor the need to invest in separate lighting solutions.

Once chosen, vendors will repurpose their location for their needs. Looking again at the locksmith, his method for displaying goods stands out. The window behind him holds over two dozen doorknobs, hundreds of keys, even the sign listing his name and his services. (Besides fixing locks and making keys he also trades in used safes.) His selection of this site is not incidental — he depends on the window and its hardware as both advertisement and inventory.

Locking up for the night

Unlike more formal business owners, sidewalk-based entrepreneurs are unable to store their inventories in their place of business. Vendors negotiate this formidable challenge in various ways. In one high foot traffic area, an enterprising vendor rented out a small storage shed for 50,000 kyat per month (57 US dollars; 37 British pounds) from the adjoining police station. This is a significant sum considering the daily profits for single-employee street-based microenterprises often fall around 5,000 kyats ($5.70; £3.70). This vendor charges 200 kyat ($0.23; £0.15) per day to whomever else would like to store things in her space, and many of the area's vendors rely upon her semi-formal space to store their inventory or part of their 'store'.

Inside I saw a textbook list of the tools Yangon's informal vendors rely upon for their livelihoods: bicycles with all manner of baskets and racks, several kinds of charcoal and wood stoves (along with plenty of firewood and charcoal), large umbrellas for sheltering one's patch of sidewalk from the elements, large metal platters to display goods on the ground or to be carried on vendors' heads, and numerous wooden crates used for everything from transporting inventory, to displaying goods, to informal seats for vendors.

Working next to this woman was a pineapple seller who stored his inventory in a nearby restaurant, also for 200 kyats per day. He explained that he had a good personal relationship with the restaurant proprietors, as he often sat there to eat his lunch and the owners would often buy pineapple from him, showing the importance of personal connections in forming business relationships.

Though not all have a choice in the matter, the most important decision a vendor in Yangon must make is whether to be stationary or mobile.

Another nearby vendor who sells mango and avocado stores his inventory at the train station, a ten-minute walk from his preferred sales point. Like the pineapple seller and the subletters of the police shed, he too pays 200 kyat per day for the privilege of storing his inventory and kit. He prefers to store his inventory at the train station because the fruit he orders wholesale is shipped to him by rail, and he values the ability to store the large quantities at the unloading point, rather than paying to transport it to a different location. It also gives him the chance to pass directly through the crowded indoor market nearby and make additional sales on his commute to and from the train station.

Not all vendors can afford to pay for storage, however. For them the only option is to store their goods out of reach — and, ideally, out of sight — of the sidewalk with the hope that passersby are not tempted to steal their kit.

Rent seeking

Though not all have a choice in the matter, the most important decision a vendor in Yangon must make is whether to be stationary or mobile. While mobility allows access to a wider audience, it limits the size of one's inventory to what can be carried on one's back and makes building a repeat customer base a challenge (though a vendor can trace the same orbit on a daily or weekly basis). For stationary vendors the issue of storage presents the most significant challenge.

However another issue that stationary vendors face more often than mobile vendors is rent seeking. Laws on street vending are hazy and for the most part unknown. Enforcement is often done on the spot and on a case-by-case basis, punctuated by random periods of much-publicised crackdowns. One vendor estimated he paid about 10,000 kyat (11 US dollars; 7 British pounds) per month or 'a bit more than one cup of tea per day' to local authorities for the privilege of selling in a high footfall area downtown.

The highest footfall areas often fall within the jurisdiction of one of the municipality's street cleaners, meaning that if one's business is of a kind that generates excess refuse, there is often a total monthly fee of around 1,000 kyat ($1.13; £0.73) levied in increments as the street-cleaner passes on a round. One betelnut stand owner made routine payments to four separate bodies: the municipal street cleaner for trash removal, the adjacent property owner for permission to have his business there, the local police for protection, and the local 'block authority' (the lowest level of administration in Myanmar's municipal government).

More challenges

The lives of Yangon's informal vendors are further complicated on a daily basis by issues such as lack of formal finance mechanisms, weather-related problems such as flooding, rising transportation costs for themselves and their goods, limited financial literacy, and so on. None of these challenges have simple solutions, and each is deserving of additional investigation and knowledge gathering before steps towards alleviating them can be taken. On a daily basis, vendors confront the challenges of the high costs and unreliability of obtaining electricity, storing their inventories in an affordable and accessible location, and the insecurity of their tenure on their piece of sidewalk. However, Yangon's vibrant urban economy would suffer greatly were these determined individuals ever to accede to the considerable difficulties they face in running their informal enterprises, and the citizens of Yangon benefit from their persistence in the face of these obstacles.

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