This article was first published in the June 2018 Africa edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

In my daily drive to and from work in Abuja, I pass an intersection with hordes of street hawkers selling items ranging from books to bananas and wafers. On a few occasions, I have seen environmental protection agency staff chase the touts, arrest them and confiscate their merchandise. It was the same when I lived in Lagos, and is also the case in Accra, Kampala, Nairobi, Bamako and many other African cities.

Most African governments regard street hawking as a menace because it makes the streets untidy. Hawkers also exacerbate traffic jams at busy intersections, as motorists slow down to buy from them, and every once in a while a hawker will get knocked down. Although, as a result, there are bans on hawking in these cities, hawkers have not been deterred. In some cities, they bribe the police; in others, they simply price in harassment by law enforcement as one of the business risks.

A look at the economics of this commercial activity may help authorities in their anti-hawking struggle. Street hawkers are mostly poor people who cannot afford to run shops and stalls in markets and on street corners. Driven to cities by poor infrastructure and lack of opportunity in rural Africa, they run their businesses with little or no capital. Many of them make just enough money to take care of basic needs for the day. This means that any day they do not hawk goods, basic needs, such as food, may not be met. Their customers are busy city dwellers who find it convenient to buy items from their vehicles during their commute. A meets B, and voilà!, a market is formed. As long as demand meets supply, authorities are wasting their time trying to stop it.

Stopping, or reducing, street hawking in Africa will require innovative thinking. The authorities have, rightly, tackled it from the sell-side but have gone about it the wrong way. Telling hawkers to quit the streets without providing alternatives is like asking someone to hold their breath until they die. These people must earn a living, and hawking is how they do it.

An option may be to permit hawking in designated streets and intersections, which can be purpose-built to facilitate the activity. Another option is to build lay-bys where motorists can buy from standing vendors which would ease traffic jams. Or certain streets could be designated as open-air markets, like Temple Street in Hong Kong or Liverpool Street in London on Sundays. Kiosks could also be provided on busy street corners and intersections, and hawkers charged a small daily rent for them.

Street hawking provides employment for lots of people. Stopping it entirely will worsen Africa’s unemployment problem. WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising), a network of researchers and workers’ groups, estimates that hawking accounts for 12%–24% of employment in the informal sector in some African cities. Governments would do well to be more open-minded in tackling the problem, and come up with options, not just bans.

Okey Umeano FCCA is head of risk management at Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission