Every weekday, on my way to school, I observed the creativity of street traders. The glass window of the car I rode in on my way to school was a window into another way of life, it was another type of education for me. I’d see the newspaper seller holding stacks of news for my parents. The gbaka – minibus – conductor hailing for passengers to Adjamé – a neighourhood of Abidjan – and holding on to the door as the driver manoeuvred through traffic. We had the aunties selling food at busy intersections for pupils, students and youth alike. I was a stranger to the experience of what they were doing in my own city.
Youth I saw were in the streets because they did not have the means to go to school. Older people I saw were there because they did not to go to school – or had not done well there. That was the line. I did not question it. My parents made it clear that my job was to do well at school so that I did not become like those outside our window.
Yet, even as they were my cautionary tale, I was fascinated by their negotiation skills. I was intrigued by their selection of goods. I was surprised by their adaptation to the weather and sports events. It took so many of them a mere 60 seconds to trade. They mastered the art of bargaining and variation of their offering. They understood their market. There was a method to the trade. For instance, the newspaper seller was a constant feature. Other traders did not stick to the same traffic light. I had many unsatisfied questions about why they were in the streets timing their sales to the movement of traffic lights. At times, their sprint mirrored that pace of an Olympian either to collect their cash or escape the full force of the law.
These visual experiences of my city remain ingrained in my mind. I continued to interrogate my understanding of the world in which I was living.
As I’d watch them at work, I’d think how we were in the same city sharing the same heritage but with uneven realities. I did not know theirs. They did not know mine. We could imagine that mine was easier. At least in the conventional sense of the word since my family had the means to send me to school, had the means for our own car. But I didn’t feel luckier. I was impressed by their skills and the freedom that they seem to exhibit. I was fascinated by the unknown and the lack of routine that their lives exhibited. In contrast, every day, I wore the same uniform and attended the same class. Yet, even as their life interested me, the fear of becoming like them kept me going at school.
One afternoon, on a school break, I sat idle on the veranda. He caught my attention with his voice calling for buyers. I don’t recall whether I needed a t-shirt yet opened the gate to see what he was selling. He showed me what was available. I either did not like the options or none of them fitted me. He promised to be back the following week as his trade moves across the city. I then had a few options that fitted me. His technique made sure that his clients need not have to try them on; he would place the t-shirt against the length of my shoulders. He made me understand that this was sufficient. I trusted him and he was right.
Then, his contribution to my understanding of his trade and these images of them faded, clustered at the back of my mind as I continued with my school work, graduated from high school and then eventually left Abidjan for university. Yet, the memory of these creative minds working hard to make a living across the streets of African cities never left me. As I sat at university in my operations management class, I recalled their agility and how they had bargaining skills from a very young age. I had been mesmerised by street vendors, but I could not tell why.
A few years ago, when I returned to live in West Africa, I watched as a generation later, my own children observed the vibrant trade in the streets of Accra. In Accra, the vendors make the traffic jams bearable for those that need fruits, water, sodas, etc. As a father, I have a role to make my children understand their connection to society as a whole. I tell them about youth’s creativity. I tell them about how we have allowed the tag of informality to dilute youth’s creativity.
As I watched these vendors as an adult, I understood why I was intrigued as a child and why I am still fascinated. My fascination is derived from their mastery of supply chain management processes, a concept I only understood in my undergraduate program. It took me years of schooling to learn what they learned on their own out of necessity and survival. I can value my learning and account for what I have achieved as society gave me a framework to validate my learning. Yet, their learning and their contribution to society does not have a place to start from. We tend to think that they exist through our transactional relationships. Yet, they are self-employed entrepreneurs without a physical office.
Within the bounds of the city arteries, they have developed a sense and a flair of the market they operate in with fluidity. With limited analytics, they have been able to vary their offering according to sport events, weather, etc. One could imagine a better supply chain management and marketing tools to nudge them and allow them to move up the value chain.
As I realized all this, I wondered why the same attitudes I saw as a child persist today – the belief that becoming a hawker would be a terrible fate for someone who went to school. Now, I am convinced that their potential is no different to mine. At times when my late mother would bargain at the red light, stretching into green, I watched in awe, the skills at hand. The mental calculation, the negotiation and the attention to a particular detail of how the scarf would look on my mother. They argued for a fair price. In graduate school, when I took a negotiation class, I thought back about this time and I wondered how they would have fared in these classes. They are practitioners. They are entrepreneurs. I learnt from them but at the time, I did not know how much.
Without the technology, they were way ahead of Uber. They probably did not always get it right, but they knew what location at what time of the day might increase their sales. The absence of data on their daily sales matched with location algorithm and supply chain enhanced a common perception of failure. But why would failure elicit a continued behaviour? Part of the reason lies in our inability to use data to build our narrative. It has thus permeated into how we value our own citizens.
As such, we leave many tapped opportunities dormant. Availability of data on the skills of street vendors, women traders in the markets could have changed the limited interaction that I continue to have with a great number of African citizens. Digging into the data to demonstrate their actual and potential contribution to society could have been an entry point into the shared value of learning.
While I was accounted for as pupil, they might have never been accounted for. They spring up where necessary, but we did not connect them to our formal learning. I also never stepped out of the comfort of my imagination to probe my teachers as to why they were in the streets. Yet, I could have learnt from them if there was a mechanism to count and value their contribution to society. One step forward would have been inclusion in the school curriculum. Most importantly, including data points and case studies of their entrepreneurship. But this did not happen, because the box could not be ticked, and our lives continued to evolve in similar parallel circles.
I recognise that the formal world I embraced, by default, from the start limited my ability to know more about a large section of my society. And unfortunately, too many of us go through life in African societies in parallel lanes. We see but we cannot quantify. Putting a number onto it is a powerful start. Armed with data on what citizen do to bring dignity home every night, we can start to weave their contribution into current measures so that we start to know a little bit more about the diversity of our economies.
I wish we could know more, for the next generation to intersect, not at streetlight, and enable prosperity across the slums of Africa. The constraints of the data supply chain breeds poverty. Limited understanding of what millions of Africans do on a daily basis keeps the pathway to prosperity blocked for too many of us.
Every day, a number of us seek an opportunity in the informal sector. Technology is changing the way in which taxis are being hailed. Technology can do the same for hawkers. We could start with the premise that informal workers have mastered the art of trading. Facebook and Google are data supply chains machines. We have something to learn from the collection of data to make informed decision about users and apply to informal trading. One could imagine the impact of data architecture designed to empower every street hawker for decision making. They make these decisions every day, yet we are unable to tap into their knowledge to transform our societies.
Google and Facebook are platforms that bypass our weak or inexistent civil registration and vital statistics systems. Yet they have amassed a vast amount of data. They created a baseline even when there was none. Without a functioning baseline, civil registration and vital statistics, it is possible to learn from those giants to strengthen continuously, a purpose driven society; continuously increasing the number of people we carry forward. Data allows us to connect isolated creative minds. A real dialogue with those that have created a job out of nothing is the starting point. They have mastered a possibility which was not formally offered to them; a job. Yet they work.
I sometimes wondered whether an interaction in my classroom with street hawkers would have helped me. I think, now, that they could have been great teachers of apprenticeship. But for that to happen, someone had to value what many self-made traders had to offer. Matching formality with informality is not a novel idea. We have delayed the inevitable by building walls of perception our society. My mother never treated them badly, but she never spoke to me about their aspirations or their dreams. She probably did not know, and I was unable to articulate my fascination of a group that I was not allowed to become a part of. Even if I wanted to, I did not know the mechanisms and the route to entrepreneurship. I was being formatted for a career of some sort.
While I could not tell of the value that they were creating, I knew I could not do what they were delivering. I was used to a routine in the world I knew, and I did not have the code to access to access their world. If that code was poverty, then they were doing something about it. Had the formal education found a way to make me their apprentice, I would have been able to adjust my thinking earlier so that I would have understood from them what my formal work could help them with.
Data open up possibilities for societies. Starting with a birth certificate, we can account for the number that need support for their expertise in their fields. Yet, it is not yet available to all Africans. An identification opens doors that one does not yet know. Before, I knew it, it opened the education gate then a host of opportunities that I did not know existed. We know it is possible. Also, there is an inherent assumption that informal traders don’t pay taxes. Yet, the culmination of the issues they face are systemic taxes undermining our measure progress for more of us.
Never the end
My introduction to trade was seamless through the window. I had to go to school not become like them. I have gone to school yet I still have so much to learn from their skills. They called it informal and I accepted it. Yet it is entrepreneurship. We are always learning. Blended learning means that we can source it from where it adds value.