Street vendors in Barbados are important contributors to the economy and have been a cornerstone of our historical and cultural landscape from time immemorial.
Indeed, the Mighty Gabby’s beloved song Bridgetown evokes fond memories.
“Bridgetown early, Saturday morning.
See the women, hear they calling,
Singing ‘come for your breadfruit, come for your corn
Come for the apples as fresh the morn’.”
Today, vending is no longer restricted to traditional fresh vegetables and fruits, but products and services of every kind in public spaces.
However, vendors have long been overlooked as key economic players, unlike other entrepreneurs who benefit from public programmes and the like.
Most times, local vendors only appear in the spotlight when they are being rounded up by police for plying their trade in a prohibited location.
They are frequently blamed for congestion, poor garbage disposal, etc, and often engage in a tussle for space with established businesses, particularly those in The City.
Quite frankly, authorities and citizens have to share the blame for encouraging and not tackling the disorder that frequently exists.
One can hardly deny that there is a need to clean up the unsightly vending which currently takes place in Bridgetown, a designated United Nations World Heritage site.
Still, we recognize that vending is big business and has its rightful place.
We cannot overlook the fact that vendors are trying to make a living in a society where jobs are dwindling. Street vendors who are often the major breadwinners in their households also help to create jobs, not only for themselves but for suppliers, delivery operators and others.
Their daily trade is anything but easy. Vendors not only have to beat the heat, the wind and the rain, but they must survive increasing competition for space and access to customers.
And while they are not saints, they deserve a better break from the authorities.
Yesterday, Minister of Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Commerce Dwight Sutherland served notice that Government was moving to change legislation to promote vending here.
Said Sutherland: “We have to remove all of the fears and all of the major obstacles to business development in this country, whether it is vending, whether it is the wayside vendors selling coconuts or eggs. We cannot criminalize vending and expect our economy will grow via small business. So our ministry is charged with that responsibility and we are presently working on drafting documents that will go to Parliament that will amend legislation to ensure that vendors are seen as entrepreneurs and small businessmen in this country and they play a very critical role.”
Equally, he noted that vendors will have to adhere to the rules.
This new approach ought to be supported.
In the past, authorities have attempted to tackle the issue of vending in an ad hoc manner.
There are either regulations explicitly banning street vending, or the restriction of vending locations, hours of operation and so on.
Clearly we can do better. We need to have a national conversation on the way forward, and this should result in a clear, well-defined policy that fairly addresses the needs of vendors and the overall management of the sector.
Barbados has enough expertise and can in fact draw from the experiences of its Caribbean neighbours and beyond to find practical, just solutions to the issue.
Tough decisions have to be made.
The authorities could easily begin by addressing the known concerns while adopting clear rules for responsible vending.
They may want to start with an honest assessment of street vending to first determine the appropriate number of vendors that can be accommodated in The City and possibly map out the best locations where they can ply their trade, resulting in less acrimony between established businesses and vendors.
Important too is a thorough evaluation of the current markets to ensure they are conducive to business. What is the current state of the basic infrastructure? Are there adequate stalls, storage facilities, electricity, running water and toilets in place? Vendors who are comfortable are less likely to set up any and everywhere.
A case can also be made for Government to encourage Barbadians to visit and shop in the markets, thus ensuring the viability of the sector.
Now that Mr Sutherland has started the conversation we anxiously look forward to action.
This is an opportunity for Government to turn this critical informal sector into a controlled, regulated system that better serves all — vendors, citizens and businesses alike.