Today, we present the first in a two-part series looking at vending in Barbados. Next week, we zero in on the farming and vending of produce, and take a look at some of the areas for improvement in the industry and what plans the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN) has for the vending community.
It is one of the oldest commercial ventures known to man. And over the past nine months, there has been an exponential increase in the area, due to a need by many to make ends meet.
While vending was a natural way of life for many in the olden days, it has now become an outlet or lifeline for a number of people faced with job loss and economic hardship.
Vending, largely considered a part of the informal sector, is also an avenue for many to earn an additional stream of income to satisfy their household and other needs.
Arguably, the most popular type of vending in Barbados has been street vending, where individuals occupy a stall or kiosk along a section of the roadway or beach to sell a variety of items.
While it is not known how many vendors are currently on the island, the sheer number of people selling various items from locations across Bridgetown alone is an indication of the increase in the vending community.
There are currently over 600 members of the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN).While individuals are required to apply for a vending licence when seeking to ply their trade, there are perhaps more who do not currently hold such permits.
Government has promised to introduce legislation that would ensure that illegal vending is decriminalised. As recently as two decades ago, vendors who did not have permission to sell from a particular location were prosecuted for setting up shop in those areas, creating somewhat of an unstable environment.
“In some instances, it was not a comfortable experience,” said Richard Scantlebury, co-founder of BARVEN. “The police would come sometimes and use force and a lot of times the produce would be confiscated and taken to the station and you have to go through the process of being interviewed. By the time you return, all the sales gone. So it was generally a disadvantage to vending, and highly disrespectful.”
Looking back at some of the changes in vending over the years, Scantlebury told Barbados TODAY that since the emergence of the association in 2002, there have been numerous discussions to ensure better treatment for vendors.
Scantlebury said he was pleased that BARVEN has been able to work with authorities over the years to help dispel a lot of myths about vending, raise standards and allow a lot more people to get involved.
“We have been able to enjoy an ear of Government and we have seen the approach to vending has been more subtle and more understanding,” he added.
He believes that, “by and large, a lot of persons involved in vending would have noticed a difficulty in acquiring traditional jobs”.
“Back in the 1960s and 70s, and even up to some point in the 80s, we had a vibrant manufacturing sector. So that would have absorbed a lot of the labour . . . . It was a vibrant industry but then that had certain pressures on it and eventually that withered off,” Scantlebury recalled.
“So, with the absence of those sort of sectors you see more people going into vending and it became more of a way out for people who lost their jobs. I remember in 1991 when a lot of people lost their jobs, especially civil servants, you saw this heavy influx of people coming onto the streets and selling.
“From way back then, it was a way out for people to get an income to educate their children, improve their living conditions and improve their nutrition. That hasn’t changed.
What you might see changed now in vending is the physical features of it,” he added.
Back in the day, vending was mostly done by women, referred to as hawkers. They would walk around with trays or buckets, shouting out the items they had to sell. Some also had a fixed location from which they operated.
Today, however, the modern vendor is commonly referred to as an entrepreneur and prefers to operate from a fixed location, preferably a kiosk, a small enclosed structure or a large enough stall often affixed with a huge umbrella for shade from the sun.
The roadside retail trade has also developed to include a wider variety of products and larger volumes.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect Barbados in March this year, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of individuals entering vending, especially in the area of food and produce. This was not lost on BARVEN officials.
“During the pandemic, we saw this heavy proliferation of vending on almost every street corner, which is good. That is something we welcome because you want people to survive,” said Scantlebury.
“But, again, it reinforces the point about the lifeline that vending offers. I have seen persons who were top civil servants and when things get rough, they drove around their car with produce in the back and they sold it.”
He is expecting that once economic conditions improve, many of those who entered the space this year would look for new opportunities that were “less competitive and more secure”.
“So you might see the numbers dwindle a bit, but there are some that are going to be there for good,” he said.
Scantlebury, who started his farming and vending career in the early 1980s, said one of the challenges facing produce vendors was sourcing quality produce at a reasonable cost.
“If you were to take a survey of the plantations, you will find that the ones that are in agriculture, a lot of them have gone to the planting of hay. It is important to plant hay because you have a dairy industry that needs to be supported, but I think too much of our good land goes into that aspect of agriculture,” he lamented.
“So there is not that wide variety of produce. Something that might be missing is the involvement of peasants, small farmers. To my mind, small farmers are responsible for most agriculture produce that is produced in Barbados and the largest variety. So they have a stake in this sector.”
There is currently no data that fully captures the contribution of all vending to the national economy. However, it is estimated that the agriculture sector contributes just over $110 million to Barbados’ Gross Domestic Product annually, with non-sugar agriculture accounting for a little more than $100 million of that.
Scantlebury said BARVEN has been encouraging its members over the years to pay their National Insurance contributions, adding that vending of food and produce is essential and the sector is therefore critical.
“The supply and production of food bring some level of comfort to the citizenry. If you can’t pay your rent but you have food, you are more comfortable. So it plays that basic role. And as far as the economy is concerned, it contributes to the national economy because if we were not producing certain things we would have to import them,” he reasoned.
“If you were to carry out a survey, I think you would be surprised to see how many people are now involved in vending. It is an informal sector, but if people would do more research you would be surprised at what you would find. The unemployment rate is high now and you don’t see any real social disturbance because people have been innovative and thrifty enough to find another legitimate source to have money come in,” said Scantlebury.
Whether it be an individual selling items outside a school, in a market, on the roadside, outside an establishment, at a farm, on the beach, or in a shop, one thing is certain – without vending, many people would find it difficult to get the most basic of food, clothing or other items to satisfy their needs or wants.