Friday, August 31, 2012

Malewa -- or street food

As the local economy crashes, impromptu roadside restaurants -- what the Kinois call Malewa -- have spread at an amazingly rapid rate throughout Kinshasa, according to this article from Le Potentiel (in French). One local mechanic reports that he can get a filling hot meal for 500 CDF -- or about 50 cents.

If I'm understanding the French correctly, some of the Malewa stalls are really no stalls at all, just open-air affairs. Others are multi-story illegal constructions. And others are on the sidewalks, wedged against the walls of buildings. One restaurateur told Le Potentiel that demand is so strong she sometimes cooks six different dishes every day. She employs two young girls to help with the cooking and preparation, paying them each $1.50 a day.

Of course, even the busiest Malewa restaurants have to be worried about health issues. To prevent the spread of bacteria, one doctor told the paper, the best thing Malewa purveyors could do is wash their hands often.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Occupy Money

Spain now boats a variety of alternate currencies, The Washington Post reports. From scrip -- parallel paper money -- to online exchanges, to 'time banks' where expenditures and credits are accounted for in hours, the number of Spaniards who are augmenting their world with non-Euro currencies is increasing.

These schemes is tiny, compared to the population of Spain. But acceptance is growing significantly, according to The Post. Like the conceptions of both Bernard Mandeville and Silvio Gesell, the goal of these currencies is to block hoarding and to keep the local money circulating for the benefit of the community. So, for instance, the Catalonian currency called Turutas does not grow with interest if you hold it for a time. As Ton Dalmau, one of the founders of the effort, told the paper, "We are returning money to its origins and making it purely a system of exchange.”

Money quote, from Peter North, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool who has written two books about local currencies: “Instead of just being a desperate way for people to survive a horrible economic crisis, this is part of the cooperatives, credit unions, community banks, organic farms and recovering factories — the alternate economy — that the Occupy movement is groping towards.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Curious Case of Chinese Street Hawkers in Kenya

Last week, Kenyan street merchants took to the streets in protest, not in commerce. They marched from Eastleigh to the Prime Minister's office to protest Chinese merchants they said were taking over the streets of Nairobi.

“The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads. We don’t want them to manufacture goods, export them to Kenya, and engage in wholesale, retail and even hawking the goods,” James Thamo, one of the protestors, told The Star newspaper.

The newspaper didn't interview any Chinese hawkers, and I have yet to see any dispatches that show any Chinese street hawkers in the Kenyan capital (this photo
captioned, "Chinese hawkers in Kitale town," simply shows a guy who may or may not be Chinese and may or may not be involved in street vending; the woman behind him--who may be hawking or may simply be entering the car--doesn't appear to be Chinese.)

I do know, though, that after the economic crash of 2008 and 2009, many Chinese firms that had previously relied on African middlemen coming to China to buy, changed their strategies and started sending sales representatives directly to Africa. I  met some of them in Nigeria. And it's only one step from that to sending people to Africa to take care of the retailing.

Still, what interests me here is that the hawkers -- many of whom are unlicensed -- have petitioned the government to crack down on the Chinese, who they claim have no work permits. What's more, the hawkers complain that the Chinese are doing business even though they come to Kenya on 3-month tourist visas, yet that's exactly how most Kenyan entrepreneurs travel to China.

I like the contradictions.

UPDATE: Today, The Star reported this: 'THE government is not aware of any Chinese nationals engaged in hawking business in urban areas, Minister for Trade Moses Wetangula has said. However, the minister admitted before Parliament there are isolated cases of Chinese, Somali and Indian nationals who have been “spotted” doing business in various commercial centres in Kenya.'

just the facts, ma'am

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." Thus spoke the schoolteacher in Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times.

But, as the mischevous anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend noted more than a century later, "'Facts' come from negotiation between different parties."

As this KTVU news report documents, many San Francisco residents see street recyclers as a nuisance--a growing army of scavengers who strew garbage on the sidewalks. They also blame the waste pickers for higher garbage fees. That's because the city privatized its recycling program. The recyclables are picked up by a company called Recology, and, the argument goes, when the amount of material Recology can pick up and resell goes down, the rates residents pay go up. Indeed, the bins of cardboard, plastic and metal that residents set out are considered Recology's property once they're placed at the curb--so in a technical way, scavengers and bulk dealers are committing a crime (the police officer KTVU interviewed notes it's a public health violation, which gets upped to a misdemeanor for repeat offenders.)

Others, the web site suggests, see these desperate and hard-working scavengers as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Street scavenging is not a small business in San Francisco, as KTVU notes: "Estimates on recycling bin theft range from $5 million to $10 million, though it's impossible to tell how much actual material is stolen from blue bins."

The scavengers are reminiscent of medieval merchants who engaged in forestalling--essentially setting up just beyond the boundaries of the market, selling what was available in the market for a lower price. Markets throughout the UK tried to outlaw forestalling--but the practice continued because the money to be made was enticing.

What say you? Are these folks who are combing the streets for a couple of bucks a big social problem? Are they an indication of a market created by the monopoly the city granted to the private contractor? Are they just folks trying to survive in tough times? What the facts are probably depends on where you stand--whether you're a homeowner and ratepayer, or work for the company that has the recycling contract, or if you're one of the people involved in the underground trade.