MUGWE: Hawkers’ menace is the tragedy of the commons

In Summary
  • Fair enough, Sakaja has designated specific areas and rules of operation. But it is still a public shared space.
  • It will continue to suffer the perils of the tragedy of commons. He needs to go beyond the PR stunts and do the hitherto inconceivable.
Hawkers sell their wares along a footpath on River Road.
HAWKING MENACE: Hawkers sell their wares along a footpath on River Road.

Moana is an animated musical fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The film is set in Polynesia and tells the story of Moana who is a strong-willed daughter of a chief. The inhabitants worship the goddess of nature called Te Fiti. The island promises its inhabitants a flourishing steady state through an adequate supply of coconuts, fish, fruits and resources for shelter for everyone. So no one leaves the island because of the rich source of happy subsistence where the basics of life are all available.

As a social acknowledgement of the island’s abundance, the inhabitants have communal ownership of the island’s resources and hence no one has private property titles.

Several years go by and a blight strikes the island killing the vegetation and shrinking the fish catch. The abundance starts running out. The islanders start to panic, and demand answers from their chief.

Growing up, Moana learns everything she needs to know about life on her island. She finds herself continuously drawn to the ocean but is forbidden to venture beyond the island by her parents who keep reminding her that her duties and her people are where she belongs because she will ascend to being the chief after her father. Eventually, her obstinacy saves her people when she ventures out into the ocean to reclaim the heart of Te Fiti that was stolen by the demigod Maui causing her to become a destructive lava demon.

One of the key takeaways from this film is the economic theory of the Tragedy of the Commons. When no one owns a shared resource such as grazing land, a water source, or public pavements, it gets overused and ultimately depleted. This is because individuals make decisions based on their own self-interests regardless of the negative impact they may have on others. In such situations, the benefits of exploiting the resource are immediate and personal, while the costs of overuse are shared by everyone. Resultantly, each individual has an incentive to consume as much as possible, leading to the depletion of the resource. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty and scarcity.

Recently, harrowing scenes in Nairobi county of hawkers been aggressed on by the ‘kanjo askaris’ have stirred conversations on social media on the brutality meted on the hawkers and the inhumane way they have been treated including confiscating their wares and spilling of their products. In response, the Nairobi County Governor Mr. Johnson Sakaja has responded by personally compensating the victims and seeking interventions that hopefully alleviate the underage hawker’s plight. Many have criticised this as a PR stunt mainly because it does not address the underlying causes.

In addition, he has attempted to create an enabling hawking environment by designating areas where the hawkers should operate and codified rules of operation including operating days and hours and ensuring no littering. This is an attempt to minimize the disruption, pollution, congestion, and crime that a laissez-faire environment breeds.

Begs the question, why is this plan not working? Why are the hawkers brazenly defying the set rules of engagement?

I submit that what befalls the hawkers is the tragedy of the commons. Similar to Moana’s Island, there is an abundance of public space within the city where they can hawk their wares. The pavement where the hawkers operate is a shared resource. The hawker’s interest is to earn a livelihood regardless of the negative impact it has on pedestrians, motorists or business owners. Their need is immediate and personal, which leads to the depletion of the resource through the inconveniences it results in.

The reason why Sakaja’s plan does not work is because the world of street trading lacks private property rights. The hawkers have no private property rights to the space in which they operate. They trade with the distress that they can be arrested, and their wares confiscated at any moment. That their premise of operation is communal ownership, leads them to high disregard of its order and cleanliness.

The only solution for the conflict that arises when competing individual interests threaten to deplete a shared resource is privatisation. You see for instance, littering can only take place in the public shared domain. This is because littering is definitional. The rubbish you leave behind in an office, a movie theatre, a stadium or even in your home is not litter. It is garbage. When the cleaning crew arrive, they don’t pick up litter. They clear the garbage.

Fair enough, Sakaja has designated specific areas and rules of operation. But it is still a public shared space. It will continue to suffer the perils of the tragedy of commons. He needs to go beyond the PR stunts and do the hitherto inconceivable.

Through his assembly, he should pass laws that enable the hawkers to have private property rights to those designated areas. They should own and have titles to the spaces they operate on. Their daily fees should be converted to a rent to own modality. They should be able to use their titles to secure capital or financing from financial institutions to grow and expand their businesses.

This will create a new set of incentives and make good use of this dead capital that cannot be properly valued because it lacks legal recognition. The ripple effect will reduce economic stagnation, create jobs and wealth, reduce congestion, crime, and litter pollution.

This modality could also include flexibility where more than one hawker owns the title and space. This means that the owners could utilise the same space in shifts at different times of the day for example a mandazi and chai guy in the morning, a chapati madondo guy in the midmorning to lunch, a clothes seller from afternoon to evening and a ugali samaki guy in the night thus meeting the different demands of consumers as they arise in the course of the day.

This model would also increase peer accountability of any financing secured through this title thus reducing the perception of hawkers as high-risk borrowers, increase the number of jobs created, expand the diversity of the products offered, and curb the culture of littering. This will enable the single space to operate like an open-air supermarket thus maximising its commercial value.

This system of private property rights will help the county transition the hawkers from informal to formal traders, thus making street trading an incubator for vibrant and thriving businesses, ultimately creating an entire class of entrepreneurs that become a benefit rather than a menace to society.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to Sakaja. There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. So do what is meaningful. Not what is expedient. PR stunts will not solve the hawkers' menace. Privatisation will.


Like grass sprouting through cracks in a sidewalk, trade will flourish anywhere it can, regardless of government prohibitions - Jim Peron

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star