Bid for Africa's First Olympics, but What About Kenya's Hardest Hit?

13/08/2012 12:19 BST | Updated 10/10/2012 10:12 BST

David Rudisha's record-breaking triumph in the Olympic men's 800 metres final came on the day his east African country announced Kenya's readiness for a $15 billion outlay that would bring the Games to the continent for the first time.

But while Rudisha became the first man in history to run two laps of the track in under one minute and 41 seconds, and prime minister Raila Odinga announced Kenya's bid to host the greatest show on earth in 2024, many poor Kenyans continue to suffer.

The Kenya House showcase, at Stratford during the London Olympics, closes as the Games end on Sunday. But, amid plans to transform Nairobi into a major international financial hub - the showcase proclaims "Come experience a land of opportunity" - four in ten Kenyans live on less than 80p a day.

Since neoliberal state policies and rapid urbanisation allow little scope for jobs in the formal sector, 79 per cent of the labour force must try to eke out a living in the informal economy. Over 2.5 million Kenyans struggle to feed their families as street traders on low incomes - one in four of them women, often raising children - toiling without shelter under the blazing sun or in overcrowded markets. Yet the government denies such traders any legal protection, leaving them facing constant discrimination and harassment from local authorities, including confiscating the stock that represents their hopes for a brighter tomorrow. The absence of a legal framework protecting their rights has led to conflict, sometimes even resulting in the loss of life.

Street vendors rank among Kenyans hardest hit by increasing costs amid the global economic recession. A vendor in Nakuru, the provincial capital of the Rift Valley, told researchers: "One is forced to sell at a loss, though you have walked the entire breadth and length of the town, only to end up at your house empty handed." The study was conducted by Inclusive Cities, a collaboration of membership-based organisations of the working poor, international alliances of MBOs and support groups committed to improving the situation of the working poor. It asked individuals to report their major business costs and indicate whether these had risen, decreased or remained steady. Some 83 per cent of street traders reported that overall business costs had grown for those producing and/or selling both durable and non-durable goods. Many respondents said that both their main business costs, most often the price of raw materials or the cost of ready-made goods, and secondary business costs, such as transportation, utilities and market fees, had increased.

The recession has also driven mounting numbers of people into the informal sector, intensifying competition for large numbers of traders already vulnerable to the cold winds of financial crisis. Eighty-five per cent of street vendors interviewed for the Inclusive Cities research said more people had entered their segment, the highest response across the informal sector. One Kenyan vendor, admitting greater rivalry from sellers carrying and offering their goods, said: "Even spaces that were empty in town a year ago have been taken up by new entrants into hawking."

The economic slump's effect on hitherto regular formal employment is multiplying the burden on hundreds of thousands of women, now often their family's primary breadwinner, as well as undertaking disproportionate work at home. A woman speaking on behalf of War on Want's partner KENASVIT, the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders, told the Inclusive Cities study: "For certain, women are bearing the brunt of this recession. Many of the women, especially those who are widowed or single mothers, have no external support. They are caring for children alone, with dwindling incomes. Now many must support relatives who come to them after losing their jobs. The women who are married tell us their husbands have given up. But these women cannot give up, for the sake of their children."

Today KENASVIT is fighting for the government to legalise street vending through the micro and small enterprises bill, now under discussion in the Kenyan parliament after pressure applied by the organisation. If passed, the bill will allow street vending under law and offer important safeguards to the country's millions of informal traders.

Moreover, KENASVIT aims to transform street vendors' operations into more formal small businesses, with all the protection that those afford. Besides organising and empowering informal workers, KENASVIT offers them training and access to credit in order to improve their businesses, as well as advocating for street vendors at all levels of government, lobbying for favourable policies and legislation.

Indeed, KENASVIT has created a national movement in 12 Kenyan cities out of the many smaller organisations which back street traders. And through KENASVIT's advocacy and lobbying, many traders have gained better trading spaces and improved working conditions.

Like Kenya's athletes, KENASVIT realises the race to success resembles more a marathon, than a sprint. But War on Want will continue to support millions of vulnerable street traders to the finishing line of freedom and justice.