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Innovative African-born solutions to informal trade

Published at: 23 June 2015

African cities have the same type of problems. The informal sector is a sore thumb from the rest of the urban settlement with all its tall buildings and well kitted furnishings and amenities while the urban crossroads in the inner cities become the hives of informal activity, much to the chagrin of those in the formal sector.

It is reported that 46 percent of Zimbabwe’s economy is made up of informal trade. This is significantly more than the 17 per cent in South Africa and 13 per cent in Malawi.

In Johannesburg, like in many African cities, informal traders face harsh working conditions, with municipal bylaws often making it difficult for the traders to go on with their daily business. These include their stock being confiscated by the police, harsh weather conditions, crime and never ending bribes to the same police who should be protecting them.

The informal trading sector is neither taxed, nor monitored by government though it is responsible for millions of the city’s working class who swell the streets to buy household items such as vegetables, groceries, clothes, second hand appliances, and even mobile phones, shoes, and other perishable goods for the home consumer.

While political leaders say the inner cities’ informal trading is “a key economic activity in the cities”, little to nothing has been done to find innovative solutions to help informal traders’ lives be more comfortable.

But that could be a thing of the past, at least in Zimbabwe where Harare-based design studio Studio [D] Tale has come up with innovative and low cost solutions geared towards improving the life of informal traders on a daily basis.

The studio’s Crossroads Project has looked at the needs of informal vendors, and sees Harare as an “incubator of innovative design that can be exported throughout the continent” says Mutanda.

The five design solutions that Studio [D] Tale has come up with for Harare’s low-income market informal traders are: a brise soleil and rainwater-collecting umbrella, composting toilets, pallet flooring, simple washbasins and standardised display units.

These solutions provide the informal traders with access to clean water, sanitation and renewable energy - a commodity that is hard to come by in the hustle and bustle of the African city.

Inverted umbrella

Most street vendors can be seen under some sort of shading using the tarpaulins of branded umbrellas provided by big corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Studio [D] Tale has designed an inverted umbrella that is valuable to the user in sunshine or rain.

In wet weather the umbrella catches the rainwater, which can then be used to tend crops planted by the roadside or be treated with readily available water purifiers. The umbrella’s additional beneficial feature is photovoltaic solar cells that allow the vendors to generate electricity for themselves.

Mutanda says it is “important to show that what one considers as disadvantages of selling out in the open – the sun and the rain – can actually be harnessed to the end-user’s advantage.”

Waterless composting toilet

The studio has also been working on a design for a waterless, composting toilet to provide vendors who are not linked to the municipal grid with sanitary facilities.

Euro pallet flooring

Studio [D] Tale also proposes that street vendors use Euro pallets as flooring as Harare’s roadsides are often unpaved. The spaces between the wooden boards can be planted with indigenous grasses. Pre-fabricated, open-ended boxes can be used to create the walls of a customised stall.

Portable basin

Their last innovation comes in a form of a portable basin made from a bucket and plastic dish to give the vendors somewhere to wash their hands and their goods. The basin has been designed to be made out of easily available components, so that vendors can build their own. Waste water can be collected from the sink and reused in the gardens or flooring panel grasses of the vendors.

Work in Progress

There are currently five street traders in Harare who are already making use of Studio [D] Tale’s prototypes. After a three-month trial period, the studio hopes to roll out their designs to additional users.

Later this month the Crossroads project by Studio [D] Tale will be exhibited as part of the Africa exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, running from 25 June to 25 October 2015.

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