Economic Impact of the 'Happy Hawker': Africa's 'Informal Sector', Ignored by Government Statisticians, Is in Fact a Vital, Bustling, Non-Stop Hive of Activity Worth Billions of Dollars. Now the South African Government Wants to Use This Sector to Grow the Economy and Create Jobs. Tom Nevin Reports

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On the highways and byways of Johannesburg, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Dakar and other African towns and cities, they're the 'happy hawkers'--a cheerful, bustling throng of roadside traders from whom you can buy, or so the word on the street says, anything from the latest digital camera to a toothpick.

Now the South African government wants to use 'Hawker-Power' to create more jobs and fight poverty.

Africa's economy has always been a 24-hour one--a restless, subtly shifting and ever active continental network of markets and meeting places that ignores borders and regulated business hours, lets the market decide on rates and margins and is endlessly inventive, proactive and reactive to the forces that shape and drive it every single second of each day of the year.

Its grapevine-like communications system distributes information in ways that are incomprehensible to formal commerce. The knowledge-gathering and circulating system never sleeps, and the African informal economy could not exist without it.

Nowhere is Africa's informal economy more a power-play than in Gauteng--South Africa's industrial and commercial hub that is a supermarket to the continent.

For years economists and other researchers have tried to put a figure to the money that flows through this 'other economy'; but the numbers are hopelessly disparate, simply because no-one keeps tabs. Best estimates say the South African informal sector turns over about R32bn each year, or about 10% of the country's retail trade.

Now a government taskforce is meeting with the cities' alfresco vendors to find ways of fusing the talent, energy and street smarts of hawkers into an enabling environment for small, medium and micro-enterprises.

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HAWKER COMMUNITY IS ORGANISED

Sprawling and chaotic though it may seem, the hawker community is organised through the African Council of Hawkers and Informal Business (Achib). Council boss, as secretary-general, is Livingstone Mantanga and he says he's encouraged by what he describes as "government's changing attitudes to our people."

"Government is realising that we are businesspeople who are making an honest living and could contribute immensely to job creation and economic growth," he says.

A move that could edge the informal trader community closer to the economic mainstream is the Apex Fund, a scheme recently unveiled by President Thabo Mbeki that seeks to bring about a measure of togetherness between the street-side trader and formal small business.

It will also work closely with the R1bn Agricultural Credit Scheme, a funding conduit for small-scale farmers, a possible source of fresh produce.

One plan that's making sense to small-scale buyer and informal trader will see the opening of branches in areas close to hawkers' homes.

This will reduce the cost of transport that is usually factored in on the selling price of informal traders' products, such as fruit and vegetables. South Africa has close on a quarter of a million such farmers who, if supported, could produce directly for local and regional markets where many hawkers make a living.

A MYSTICAL WORLD OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Closer cooperation between hawkers and prescribed commerce will help to unlock some of the almost mystical workings of pavement economies.

It was with some pride that the 'civilised' world announced some years ago the advent of their 24-hour economy, driven by "The New Economy". The truth is that the 'new' 24-hour economy is only a couple of thousand years behind its African predecessor.

Just as the traditional African hawker way of business succeeds in its own particular ethos, so too does the New Economy, but in different ways. Is there something the one can learn from the other?

In the first place, African street operators are becoming more sophisticated and trade-smart than many appreciate and not a little of the progress can be attributed to the ubiquitous cellphone. …