I recently had the good fortune of being invited to the city of Durban, in KwaZulu Natal, to tour around what is probably one of
the biggest and most well organized informal markets in the world. Warwick Junction lies in the heart of Durban’s inner city; and is a hugely busy transport interchange between trains, busses and taxis connecting commuters to all over the city and it’s outskirts. Consequently approximately 460 000 travelers pass through this area everyday. It is not surprising, therefore, that over 100 years ago vendors began informally selling their wares to passers by; and that all these years later, this area is one of the most significant economic hubs in one of South Africa’s major cities.
The ‘Markets of Warwick’ as they are known, are made up of a variety of different markets, all selling or producing different things. There is, for example, a Traditional African Herb Market, a Bead Market, a Bovine Head Market, a Fresh Produce Market (known as the ‘Early Morning Market’ or the ‘Mother Market’), markets that sell ordinary clothes, church clothes; and music and music equipment, to name a few. Collectively the markets have about 5000 to 8000 official vendors, who, it would seem, pay a monthly vendor fee to belong to something similar to a co-op. However, the number of people who are directly or indirectly economically supported by the market is approximately 70 000 to 100 000. These people are not only made up of the families and dependents of the vendors, but also include all the suppliers in the supply chain and all those who get spin-off business from the market, like taxi drivers.
What is most significant for me, however, is that this market turns over an amount of over 2 billion rand a year. So, in the retail space, this ‘company’ – if it can be called that for the purposes of this comparison – employs almost 8000 people, has a customer base of just under half a million people a day and has an annual turnover of over 2 billion rand. That is significantly more feet and money passing through hands than your average shopping centre I would imagine. Moreover, it is well run, efficient, diverse in what it offers, versatile in what it offers (vendors are highly responsive to market demand, the World Cup in 2010 was a perfect case in point), has sustained itself for going on 100 years despite undergoing economic and political upheaval and change. Also, because vendors are essentially their own business owners, the markets do not have all the Human Resource, talent retention, internal politics, payroll etc., problems that most conventional business have. Despite all this, have you considered that the Warwick Market falls in to what is known as the informal business sector?
Whilst I was wondering around this magical place, contemplating all that I was learning about myself by spending time with these remarkable vendors and their remarkable stories, I wondered what a place like Warwick represented for the future of business, most specifically big conglomerates and multi-national corporations. Warwick embodies for me the best aspects of the new world of work, in that it’s survival is reliant on collaboration, trust, respect, hard work, networking, team-work, good leadership, humility, creativity, innovation, market responsiveness, cutting edge service, high quality products, convenience, reliability, excellent communication, tolerance for difference, transparency and honesty. All these are qualities that future business also needs in order to survive.
What was also interesting about Warwick was the interchange between modern, western goods (like soccer shirts and CD players) and more traditional products like African herbs and the bovine heads. The gentleman who showed me around the market pointed out to me that many of the products available could or would never be sold in the formal sector (and yet things sold in the formal sector can be sold here). A market like this, therefore, provides products and services for a huge proportion of South Africa’s population who have a need for things that are not to be found in supermarkets.
Furthermore to me, there is an interesting dichotomy between a traditional way of life and urbanization. The Bovine Heads Market is a beautiful illustration of this. Bovine (cow) heads are a traditional Zulu delicacy. Cow’s heads are skinned and then the meat around the jawbone is carefully shaved off and boiled. This is then served with traditionally made dumplings, which as I understand it, it boiled bread. What is so interesting about this market in particular, is that historically preparing and consuming the bovine head was a privilege reserved only for Zulu men. However, now, with urbanization (and I can only assume female empowerment) not only are the heads prepared by women but women are now allowed to get a ‘take away’ bovine head and dumpling. Men still reserve the right to sit and eat this special food at the market.
This experience illustrated so many important things for me. One of the things I thought of is the potential interplay between the formal and informal business sectors in to the future. In 2008 the world tipped from being primarily rural to being primarily urban. Cities are growing rather than getting smaller. This must mean that governments, big business and social practices generally are going to shift and change to accommodate new ways of over-populated urban living. What Warwick illuminated for me was the need to consider now what the future holds for the informal business sector in relation to the formal business sector. I think there will come a time in the future where the formal sector will learn from the informal and I definitely think that there will come a time where they will both have to work collaboratively. If one considers which cities are predicted to grow most in the next 15 years, most are cities in developing economies that have historically had a proportionately large informal business sector. I think that because of this historic behaviour, because of the disillusionment with big business and the system (embodied in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall street), because of a skills deficit that the world is facing amongst the youth and because of the formal sector not being able to create jobs fast enough, the informal sector (illustrated by Warwick) will play increasingly significant roles in the global economy.
Another thing that interested me was how urbanization is potentially reshaping traditional cultural practices as male/ female dynamics shift and change. I do not have any researched statistics on this, but I observed a lot of female vendors. What was interesting too, was that the individual markets tended to be one gender dominated. For example, the bead market, the church clothes market; and the Bovine Head market, seemed to be run almost exclusively by women of all ages (the CD players and soccer shirts were being sold mostly by young men). I wonder if informal business is female dominated; and what kind of implication this is going to have for female economic empowerment? Much like the rise of the ‘mompreneur’; the number of women in the informal business sector will increasingly lead to women heading up households (financially), women becoming decision-makers; and women spending their money differently (because they do spend their money differently to men) both in the formal and informal space. I wonder what impact this will have on male/ female domestic dynamics and in particular the role of parenting. If men (across all socio-economic groupings) have to take more hands-on responsibility for children because women are effectively running their own business, where does that leave future generations in terms of their understanding of what is normal?
All these are interesting things to consider. But one thing I am pretty sure of is this: cities, big business, formal business and the role of men and women therein is going to look different in the not so distant future.
If you are interested in visiting Warwick Market contact [email protected] – there really is much to learn about yourself and your business from a day with those vendors.
The sad reference to the tensions referred to, arising from the disillusionment with the economic system and the lack of receptivity to alternative ways of doing business can be best seen in the dramatic attempted suicide of street vendor, Mohamed Bou’azizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid.
His desperate protest which was in reaction to being constantly harassed by police officials, has been attributed to the onset of the “Arab Spring” and regime changes of countries in North Africa and Middle-East, see : http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/01/201111684242518839.html ; http://www.thejournal.ie/protesters-flood-the-streets-in-tunisia-egypt-and-lebanon-2011-01/
Thank you for your keen eye and appreciation of the valuable contribution of the informal economy to the socioeconomic fabric, locally and in countries world wide.
excellent put up, very informative. I wonder why the opposite experts of this sector don’t realize this. You must proceed your writing. I am confident, you have a great readers’ base already!