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The plight of street vendors in Kigali City



Since the end of the infamous and brutal 1994 genocide against Tutsi, the city of Kigali has undergone massive transformation. Formerly characterized by old buildings dating back to the colonial era, Kigali is slowly becoming a modern city. In recent times, Kigali has been tipped as the Singapore of Africa, a powerful salute to Rwanda’s rising promise. Even small street vendors, the hallmark of sprawling African cities, selling the daily business of life – airtime and radios, fruits, food and various articles of clothing, are required to operate from recognized locations, including payment of taxes. But the dark side of this new world, impacting over 6000 vendors, as we learned, often resulted in police arrests and detentions.

“When the police catch you, they take your goods away and send you to Gikondo transit center,” said Jean Marie Ndagijimana, a 23 years old street vendor. Ndagijimana, who dropped out of primary school as a young boy, has been selling second-hand clothes in Kigali for six months. He explained the challenges of evading police arrest, the crowded transit centers, such as Gikondo, where inmates received just one meal of beans and maize daily, before being released or sent to various rehabilitation center in the country. He also noted vendors could be sent to a facility located on Iwawa, a remote island in Lake Kivu.

Most of the vendors dotting Kigali’s bustling streets are women – and mothers, already marginalized by various societal restrictions including limited opportunities for education and formal employment.

As explained by Jean-Claude Ndatuwera , a senior official from the Rwanda National Human Rights Commission (RNHCR), it is often women who bear the brunt of discriminatory laws. “We received a complaint from a woman, who came here, saying her goods are always confiscated by the police,” he said. “She does not know where they take them.” According to Ndatuwera, while street vendors have been shown markets by Kigali city authorities, most vendors confirm markets are expensive for them to operate there. “The woman who brought her complaint was a widow, with four children to take care of,” he said. “She just cannot afford to rent a premise in the market.”

The Carrot and the Stick

The premises referred by Ndatuwera fall under the umbrella of Kigali’s city official program to develop mini-markets, supported by the central government, as well as the Ministry of Public Service and Labor. Currently, 14 mini-markets have been constructed. Specific initiatives such as the Agaseke project , supported by Rwanda’s first lady Jeanette Kagame through her organization Imbuto foundation, involve more than 2000 vendors weaving baskets for export to Japan and the USA.

To date, 10 000 pieces, including traditional baskets, have been exported to Japan generating revenue of RWF 40 million. Nyiramayigira Goreth, a 41 years old woman member of a cooperative weaving baskets for export said that they do not have a fixed monthly salary. ” We are paid according to how many baskets each one has weaved. The more baskets you weave the more income you get”, explained the mother of five. She went on saying that part of the cooperative’s income has to go to the cooperative coffers, another part to purchase raw materials. On average members earn a monthly income of RWF 20000.

Yuri Mito, the local partner who handles quality control for Japanese importer Ruise B Co., Ltd told us, ‘women who used to be street vendors no longer return to the street’ and were now able to feed and educate their children, obtain health insurance for family members, buy cows, goats and hens, and also invest in future savings. In addition to that women are trained in entrepreneurship, HIV/AIDS and birt control.

Caroline Mugwaneza also a member of the cooperative reiterated that for the cooperative’s members, Agaseke project means more than the income they derive from it. ” I do not look at the income we get because it is still small. I see the future and other benefits we derive from this project such as trainings on socio-economic development.

Rukwavu Bella, the coordinator of Agaseke project in Kigali City claimed that while over 3000 women, including sex workers, were targeted by the project, there was a large drop-out rate. The reason of thedrop-out according to women from the cooperative in Gatsata is that those who left were not patient enough to learn how to weave baskets and reach a point where they can produce quality baskets that can be exported. The FRW 500 daily per idem that women were offered during trainings were not enough to meet their needs the reason why many left and went back to the streets or to prostitution.

In 2010, an agreement was struck between ONE UN Rwanda and Kigali city authorities on Agaseke project. Membership has since increased to 2000 women spread throughout 54 cooperatives. “We train them to weave quality baskets for export; management and entrepreneurship skills,” said Rukwavu.


Since 2010, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has provided training for members of the cooperatives, including access to four washing machines and three dryers, alongside a manual of basket with different colors as reference of quality baskets that can be easily sold in international markets. Eric Bizimana, an official with UNIDO, explained that the project would soon come to an end. “After this training ONE UN Rwanda will hand over this project to Kigali city so that the members of the cooperatives can continue to run it.”

We approached several women operating as vendors in various places in Kigali city to get their views on the mini-markets, and the cost of operations.

Rose Nyiramajyambere, a 44-year-old widow with four children is a member of a cooperative based in the district of Gasabo. She noted that since she left the streets and relocated to the mini-market in Remera, she is now able to take care of her family, crediting the mini-market with helping her first child finish high school. She has opened a bank account and even acquired a land where she will soon build a house. “When someone is still illegally selling goods in the streets , that person is ignorant and does not know the benefit of being part of a cooperative.”

 The cooperatives have administrative functions funded by RWF 15000 monthly contribution by members, used for rent, security, and cleaning of market spaces. The district of Gasabo further receives RWF 3000 as a monthly tax from each trader in the mini-market. Nyiramajyambere said that she earns an average monthly income of FRW 50000.

Fabian Karangwa, an accountant with Nyiramajambere’s cooperative, ‘Forces  Development  Cooperative’, comprised of former street vendors, explained that during the past 3 years, membership had increased from 190 to over 400.

Hit and Run

In most cases, from descriptions by vendors and our own observation, scenes of police and local defense running after street vendors – often mothers with children on their backs – was common in Kigali, followed by imprisonment for unspecified times. “They should not treat them in such a way,” said Ndatuwera. “They should approach them and tell them that it is against the law to sell in the streets.” The laws, he claimed, should result in the police protecting, rather than endangering the public, including street vendors, citing national police training hosted by the RNHCR in May 2013 in Kabyayi.   But he stressed that while police should treat vendors with sensitivity, vendors should respect the law.

We approached the City council for their comments. “It is against business laws and regulations to do any kind of business in the streets”, said Bruno Rangira, the Kigali’s spokesperson, speaking to us from his office at the City Council. Authorities such as Rangira justified the ban for the safety of vendors and pedestrians; the City’s hygienic and environmental status; and the importance of taxes for the public purse.

When asked about alleged harassment by security organs during arrests, and fines of RWF 20000, he flatly denied the claims. The sole legal fine was RWF 10000, he claimed, further reiterating that street vendors were killing other legal businesses as they avoided taxes and other business costs.

“When you are trying to stop someone doing illegal activities, they do not easily comply because they are making easy money out of it,” said Rangira. “I do not think the intention of authorities is to harass them.”

Urbain Mwiseneza , senior official with Kigali’s Rwandan National Police, claimed that a transit center like Gikondo is used mainly for development of the vendors.  “The purpose when they are arrested is to take them back to their villages, train them to be part of  cooperatives and get them involved in government programs such as HIMO and VUP Umurenge that help people without capacity,” he told us. He stated that any injuries incurred by the vendors was due to their attempts to evade the due process of the law but denied police culpability.

We raised the issue of others who were sent to Iwawa island’s facility, Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Centre, established in February 2010 by the Rwandan government. Mwiseneza responded that the Center was primarily directed towards rehabilitation of the youth, encompassing not only street vendors, but also, those struggling with drug and other vices.

 Inside Detention:

 For weeks, Mukashema Donatile’s a  40-year-old mother of three, did not know the whereabouts of her 12 years old son.  Arrested for carrying scrap for sale on the street, she came to Gikondo Transit Center pleading for information about him, and for his release.  “I want to ask, I want to know, where exactly they took my son or if he is still here,” she told us at Gikondo transit center. During his arrest, she was informed that only children who attended school at the time of arrest, would be released. Others would be held indefinitely at the transit center. Authorities later informed her that her son, among other uneducated children, would be sent to Gitagata rehabilitation center – the only government-owned facility for street children, located in Musenyi sector, Bugesera district.

Donatile explained that lack of resources prevented her from sending her children to school. The scrap industry was the family’s only source of income, with the son earning between FRW1000-2000 daily. She claimed that the Center is filled with kids as young as 5 years old and was a ‘dirty place’.

Sometimes children can spend up to six months in the center eating only a small cup of maize and beans once a day,” she said. “When they are released most of them have stomach illness because of the bad food they had been eating.”

Like the son, Donatile herself was once detained there. “I know this place very well and was detained here for two weeks.”

Officials at the transit Center denied claims, informing us that the Center was very well maintained. “It is designed for rehabilitation not as a ‘prison,” said Ntihemuka Jean-Claude, who refused to let us enter and speak with detainees.

But family members of detainees would frequently refer to the Center as a ‘prison’. “Among the prison we have in Rwanda this one is not included in them,” said one person who had come to visit a relative. Unlike children, sent to Gitagata on release, adult vendors and prostitutes would be sent to Iwawa Center, where they would be held for a year, allegedly to be taught a new skill.

“Our concern is that they only arrest the most vulnerable in the streets, instead of those who commit serious crime like killing people or robbing them,” said one family member.

We chatted with over 30 people who came to visit their families, locked inside the Center. Detainee releases occurred twice a week. Those who claimed they were in school and could furnish proof, were given priority release. Women, families informed us, stayed the shortest amount of time, one or two weeks before being released. But males, whatever their ages, could stay for as long as six months.

Bribes were frequently mentioned as a means of obtaining release.

“Before they used to cheat you and take your money without releasing the person,” said one tired man who had come to ask the whereabouts of his wife who was arrested selling vegetables in the streets.”

He claimed, families were savvier these days. “Now you pay them as they release the person.”

Kigali’s streets have no shortage of new vendors, rushing to fill the exited spaces of those willingly entering markets, and those forcibly chased away.  But the city, called the Singapore of Africa, is in a rush of its own, slowly closing its doors, save for one entrance.


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