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COLUMN – We need a strong vending sector

guestcolumn-laurieI see that the Government is finally going to start a pilot project for a vending facility on the ABC Highway.

I’ve been lobbying for this for years; but I’m not optimistic.

We have a negative view of roadside/beach vending in Barbados. That’s because we see vending as a problem to be solved rather than an economic opportunity for empowerment, entrepreneurship, and self-employment.

Sad to say, in the middle class imagination street vending is linked with paros, vagrants and drug dealers. Vendors (especially the male ones) are stereotyped as purveyors of stolen produce and illegal substances, who swear, litter, urinate in the street, block access, harass people and otherwise constitute a threat to public order and standards of decency.

The truth is that the vast majority of vendors are simply trying to make a living for themselves and their families.

Moreover street vending  provides:

Self-employment and empowerment of the poor;

A school of entrepreneurship; and

A tourism attraction.

Let’s look at each of these areas in turn.

Self-employment is the future growth area in Barbados. The sectors best suited for self-employment are culture, tourism, information and communications technology, and street/beach vending.

Street vending (and I include rum shops in this sector because they’re oriented to the street) is one of the best ways for people to drag themselves out of poverty. You don’t need a formal education, start-up costs are low, and hours are flexible.

So if we want to empower the poor, let’s give them ample opportunities to make an honest living and help develop the country. No need to subsidize them. Just create the infrastructure.

And let’s be clear about one thing: vendors naturally gravitate to where people gather or pass. It’s no use sticking vendors in a facility, however well designed, if it’s not located where people are, or if you don’t have plans to bring people to it.

And it’s not just in the urban areas of St Michael and Christ Church. An arts and crafts centre could be created at Chalky Mount and its environs. A national park could be created along the top of Hackleton’s Cliff. Other rural areas could be integrated into a master plan for street vending.

Our town planners must involve vendors in their policies for redevelopment. Wherever there’s a tourism attraction, provision should be made for vendors. Every time we build a highway or a boardwalk or refurbish a square, provision should be made for well regulated vending.

Alternatively, Government and vendors might agree on vending “pods” or “hawking centres”, as happens in several cities –– for example, Portland and Singapore. Or better still, some combination of the two. Or designated areas in the city for different types of products.

We should have vending lay-bys every four miles on the ABC Highway. No need to get too fancy. Just level the area, put down some marl fill and roll it, provide for water and electricity. Let the vendors provide their own stalls (to specifications), carts or vans and their sanitary facilities. But people have to be able to see the vendors from the highway.

We should also promote markets as attractions for both visitors and locals. In cities all around the world markets are major tourist attractions.

In addition to spaces, we need more occasions for vending.Why, for one Saturday night and one Sunday morning a week/month, don’t we close Broad Street to traffic and celebrate a Bridgetown market of crafts, flea market items, food, fish fry, and so on?

Regulating vending, which is essential, only becomes difficult if you do it as an afterthought. Provide a comprehensive regulatory framework in consultation with vendors and their representative associations. Encourage vendors to police themselves. Enforce the rules fairly and firmly. Ensure that vending does not conflict with pedestrian movement or retail stores.

The important thing is that the regulatory framework for vending should enable rather than impede.

And, most important, the Government, with the help of business associations, should conduct frequent one-day training sessions, especially in the area of customer relations. Vendors are not necessarily sophisticated in business practice, but most are eager to learn. If we approach vendors positively we will get positive results.

All this requires that the street vending sector be properly managed.

Street vending is a tough school of entrepreneurship. You will not succeed in the street if you don’t know your market (going prices, consumer tastes, the competition, how to keep customers coming back, quality and presentation of product or service, location, promotion and so on).

You must also be prepared to hustle and work hard. Financial institutions and business associations should help those vendors who have ambitions to upgrade to successful small businesses.

Finally, street vending is a tourism attraction. Think Oistins. Think certain popular rum shops in Barbados. People who stay in fancy hotels want to get out on the streets and sample the best of Bajan food, drink and handicrafts among the local population.

I was involved with a British TV crew who came to Barbados to shoot a one-hour programme on Ainsley Eats The Streets (, featuring British celebrity chef Ainsley Harriot. Their venues, among many scouted, included the Cheapside Market, Mr Delicious at Miami Beach, the famous food van by Sandy Lane, Mustor’s, Hot Legendary Fishcakes and the Bay Tavern at Martin’s Bay.

Street vending –– of both food and arts and crafts –– is a tourism attraction right across the world. It adds vibrancy to urban life and is part of heritage tourism. And it keeps public spaces safe and relatively free of crime.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just go online and see how street vending worldwide functions.

Then maybe the Ministry of Commerce, partnering with the Barbados Chamber Of Commerce And Industry and the Small Business Association, will work to promote and manage vending positively as an integral and growing sector of our economy and society.

(Peter Laurie, a former diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)

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