'Petty' Traders Hustle to Survive, Looking for a Way Up

Freetown’s narrow, dusty and often unpaved streets seem to squeeze life through them at an intensity that is difficult to imagine in a ‘western city’.

Rivers of people and goods spill over from makeshift sidewalks into oncoming cars and motorcycle taxis that weave in and out of each other amid an endless din of beeping horns.

Hawkers hiss and suck their teeth to get your attention. Loudspeakers on an endless loop announce, “Voucher, Voucher, Top-up, Top-up, Afri-cell,  Airtel, Top-up, Top-up." A man calls, “Passport photo, passport photo,” in your ear, his camera sitting idle and ready for business. A flatbed truck roars by in a cloud of exhaust fumes, stacked with bales of second hand clothes. In your distraction you narrowly avoid a wheelbarrow neatly stacked with coconuts.

A young man carries a bundle of leather belts, another several shirts on hangers and yet another has sleeves of pirated movies neatly packaged in shiny plastic and draped over his shoulder. A teenager carries a large cardboard display of disposable pens.  A child holds out packages of biscuits for passing traffic, another offers neon colored electric fly swatters and yet another Casio calculators.

Then there are the wandering traders. A wooden tray of bread is balanced perfectly atop a man’s head while a wooden stand on his shoulder lies ready to be deployed. In a moment he can set up his workstation should you fancy a fresh baguette drenched in sweet milk.

Largely the by-product of overcrowding during the war and a near dearth of employment opportunity, Freetown’s petty traders, as they are known, are relentless in their efforts to make ends meet.  Some of these people will walk for hours in the hot sun along dusty streets, through traffic and fumes, occasionally making it all the way out to where I live, carrying with them the most random products imaginable. in what seems like an endless search for custom in an already flooded market, their indomitable hope for a good days takings seems to carry them on.

As if the odds weren’t stacked high enough against them already, the government now considers the traders an impediment to the free flow of downtown traffic and has begun moves to restrict their activities.  Already on the wrong side of the poverty line, these traders have few alternative means of eking out a living. The luckier ones will make it to the next step along the entrepreneurial ladder, that of owning an established business with a permanent home and that’s often where Kiva financing and you the lender come in to play.

Many of the Kiva borrowers I’ve spoken to started out originally as petty traders. The remainder will hopefully become the province of one of the many NGO’s working in Sierra Leone, who aim to empower these traders to exploit more lucrative markets.

As a fellow, I will continue to seek out such NGO’s, in the hope that they can one day use Kiva to empower the people they serve. I am reminded, despite brief bouts of cynicism regarding the slow pace of development here, that the people’s indomitable spirit and the valuable support of you, our lenders back home and all over the globe, can move this fledgling economy those few steps closer to self sufficiency and greater opportunity for its most marginalized citizens.

To support a Kiva borrower to-day, please go to www.kiva.org/lend

About the author

Shane Fahy

A native of Ireland, Shane received his bachelors in Marketing and Entrepreneurship in 1993. Relocating to the US shortly thereafter, he has since worked in telemarketing management, community outreach, fundraising, market research and as a volunteer. While challenging and rewarding, these positions helped to augment his primary career aspiration as an actor in the theatre. Getting off the beaten track while travelling in the developing world, he visited outlying tribal regions and poor slums, underfunded orphanages, schools and hospitals. In 2007, he returned to Ireland to study for his Masters in International Peace. Learning about microfinance for the first time, it struck him as a sustainable aid model that favors the empowerment of people over the creation of dependency. Shane is ready to immerse himself wholly in this new adventure and is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve with the distinguished members of the Kiva team and KF22. He hopes to learn a lot from the experience and eventually build a full time career in the service of the greater good. He is particularly animated by small, local businesses that are both financially and environmentally sustainable while enriching the local community.