Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – These days, Godfrey Massima, one of the traders at Mwenge market on Sam Nujoma Road in Dar es Salaam, sometimes closes shop at 6pm without so much as selling to a single customer all day.
The 30-year-old’s stall – a wooden table – is full of second-hand shoes. Colourful sandals and trainers are hung up while some are strewn across the table. But the items remain unsold, like those of other traders around him, who look downbeat as the streets remain quiet. And with no electricity in the market, they begin to pack up early as the sun starts to set.
“You feel very bad when a day passes and you don’t have a customer,” said Massima. “It feels like you’ve wasted your time when you stay from morning to evening without making any money.”
Last September, the municipal authorities carried out trader evictions across the country and demolished many stalls with only a few weeks’ notice. And now, poor sales are the new reality for many of the machinga, as Tanzania’s petty traders are known.
There are no official statistics for how many machinga live and work in the congested commercial capital Dar es Salaam. But various reports estimate that up to two-thirds of the city’s six million people live in unplanned settlements and a majority of them engage in petty trade on the streets, in traffic – and, for those who can afford them, stalls in markets like Mwenge.
Their earnings are often meagre – around $30 a day for most. Still, petty trading is the only way many can buy food and water as well as pay rent and school fees in a country where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Experts say the most recent eviction is the latest in a string of attempts over several years to remove the urban poor from the streets as Tanzanian authorities look to gentrify downtown Dar es Salaam and increase tax revenue.
“The government has lost a lot of revenue from allowing the machinga to do business anywhere,” said Walter Nguma, a Dar es Salaam-based economist and analyst. “They pay no tax, so the government doesn’t make any money from them. Yet formal shop owners who do contribute are struggling to make enough as the machinga takes their customers.”
“The eviction means that the machinga can only sell their products in government-approved areas and they need to register their business to do so,” he added. “This makes them liable to pay tax.”
‘Freedom to do business’
The machinga, who have been accused of jamming the roads and contributing to the city’s notorious gridlocks, have also repeatedly refused to cooperate with evictions. Their reason is that new areas they are relocated to are far from customers and as a result, they are not able to make enough money to live.
So over time, they return to the roads to sell.
Seeing them as a key voting demographic, Tanzania’s late president, John Magufuli, ordered the local government to let the hawkers carry on with their business, after their pleas. But his successor President Samia Suluhu Hassan has taken a different stance since she was sworn into office in March 2021.
“We have given [the machinga] freedom to do business so that they can get their daily bread, but we have observed laxity to the extent that they are everywhere and block shop owners,” she said while addressing local journalists.
By September, Hassan had directed the regional commissions to relocate the machinga, adding that the government intended to move the traders to a better environment, not totally crush their livelihoods.
But the machinga say as with previous eviction attempts, that this has not been the case and that the impact has been devastating.
“When we heard about the eviction, we were ready to comply,” said Khamisi Hussein Mohammed, 41, an informal trader at Mwenge who sells second-hand clothing. “But the challenge came when we saw the new places where we would sell. There are no customers here and when we first arrived, there was no electricity. The streets are dirty as there is no waste disposal and there is only one toilet.”
Business has plummeted for Mohammed, who no longer sells by the busy roads by Mwenge’s biggest market, but in a backstreet on the outskirts of the area, where few people pass. He used to make around 100,000 shillings a day ($40), but barely makes 10,000 shillings ($4) these days, hardly enough to eke out a living.
He accused local authorities of profiting from the new arrangement, saying the machinga were shocked to learn that the new stalls they were promised for free are being sold off for between 200,000 and 500,000 shillings ($80-200).
Several fires have also recently broken out in markets across Dar es Salaam. In January 2022, one such incident in Karume market, 5km from the city centre, left more than 3,000 traders without a marketplace.
All of this had led to many of them becoming increasingly desperate and some have returned to their old stomping grounds.
“Some have already returned to the old marketplaces although they are not allowed, or they come at night to do business,” said Massima. “But the police are brutal. If they see you doing business where you are not supposed to, they can get rid of whatever you are selling, sometimes even stepping on your commodities. But you can’t sit here without working; our children need to eat and go to school.”
On its part, the government has announced plans to build and invest in new market areas to accommodate the traders in Jangwani and Karume, close to the city centre.
They also announced plans to renovate the Machinga Complex, which has been empty for more than a decade since its commissioning. The complex, which cost $50,000 to build, has remained idle since hawkers refused to move there, citing a lack of customers.
Zitto Kabwe, a former legislator and leader of ACT Wazalendo, an opposition party, told Al Jazeera that these infrastructure projects will most likely remain “white elephants” and that a more comprehensive, long-term solution was needed instead.
“As it is done now, it will not solve the problem,” Kabwe said. “The core problem is an economy that doesn’t produce jobs to thousands of people entering the labour force annually.”
Indeed, unemployment was the inspiration for Massima, who has a degree in teaching and community development from a university in the capital Dodoma, to change course. Unable to find a job after graduation, he moved to Dar es Salaam and started his small business selling shoes.
It was challenging at first, but eventually he started gaining more customers after several months. And now this recent eviction has once again left him – and many others – worrying for the future.
“On the days that I sell something, I thank God,” said Massima. “On the days that I don’t, I suffer. Like everyone else, I have goals for my business that I am not reaching. It is hard but I try to think that the next day might be better, and my life will improve.”