“The street is ours”. A comparative analysis of street trading, Covid-19 and new street geographies in Harare, Zimbabwe and Kisumu, Kenya

Kiaka, Richard; Chikulo, Shiela; Slootheer, Sacha; Hebinck, Paul


This collaborative and comparative paper deals with the impact of Covid-19 on the use and governance of public space and street trade in particular in two major African cities. The importance of street trading for urban food security and urban-based livelihoods is beyond dispute. Trading on the streets does, however, not occur in neutral or abstract spaces, but rather in lived-in and contested spaces, governed by what is referred to as ‘street geographies’, evoking outbreaks of violence and repression. Vendors are subjected to the politics of municipalities and the state to modernize the socio-spatial ordering of the city and the urban food economy through restructuring, regulating, and restricting street vending. Street vendors are harassed, streets are swept clean, and hygiene standards imposed. We argue here that the everyday struggle for the street has intensified since and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mobility and the use of urban space either being restricted by the city-state or being defended and opened up by street traders, is common to the situation in Harare and Kisumu. Covid-19, we pose, redefines, and creates ‘new’ street geographies. These geographies pivot on agency and creativity employed by street trade actors while navigating the lockdown measures imposed by state actors. Traders navigate the space or room for manoeuvre they create for themselves, but this space unfolds only temporarily, opens for a few only and closes for most of the street traders who become more uncertain and vulnerable than ever before, irrespective of whether they are licensed, paying rents for vending stalls to the city, or ‘illegally’ vending on the street.