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Mozambique's informal street traders strive to survive

'Car guard' Titos Ernesto represents the developing world's legions of small-time, off-the-books entrepreneurs.

By / June 30, 2008

TO MARKET, TO MARKET: Unregulated traders sell goods at markets in Moputo, Mozambique. Among them is Titos Ernesto, who started work washing and guarding cars for tips at age 9.

Stephanie Hanes

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MAPUTO, Mozambique - The Sunday morning madness outside the Lhanguene cemetery is starting to calm, but Titos Ernesto's eyes are still hawklike as he takes in the trash-strewn parking lot.

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On the far right, one of his men is washing a car. That's good. Across the way, a woman walks by selling peanuts out of a reed basket. That's fine – a complementary business, no competition. To his left, the flower sellers are down to their last stalks, which are now wilting in their dirty plastic buckets, and the phone card man weaves his way through the minibus taxis.

For the moment, Mr. Ernesto's slice of the informal economy – the generally unregulated and untaxed commercial activity that forms a huge percentage of the market here – is in order. But then, just to the side of him, two of the boys selling water start shoving each other. Plastic jugs rattle onto the ground, and Ernesto swings toward them.

"Knock it off!" he shouts at them in Shangaan, the local language. The boys start to protest, but then stop and pick up their jugs, sulking. They shuffle off, looking for more customers. "They need to learn how to behave," Ernesto says, still glowering.

He should know. He was 9 years old when he started working here, selling odds and ends to the swarms of people who come daily to pay respect to their ancestors at this cemetery – the largest in this seaside capital. By his early teens, he was washing and "guarding" cars – a profession familiar to anyone who has driven, and tried to park, in Southern Africa. Today, at age 25, he's known simply as chefe - the "boss" in Portuguese. "It is because of my experience," he says to explain how he earned that title and role.

As chefe, he explains, he is in charge of the 70 or so car guards in this expansive parking lot. He divides the lot into zones and assigns territory to all of the guards. He is also the main liaison – some whisper "informer" – for the police department, which, in 2004, frustrated with petty crime here, encouraged the car guards to organize.

"If anything goes wrong now, we're blamed," Ernesto says. Which means, of course, that they can't afford to let anything "go wrong." Clad in faded "official" vests, they watch for people stealing car mirrors – a common nuisance before the police asked them to organize. They make sure that the young hooligans from the squatter camp a few blocks away aren't staking out any of their customers. And they try to keep the peace among the various hardened, impoverished youths who come here to earn a few coins for bread. Hence the scolding of the water boys, who clean jugs they find in the trash and offer to water the flowers that Mozambicans plant on the graves of loved ones.

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Economists and policy officials have tried for years to define and measure the informal sector. Some say it is a sign of underdevelopment and will shrink as the economy improves. Others believe that the "secondary economy" – another name for it – is tied to the legal, commercial economy, and that aid donors should encourage informal traders with microfinance grants.

What is clear to everyone, though, is that the informal economy is huge. In sub-Saharan Africa, the informal sector makes up about 72 percent of nonagricultural employment, according to the World Bank. Most informal traders in urban areas have jobs like Ernesto's – self-employed traders of some kind or another – and many congregate together in places such as the Lhanguene cemetery parking lot.