May 8, 2023

What’s With Rwanda’s Women-Only Fruits and Vegetable Markets

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Along highways, the women selling in these markets deliver to windows of buses

They are on busy street corners. In many residential areas of urban centers around the country, you find them too. They are also dotted along major highways.

They are operated exclusively by women. They sell all kinds of fruits and vegetables, which makes them particularly attractive, thereby a constant stream of buyers.

No single male can be found working there, and it is by design. The men appear there as clients shopping.

The idea for this kind of spaces arose more than seven years ago as a response measure to the increasing number of women engaged in street vending in Kigali. UN Women funded establishing the first of their kind, calling them ‘Kigali safe mini markets’.

Street vending is, by law, not permitted in Kigali as the authorities don’t consider them as conforming to the high standards the city has set. However, the women that used street vending as their breadwinning activity often lacked viable alternative options.

The flood of street vendors had turned into a major crisis. Kigali authorities said in October 2016 that the city had over 9,000 street vendors, a vast majority of them being women. The City admitted that this number of women were the ones that could be identified because the problem was much bigger.

Over the years, other regions have adopted the women-only fruit and veggies markets. There is no official data on total number of these markets across the country. We sought for data from particular regions, to give idea of their spread.

For example, in Rutsiro district, a rural region in northwest Rwanda, the authorities collaborated with World Vision Rwanda to construct these market spaces for women there.

The women operate the business in groups

To launch these markets, the women were sensitized to form small cooperatives of women livng in the same particular area. Each woman was then given Rwf 170,000 ($160) capital to rent land for three years, to grow fruits and vegetables. At the same time, the structures where they would sell the produce, were also constructed. The model of launch and operation is similar across all regions. The capital injection from the local government entities differs from one region to another.

Currently, in this district, 300 women are operating from two such markets, whose benefits reach over 1,400 people, according to the team behind the project.

The benefits are noticeable

In Gakenke district, we encounter Cooperative Terimbere Mucuruzi w’Imboga. It began as a small association of neighbors, both female and males. Developing into a cooperative, it has 163 members with 56 of then being women, who run the fruit and veggies business.

As demonstration of the change they have experienced, Patience Tumayini, the group’s leader said each contributed Rwf 5,000 ($3) as share capital to be a member when they began.

But today, new members are required to pay Rwf 625,000 ($610) as share capital in the cooperative. The reason for this, says the member, is because they invested so much time, effort and personal resources to grow their business. Many women want to join them, so they wouldn’t want new members to enjoy easy benefits. 

The group turned a once bushy spot on the Kigali-Rubavu highway, to a noticeably successful fruits and vegetables business. They have expanded the spot to include a bar, restaurant and butchery. They are also planning to establish a hotel in the area so that travelers have a one stop spot for affordable food stuffs. While the women operate the veggies business, the men are working in these other businesses or doing other private activities.

“Life is good as you can see,” retorted 38 year-old Marie Solange Nyirasafari. “Back then, getting a piece of soap at home was such a big headache. I was always fighting with my husband. I don’t remember when that last happened.”

Back to Kigali, as of end of 2022, the city authorities said there were slightly over 3,800 street vendors still roaming the streets. Even though the veggies markets, and other interventions have helped deal with the problem, more needs to be done.

Clarisse Mukashabane, a former street vendor, has established herself as a business woman in one of Kigali’s Safe Mini Market. “There is a big difference between selling in the streets, and selling at the safe mini market. Here I actually have security,” she said at a recent function.

She went on: “Early in the morning as myself and many women would make our way to the streets, we would be harassed and robbed by thieves disguised as local security officers. We did not know who we could trust. The safe mini market has made me feel more stable mentally and financially.”

Why need for such safe space for women

The idea of safe mini markets may be unique to Rwanda, butit  is part of a global effort launched in 2011 by UN Women spanning 21 cities. For Rwanda, the Kigali Safe City and Safe Public Spaces Programme was born.

Its aim was to prevent and reduce sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces in the City of Kigali. UN Women says the Kigali Safe City Programme is grounded in an evidence based and human rights-based approach.

These markets are found in all urban areas around the country

The programme recognizes that women and men have different experiences in accessing and using public spaces and focuses on empowering them to become agents of change, while protecting them from gender-based violence.

Although there is no official general data about the spread of these women-only market spaces, and how much financing has been pumped into developing the initiative across the country, they have become a normal sight. They are very visible for the mere fact that it is only women who work there.

In Gakenke, we found an interesting case. One woman had brought her husband to work together on their veggies stall. She said the husband was sitting at home doing nothing, so better to help with the business.

These spaces do not have a specific size or design, or membership. They range from large market structures accommodating hundreds – with stalls ran by individual women, to small rooms housing up to five women. Those in residential neighborhoods are usually small spaces, because a neighborhood can have more than one such fruit and veggies market spot.

The routine operations are also different, from one spot to another. However, the general operations structure is that once a woman is admitted as a member of a particular mini market, they each sell their own produce, but contribute monthly to local administration levies, electricity, water and security for the general business. However, since this April, government has removed tax levies collected by local administration from these women markets and all markets in general.

It faces serious challenges

These mini markets for women may be helping to deal with unemployment among women, but they’re a very negligible. According to the 2021 annual labour force survey released in March last year, the general unemployment rate is 21.1 percent.

Among woman, the rate is 24.1 percent, compared to men at 18.5 percent. In addition, the national population data shows the population is more female, at over 52 percent. It means, the women who need jobs and safe spaces to earn meaningful livelihoods, is a big challenge.

For the women to join or start a mini market or shop, they need capital. There is no national policy that sets aside specific funding for women who want to start a veggies market. As a result, local entities don’t have budgetary allocation for this program. They instead depend on NGOs, that are referred to as ‘district development partners’.

A survey we conducted in some of these fruit and veggies markets shows they sell their produce at higher price which is partly influenced by costs such as rent and other payments they have to incur on regular and monthly basis. As alternative, buyers continue to get supply of fruits and vegetables from general markets, or home deliveries from individual venders who move with them on streets and neighborhoods.

A combination of the price factor, which impacts on the clientele of the women-only markets, as well as fact that what they sell is perishable, the women have to grapple with regular losses from unsold produce that has lost original quality.

Some of the women we spoke to said they would need refrigeration, which may not be readily available due to high cost involved.

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