BBQ SELLERS: treat them as blessings, not a blight [The Fiji Times 17 Sep 1999]
Development, like democratic government, is supposed to also be of the small people, by the small people, and for the small people.
But the way thatFiji’s BBQ sellers are treated by the authorities, one can easily get the impression that they are a blight to be banished.
Our newest entrepreneurs
TheBBQ street sellers areFiji’s latest group of small entrepreneurs, whose popularity has grown by leaps and bounds.
With their tarpaulins, smoking wood-fires, kerosene and gas stoves, they may be found outside nightclubs and markets, on main streets and corners, and even out on national highways, alongside canefields and village greens, selling their chops, sausages, and cassava.
The slave away with no help from Government
They slave away in late night shifts, no tax incentives, no accelerated depreciation allowances, no Government assistance through SLIP, Half SLIP, of even Half-Bra programs, that are generously available for Big Businesses.
Our society’s collective failure to create advantage out of adversity may be seen in our treatment of the food vendors at the National Stadium.
In fact discouragement by Government
Not so long ago a large international religious gathering at the National Stadium, decided that the BBQ sellers and other food vendors were ugly and unsightly, and should not be allowed near the stadium.
Even religious leaders could not suffer God’s “small children” to come unto them for a living. The stadium’s administrators went along with that view then, and still do now.
Week after week, month after month, year after years, dozens of food vendors are discouraged from selling to the thousands of people who go into the stadium areas to watch rugby, soccer, athletics, and attend religious gatherings.
While Big Businesses are always allowed to sell food and drink inside the stadium grounds, the stadium administrators keep the food vendors outside the stadium area, usually along the mainLaucala Bay Road, where they cook and sell.
And of course the buses and cars roar by, the dust, dirt and noxious fumes pollute the food, the rain pours, the fields become muddy, the rubbish bins overflow, the food rots and smells, the flies propagate, and god knows where the BBQ sellers go for their toilets.
Health issues need to be addressed
Yes, the conditions are unhygienic and health inspectors must be concerned.
Instead of being assisted, BBQ sellers are being prosecuted by the health authorities for not operating within our health regulations.
While the vendors add soya sauce, ginger, garlic and chillies to flavour their chops, the authorities can only see the addition of dust, dirt, and noxious car fumes.
They see the inadequate facilities for washing, waste disposal, and toilets, a recipe for a health disaster, about to happen.
The health authorities cannot be blamed. It is their job to enforce the existing regulations. If they ignored the regulations for the BBQ sellers, how could they apply them to restaurants who are required to pay licenses and follow even more stringent regulations?
Society needs to help the small entrepreneurs
So what should be the response of society to this problem? The easy way, which is what is done now, is to try to suppress the symptoms, while ignoring the underlying problems.
For the problems are deep-seated: basically, our economy has not been able to provide enough formal sector jobs for the twelve thousand or so new entrants to our job market every year.
Some experts even claim that school leavers must look towards self-employment and the informal sector, for sustainable livelihoods.
Which is exactly what the BBQ sellers are doing. So why are we not encouraging them?
A suggestion for our National Stadium
If we were a society which really cared for the small people, we would be making proper provisions for the vendors insidethe stadium boundary, where there are many large unused areas. For instance, just behind the main stadium.
Imagine a long line of simple but quality concrete and tile cubicles built right next to the fence. Each cubicle would have sinks, proper water supply, electricity, back area suitably ventilated for cooking (BBQs or whatever), and neatly tiled front counter for serving.
Between the cubicles and the Stadium could be an attractive eating area, with concrete floor, solid fixed tables and benches, imaginatively roofed to be all weather, and well-lit for night use. A cheaper version of a “Food Court”.
Of course this will cost money, which the stadium administrators probably do not have.
But the stadium could charge the food vendors some small fee for the rent of the stalls, and metered charges for water and electricity. All persons in the stall could be required to pay the normal entry fee to the stadium (to prevent free riders from sneaking in).
More importantly, the sports administrators should expect much greater revenues through increased attendance of spectators, while government assistance could be sought.
The popularity of Hibiscus food stalls indicates the great capacity of our street vendors (who do not have high overhead costs) to attract people through cheap food of acceptable quality.
Our people even put up with eating from flopping paper plates, while being ankle deep in smelly mud, with purses and wallets being liberated by sticky fingers.
Sports can create more jobs
Would not Suva parents take their entire families to a rugby, soccer or athletics games at the National Stadium, if they could also, without spending large amounts of money, have a delightful dinner of lovo food or kebabs, while their favourite Suva team was being ‘kebabed” or “lovoed” on the field!
Of course, sports such as soccer, would need to change the behaviour of their unpleasant male chauvinist crowds, which emit whistles and cat-calls at the sight of any female form, young or old. For decades, soccer enthusiasts have refused to take their wives, sisters or daughters to soccer games, because of such loutish behaviour.
But the increase in attendance at soccer games might even increase the popularity of soccer amongst players, improve the quality and performance of theSuva team, and lessen the humiliating probability of theCapitalCity ofFijibeing relegated to lower divisions.
Fiji is increasingly moving towards sedentary uses of our leisure time: television, computer games, the cinemas. This unhealthy trend should be countered.
To boost attendance at any of our sports assets (the Gymnasium, netball and volleyball), we must improve the support facilities, chief amongst which is the provision of good quality food and drinks for the spectators, at prices that the masses can afford, in good surroundings.
Government must do its part for small people
Government could surely be expected to assist with the necessary capital development as part of the preparations for the next South Pacific Games.
Our Governments (both past and present) find it so easy to assist large multi-million dollar investors, supposedly for employment creation, but there are always powerful company lobbies and Ministers’ directives, helping their projects along.
Government has just approved $40 millions of tax-payers funds for road, electricity, water and sewerage infrastructure, to help investors in five star hotels along the Natadola coast.
Over the years, I have frequently advocated that, in addition to the five star hotels, Fijishould also actively foster tourism based on small uniform quality family-run hotels, to ensure greater benefits for our people.
In several fora (at a national nutrition planning meeting, in Parliament and in the media) I have suggested that the Suva Market and bus-stand area in particular, was in urgent need of a major redevelopment project, to really help our farmers, increase the consumption of local foods, improve our nutrition, and create a great tourism attraction for Suva.
Everyone agrees, but there are no Government initiatives on such projects. In fact, the Suva City Council, with elections just around the corner, has agreed to spend a quarter of million dollars, in a small improvement exercise, which will leave the real big problems untouched.
Our BBQ sellers and other street food vendors also represent a very large number of people in employment, but there is no powerful lobby working on their behalf, no one to draw up feasibility studies, showing nice positive rates of return.
The projects of the kind I envisage would require focused work from Government Departments, and co-ordination between a number of authorities.
But there is no Government Department and Civil Servants who have been given the specific responsibility to design, initiate and ensure funding for such projects that help the small people.
Government documents are full of rhetoric about the need to boost our small entrepreneurs. Grand costly conferences are held, with expensive international consultants delivering papers, praising the latest “microcredit” scheme.
But the funds devoted to create an enabling environment for our small entrepreneurs are piddling, compared to the hundreds of millions spent on Big Businesses.
The harsh reality is that small entrepreneurs, like our BBQ sellers, continue to be treated as blights to be banished into the crevices of our economy.
When will we see them as blessings to be boosted for development?