Non-motorised transport: Barrow operators, a hidden force driving Durban’s informal economy

Submitted by: Tasmi Quazi, Monday, July 20, 2015

<p>Fresh produce being offloaded by barrow operators outside the Early Morning Market in Durban (Image Source: Tasmi Quazi).</p>

Fresh produce being offloaded by barrow operators outside the Early Morning Market in Durban (Image Source: Tasmi Quazi).

Weaving in and out of the crowds conveying heavy loads of goods on two-wheeled barrows, a generations-old, migrant, male workforce has been servicing customers, wholesalers and street traders within Durban’s inner-city and CBD for decades. Also referred to as porters, there are two kinds of porters in Durban– the shopping trolley operators usually conveying lighter and less bulky goods, and the more traditional barrow operators that possess immense physical strength as they convey larger goods of up to 300 kilograms.

On a daily basis, barrow operators transport street traders’ goods, including those purchased directly from wholesalers, and their equipment to and from their business sites to specific city-designated storage sites or those privately arranged. They also transport bulk goods and equipment for commuters and the general public when and where needed.

Although barrow operators may be perceived as a hindrance on the roadway to motorists and public transport operators, they provide these essential services in Durban and should be supported as an alternative mode of transport on our roadways. Barrow Operator of 23 years Ntuli describes his work as, “a service in the transport business sector.”

This article focuses on research done in Durban’s inner-city by Asiye eTafuleni, a NGO that focuses on the promotion and development of good practices in inclusive planning and design.

Migrant Labour Remittances

Lang One and his grandson sitting on barrows outside the Early Morning Market in Durban (Image Source:Annie Golovcsenko)

Barrow operating in Durban is predominated by migrant workers from the Eastern Cape, many of whom have worked in this sector in the range of 7-50 years. Mambhedeni Malan, fondly referred to as “Lang One” (implying the tall one) recalls:

“I don’t remember exactly which year I started this work but it was the same year that Verwoerd was killed and I had two children then. I took over from my father who retired because he was elderly, then my son joined this work but he later passed away, and now my grandson is doing this work with me.”

Aside from the generational dimension which has attracted these men to this work, many barrow operators commented that they had entered into it after learning that this was a service gap being filled by other “home boys” from the rural areas of Eastern Cape. Many of them entered this work after having failed to secure stable incomes in other sectors of the informal economy.

A Trust Economy and Other Socio-Economic Benefits

Barrow operators seen resting on their barrows during the middle of the day when business slows down (Image Source:Tasmi Quazi)

There are an estimated 500 barrow operators working in Durban’s inner-city and CBD. Most of these operators own two barrows on average. Others that own more than two barrows, hire them out to barrow operators or they remain on site with their regular clients that they service on a daily basis – especially wholesalers and street traders that need to transfer and store heavier loads to and from their businesses.

Each barrow operator therefore has multiple clients and the work gets particularly demanding when transferring street traders’ goods because they have to remember where each of their goods are stored at specific storage sites. Some of the barrow operators however are paid by street traders to guard their goods overnight instead of paying for the storage facility or where there is unreliable access to storage, which is indicative of the high levels of trust between traders and barrow operators. It is not uncommon to find the barrow operators sleeping in groups around their heavily laden trolleys.

Barrow operator working hours can therefore stretch from 4am to 9pm, depending on the trading hours of street traders and wholesalers, and when the pedestrian and commuter population are on the streets. On average, the barrow operators charge between R15-R20 per trip - a R15 trip amounting to a three kilometer distance. They conduct an average of 20 trips on a good business day and four trips on a bad day. When work slows down around the middle of the day, they can be seen chatting, smoking or resting outside the Early Morning Market and other areas in the inner-city.

Malan who has been a barrow operator for a staggering 49 years accounts the most important benefits, where their work has enabled them to support their dependents through remittances and is a reliable conveyance service based on high levels of trust with their clients.

Low environmental impact

Barrows dropped off at traders stalls outside Victoria Street Market (Image Source:Annie Golovcsenko)

Whilst barrow operators require adequate pavement and road space, they in fact have a low environmental impact. Barrow operators provide a unique service as they are able to transfer goods in highly dense areas, where vehicle parking is limited, such as the busy informal markets, and the public transport and Central Business District (CBD) nodes they service. Due to their small physical footprint and affordability, this goods conveyance sector has in fact established itself as an essential and unchallenged sector conveying up to 100 tonnes of goods per day around Durban with no carbon emissions, unlike goods delivery vehicles. 

The Challenges

A barrow operator successfully pulling his barrow over broken cement (Image Source: Annie Golovcsenko)

Common challenges raised by the barrow operators include the conditions of the roadways and pavements and the frequent potholes which make conveyance of goods difficult. On this, Malan exclaimed, “You have to be strong in this business to navigate the potholes!” On asking about physical injuries, there are general reports of muscular aches and pains, road-related accidents whilst pushing their barrows and most shockingly, physical assault from taxi operators. The difficulty of navigating poor roadway and pavement conditions is aggravated by traffic congestion in the inner-city and CBD areas making them privy to being abused by motorists and public transport users.

Ntuli mentioned the dire financial impact the potholes have on their business, “The potholes are often not repaired and they damage our wheels and each one costs R100, so we end up replacing our trolleys twice a year sometimes.” He related more urban design challenges where certain markets in Durban, like the second level of the Berea Station, are not easily accessible because there are no ramps to get there yet they get paid the standard rate by traders. Further, when there are road works, they are forced to take the longest routes which is also time-consuming. 

Malan mentioned that a definitive challenge has been the decline of business levels experienced since 2009 when the eThekwini Municipality proposed demolishing the historic Early Morning Market renowned for supplying fresh produce, live poultry and spices. The traders and customers of this market are particularly reliant on the services of barrow operators to transfer their bulk goods. Like other barrow operators, he believes that the eThekwini Municipality’s campaigns to promote the mall development deterred a number of customers from shopping at the market thinking that it has been demolished. Ntuli however associates the decline in business with the increased competition from more people working in this sector.

Support Strategies

Typically as with other informal workers, the rigour of their work is foremost in their minds which masks their health and social challenges. Therefore, the barrow operators’ foremost concern is the need for better maintained pavements and roadways with repaired potholes, gutter-scoops and dedicated lanes in high density vehicular traffic zones. To incorporate the needs of barrow operators within Durban’s inner-city, AeT has facilitated the participation of barrow operators in the development of a non-motorised strategy for Durban. AeT’s approach has been to foreground this unique sector by holding in tension their urban design, occupational health and safety, and social needs in an effort to address their needs in an integrated way.

Finally, to further appreciate the role of barrow operators, one only needs to imagine the inner-city and CBD without them, which would have a devastating impact on the set-up of traders’ businesses dependent on them for their diverse transport requirements. Aside from public transport and commuter and pedestrian populations being drivers of the informal economy – barrow operators are an almost hidden yet critical force which keeps this dynamic urban landscape pulsating and functioning.

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Tasmi Quazi