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Yes, small is beautiful; Sunity takes sides in PoS Mayor vs Vendors

The escalating confrontation between the Mayor of Port of Spain and food entrepreneurs at the Queen’s Park Savannah is only the latest example of the historic refusal to recognise, validate and support enterprise and initiative emerging from within the people’s sector.

Photo: Smoothie vendor, Dr Fresh, operates his stall in the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain. (Copyright flight centre.ca)
Photo: Smoothie vendor, Dr Fresh, operates his stall in the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain.
(Copyright flight centre.ca)

It is undeniable that the mushrooming food court en plein air poses several management challenges in relation to traffic, land use, public health, sanitation and finance.

But by his response, the mayor’s hammer of authority risks destroying the very thing on which the nation’s economic survival depends: the instinct to entrepreneurship.

Between the current positions of uncompromise lies an exciting field that is wide open for an imaginative solution of mutual and national benefit. The question is whether we have the capacity to rise to the opportunity.

This dispute between the Mayor and Micro-business is no ordinary war over rats which, if truth be told, have the run of the city from South Quay to St Ann’s and the Dry River to St James. What it presents is the latest episode in the epic contestation between power and people that keeps the economy tied to its colonial past.

Photo: Port of Spain mayor Raymond Tim Kee, who is a member of the FIFA Futsal Committee, tries out the furniture at the global football body's Zurich headquarters.
Photo: Port of Spain mayor Raymond Tim Kee, who is a member of the FIFA Futsal Committee, tries out the furniture at the global football body’s Zurich headquarters.

Today, in the 21st century, the cultural legacy of deeply ingrained prejudice against the grassroots economy has ensured its continued existence as an illegitimate sector outside the margins of the formal economy.

So insidious is this culture that it has seeped even into the people’s sector itself, undermining and co-opting such potentially transformational agencies as co-operative credit unions.

The bigger they grow, the further away they seem to go from their co-operative moorings and the closer they come to resemble commercial banks.

If we are to give real meaning to such borrowed concepts as SMEs and make productive use of the millions spent on encouraging the micro and small business sector, we must rise to the unexpected, often difficult challenges posed by the unplanned, spontaneous emergence of business.

Photo: The bustling Charlotte Street in downtown Port of Spain. (Copyright Flickr)
Photo: The bustling Charlotte Street in downtown Port of Spain.
(Copyright Flickr)

At the Savannah, there was a business opportunity which the micro business sector spotted and seized upon, triggering a series of challenges for the city and other agencies of the state.

If we believe what we’ve been saying for years—that small business is the route to developing a sustainable economy—then this moment, right here, right now, presents one important opportunity.

By re-casting the Savannah showdown into a negotiation between power and people, the unrealised Independence goal of de-marginalizing the people’s economy, comes into sharp focus.

For over 175 years, the maroon economy, to quote Lloyd Best, has existed, mostly subversively, outside the fringes of the economy. When the Independence promise of a seat at the table proved to be wishful thinking, disappointment turned into the rage of the 1970 Black Power upheaval that pushed people onto the streets under the banner of ‘Africans and Indians Unite’.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. (Courtesy Information Division)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

Eric Williams’ hurried response was to declare 1970 the Year of Small Business and put TT$2.5 million in seed money to a Small Business Unit at the Industrial Development Corporation.

Nationalisation of the financial sector and expansion of the co-operative sector were other strategic elements of the response.

In one of those initiatives lies a cautionary tale of relevance to today’s Savannah confrontation.

The Drag Brothers, a community of leather craftsmen, became the poster boys of indigenous enterprise, operating from rudimentary shacks along the strip of city land then known as Bankers’ Row on Independence Square, from Frederick to St Vincent Streets.

Even as it proclaimed a new commitment to small business, industrial development and economic diversification, it escaped the government that, in the Drag Brothers, T&T had the nucleus of a leather industry with the potential to produce leather products for the domestic and export markets.

Photo: The Drag Brothers showcase their leather sandals. (Copyright Discover TNT)
Photo: The Drag Brothers showcase their leather sandals.
(Copyright Discover TNT)

In the end, the Drag Brothers was just another welfare project until, consumed by inadequacies of various kinds, it was shunted off to the outskirts of the city where the group survives as talented relics of another age, their entrepreneurial potential ignored, undeveloped and unrealised.

In microcosm, today’s Savannah conflict presents a national challenge which involves thousands of people operating in the street food sector all over the country from any available public space.

Almost by definition, most do not have the start-up resources to buy or rent a space at high traffic locations but quite a few earn enough to become self-reliant and to expand to multiple locations.

Not all dream of parking up their mobile locations and evolving into a restaurant. For man, small is beautiful because it is manageable within their resources and low risk.

Their business is emphatically street food which, throughout the world, gives a country its distinctive flavour.

Photo: A vendor operates around the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain. (Copyright Caribbean Beat)
Photo: A vendor operates around the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain.
(Copyright Caribbean Beat)

Under recession conditions, more and more people are likely to supplement their income by offering low-cost food everywhere, from public savannahs to roadside locations.

Local government bodies can expect to be challenged in managing the associated risks of bad parking, traffic jams, unsanitary facilities, garbage disposal, pollution and crime.

When this happens, it would help if the authorities recognised and respected the vendors as business people to be negotiated with, rather than as squatters to be run off the land.

At the Queen’s Park Savannah, the micro-business community has led the way in filling a void caused by the authorities’ failure to optimise this prime space for public relaxation, leisure and family time.

Their initiative and investment should be saluted instead of confronted.

Photo: Port of Spain mayor and ex-Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president Raymond Tim Kee (right) enjoys some conversation at the 2014 FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Copyright TTFA Media)
Photo: Port of Spain mayor and ex-Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president Raymond Tim Kee (right) enjoys some conversation at the 2014 FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
(Copyright TTFA Media)

After that, all the many interests involved in the complexity known as the Queen’s Park Savannah, should sit around the table and negotiate a solution in the interest of all.

About Sunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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11 comments

  1. Sad, this articles falls into the a pot of ‘oil down’ cliches of ‘eating ah food ‘ and ‘ a man have to make a dollar’ Yes I agree we need micro businesses to subsidize any economy but we also need law and order to be observed towards getting there. If the writer were to have done some more research it would also have shown than many of the street merchants are irregular migrants who have no choice but to fall into the informal economy when they overstay their welcome . Many, due to the fact that they are illegal and need to stay underground thus being vulnerable to other illegal , immoral and illicit activities . Yes we can start with another safe bleeding heart campaign to ‘be liked’ but at the end of the day – what foundations are were setting for the future? The structure ( the government) can assist but also should implement standards that would not only benefit the vendour but also the consumers/ citizens. We need to address issues of public health, price scheduling, consumer rights, rent, sanitation, nuisance and the environment ( which include a clean walk way for all). I If you want to improve the ‘look ‘ of the nation and en courage both local and international tourism we should go beyond a tent and a fold up table. For sustainability to happen you must have agency of human will to want to do better ( and move on) not look for a hand out or an excuse. Street food is international and an attraction but it goes beyond a centre spread in Caribbean Beat. I for one prefer that order be observed as well as action to move forward and courage sustainability for protection of all – not a sad story.

  2. Agreed! The challenges to big franchises (which are net consumers of foreign exchange) that these entrepreneurs represent, must not be underestimated as a motive for this behaviour by the City. A workable solution which will leave them operational and profitable must be found

  3. My “beef” is that there should be a better way to deal with the Savannah – including the vendors – for the benefit of all

  4. The issue is not rats, as there are many at established legal business places throughout the country (where on earth are the Public Health Inspectors?). The issue is about prime real estate. The QPS is a prime area for food business and if vendors are allowed to trade there, they can eventually claim rights. This will be quite problematic to the Local Govt body, when they decide to establish other business there. As such action must be taken now. This situation can develop into a chaotic, burdensome one.

    Indeed, small businesses should be encouraged, but regularised. You cannot just let people ‘do wha dey want’ in the name of entrepreneurship, else you may lose millions in potential revenue as well as in litigation. Perhaps the Mayor can give them a license to operate, which can then be renewed and or revoked with relative ease – but even that can lead to complications.

  5. “If we are to give real meaning to such borrowed concepts as SMEs and make productive use of the millions spent on encouraging the micro and small business sector, we must rise to the unexpected, often difficult challenges posed by the unplanned, spontaneous emergence of business.” training and education in this country is about profits not about moving ‘at the speed of light’, for the betterment of all.

  6. Ken Biscombe, this is the article. It deals with realities not dreams of how it should or how it is elsewhere. Have a nice read !!!

  7. One of the best articles iv have read in my lifetime .hats off to accurate insight

  8. the bigger rat want the smaller rats out–politics pnm style

  9. The Mayor may have some valid reasons for revamping the whole arrangement with the present vendors but he’s going about it in a very unwise way!!