Traders Tales; Women Endurance Tested as COVID-19 Lockdowns Crashed Businesses
Rachael Nabateregga painfully recalls how her once successful chicken business collapsed within a week after the first COVID-19 lockdown. She had operated the business for almost 20 years, from Kampala’s Nakasero market, and there was no sign that it would soon come to its end.
On the evening of March 17, 2020, Nabateregga had just slaughtered 100 birds for supply to her customers, as was the routine. But on that day, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced a nationwide lockdown which was expected to last 14 days, as a measure to control the spread of coronavirus disease.
The disease which started in China’s city of Wuhan had spread across the world like wildfire. Although there was no case single case reported in Uganda at the time, it was evident that COVID-19 knew no borders and it was no longer avoidable. Elsewhere in the world people were dying in hundreds at the time, and hospitals were overwhelmed with admissions and demand for intensive care services.
It is against this background that Uganda announced measures in which the movement of people and private vehicles was prohibited. All members of the public, except for those transporting cargo, were instructed to stay indoors. Gatherings of more than five people were banned, while shopping malls, arcades, hardware shops and all non-food stores were also suspended.
With these restrictions, Nabateregga stuffed her birds into a freezer, with the hope that she would find buyers since market vendors were allowed to continue operating. But she recollects that there was reduced functionality in the markets and sold only five birds on the first day. She went back to her home in Makindye calling for divine intervention.
Unfortunately, she says, police and sister security agencies were extremely tough the following days. “…I knew I was headed for trouble. My heart skipped. There were no people to sell the chicken to. The restaurants were not operating and people were being chased out of the city centre,” Nabateregga recalls.
Nabateregga says she helplessly watched as her chicken wasted away in the freezer with no buyers and she had to use her savings to clear her suppliers, yet month after month, the lockdown was extended and there was no single sign that the situation would improve. Before long, she had lost contact with her customers and she had no capital.
Even after the lockdown was lifted, Nabateregga says she could hardly sell 10 chickens in a day. Her business kept struggling. It was only during this year’s Ramadhan that her sales slightly increased. However, as the business was regaining ground, Museveni announced the second lockdown in June.
Nabateregga says she felt like God was not on her side when the second lockdown was announced. She had slaughtered more than 40 birds because she had pending orders. But her clients did not show up since accessing Kampala City centre was a tug of war between security personnel and civilians save for market vendors.
“I again lost all the stock. This was the last “nail in the Coffin.” I had paid school fees for the children who were going back to school. This time I had no savings to clear off the suppliers. I have not recovered since. My business totally collapsed,” Nabateregga says.
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Nabateregga who had been self-employed for more than two decades now survives on casual jobs in the Nakasero market. She earns a commission whenever she is sent to sell or deliver items on behalf of other market vendors.
Faridah Kimuli, the Secretary for Women Affairs in Nakasero market explains that Nabateregga’s story is a reflection of more than 200 women who lost businesses in the two COVID-19 lockdowns. She says that the Nakasero market had over 600 women, but only 250 came back to the market after the lockdown.
“The rest lost all they had and couldn’t come back to the market. Many women were selling tomatoes and when a lockdown was announced, they could not come back to pick their merchandise. Their tomatoes, fruits, chicken and vegetables all got spoilt on their stalls,” Kimuli explains.
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Kimuli adds that although she has often heard about the government initiatives to support traders impacted by COVID-19, they were never sensitized about the fund which was set up to sustain small or medium scale enterprises. The government allocated 200 billion Shillings as a small businesses recovery fund for SMEs hit by COVID-19.
Uganda Radio Network visited several markets around Kampala among them; St Balikuddembe, also known as Owino, Kasubi, Nansana, Kalerwe, Wandegeya and Busega to understand the plight of small capital women market vendors. Here, the Market leaders say several women have since gone back to villages after their capital vanished while others are just disguising in the markets.
For all categories of women, it is clear that no one is aware of the special fund, and how to get access to the money. Siraje Bwanika, the Vice Chairman of St. Balikuddembe Market says that he does not know any program by the government intended to support traders affected by COBID-19.
Bwanika says he is aware of at least 1000 women who were operating small food stalls but they lost everything during the COVID-19 lockdown. “People had stocked foodstuff and yet security could not allow anyone to come to the market. Women spent nights in this market for nothing. Their food items had no one to buy them and they rot as they watched,” Bwanika said.
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Charles Walugembe Ssalongo, the Chairman of Busega market, said a number of women are now operating on credit because they lost capital. They survive on the trust of suppliers who give them stuff and pay after selling, yet they have never seen any support from the government to persons whose businesses were affected by the lockdown.
Ronald Zibu, the Chairman of the Kasubi market, estimates that 500 small scale vendors lost their businesses and have not returned. Some of these were dealing in banana leaves and vegetables. Zibu says many people had loans and they are under pressure to pay back.
But Finance Minister Matia Kasaija said SMEs can access the money through their commercial banks. This process, he says, starts with the formation of a Savings and Credit Cooperative society SACCO).
“It is supposed to be through their banks. They form a SACCO; they go to their commercial banks. The government has put 100 billion Shillings and commercial banks are also raising 100 billion. They should have bank accounts,” Kasaija said.
Asked whether vendors have been sensitized on how to access 200 billion, Kasaija said that will be done in collaboration with the minister in charge of micro-finance.
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John Walugembe, the Executive Director of the Federation of Small and Medium-Size Enterprise Uganda, says female market vendors who lost all their capital and business during the COVID-19 lockdown can access empowerment funds through the micro-support centre. Walugembe says such women need to be identified through associations so that they can be educated on how to access such funds.
“What we can do is to sensitize them from groups. We can sensitize them together with the micro-finance support centre. I can liaise with the micro-support centre and we have training for them,” Walugembe said.
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A study conducted by the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) a few months ago indicates that Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSME) make up to 90 per cent of Uganda’s private sector. Such businesses, according to SEATINI have been severely affected by COVID-19 resulting in low production or sales while a big number have seized operation.
“The different Stimulus Packages in their design makes it hard for MSMEs to access funds and thus the need to engage the policymakers and government of Uganda on the need to make the stimulus packages responsive to the needs of MSMEs. The financing is not only insufficient but also excludes entrepreneurs who would wish to access such financing individually for their small businesses,” SEATINI findings read in part.
Hamida Nalukwago, whose fruit business was affected during the lockdown in the Nakasero market says the government should come to their rescue because they are now struggling to fend for their families. Joweria Nassaka, a Nakawa vendor adds her voice saying they need to be educated.
This story was supported by the International Women Media Foundation-IWMF