At least 400 female traders in Gulu district have recently opened food vending stalls to make ends meet amid the ongoing lockdown instituted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When President Yoweri Museveni announced the first two-week national lockdown at the end of March to combat further spread of the novel Coronavirus, few Ugandans thought its duration would be extended further.
Among the lockdown conditions announced by the president were: suspension of all non-essential jobs and trade in non-essential goods, prohibition of unauthorised passenger transportation, and institution of a 7pm-6am curfew.
However, sale of food was allowed to continue, as it was considered essential.
As thousands of business people were forced to stay home altogether, they saw their capital and savings dwindle. Many spent their hard earned cash on bulk purchases of food stuffs and other necessities, and yet they were no longer earning.
It is against this dismal backdrop that many women in Gulu’s business community chose to switch businesses to vending food stuffs. The logic was simple: sale of food stuffs is not prohibited, and the demand is high and constant.
This trend has led food stalls popping up at the entrances to people’s homes, along the road sides, and in front of grocery stores, and what used to be barber shops and fashion houses.
Irene Amony, once a seamstress in Alyibo Center, is among the many who have decided to start selling food stuffs, after her initial business was forced to close due to COVID-19.
Starting last week, the kiosk Amony used as a fashion design space was transformed into a fruits and vegetables store.
Amony explained that she arrived at her decision because she saw that much as food supply chains have been disrupted and demand has shrunk because of mandatory as well as self-imposed isolation, food is an essential item that people cannot live without.
“People are mostly, if not only, spending money on food now, so it’s the only venture I can at least earn from,” she said.
Amony explained that she had started using her savings to buy food and other necessitates, and was afraid that if the lockdown continues much longer, she would use up her capital for the tailoring business.
“After staying home for three weeks without earning, I feared that I was going to eat the capital for my business and be unable to resume after the lockdown is lifted,” she said.
“This food vending business will help me save a little, so that I resume my fashion designing work when the pandemic is finally over,” Amony said.
Two days ago, Christine Lamumu, who dealt in second clothes and bags in in Cereleno, also changed the stall where she used to display clothes and bags, into a marketplace for food items.
“During this period needs one to be creative, aggressive and flexible to go through the tough times. The kind of businesses most people do cannot allow them to save enough money to sustain them for more than one month without work,” Lamunu said.
Judith Adong, used to deal in plastic shoes on one of the busy streets in Gulu Town. But since the ban on public transportation and sale of non- essentials, Adong said she had to start selling food items to supplement the income of her husband, a bodaboda rider.
“My business was affected by this disease [COVID]. My husband now earns less from carrying luggage, than what he used to earn before. If I stay home, we shall not be able to feed our family,” she said.
While the new vendors might rejoice over finding a trade to help them get by, Alice Emootai, the Chairperson of food vendors in Gulu district, said the trend is causing tough competition with the old vendors.
“Our former customers are now selling what we are also selling. This has greatly reducing our profit margins,” Emootai said.
According to Emootai, the estimated 400 new vendors are only those in gazetted markets, such as Olailong, Wilobo and Layibi Central markets, but many more are scattered in the outskirts of town. These, she said are making the business even harder.
“Women who were stay-home-mothers have also joined food vending. They keep their stock in their homes, and since there are no proper means of transport, buyers in the outskirts buy from such vendors instead of walking the long distance to a major market.”
“Sometimes one can stay in the market the whole day without selling, because almost everyone is now selling food stuffs,” she said.
On March 30, President Museveni announced a two-week national lockdown starting April 1.
However, on April 14 he extended it a further 21 days, till May 5, 2020.