Cheap fresh fruit and veggies are never far away in Medellin. The people selling this and other stuff (ventas or vendedores ambulantes) are passing through my street every hour of the day. Armed with a cart full of merchandise, a microphone and speakers, you hear them coming from hundreds of meters away. And it’s not just cheap fruits and veggies. Aguapanela (sugarcane drink with lemon), juices, phone chargers, remote controls (!) and earphones, brooms and buckets and shirts of the national squad. You name it, they have it.
Waiting at a traffic light you can buy the newest selection of reggaeton or salsa music, in public buses you buy a bible, USB-stick or sweets, watching an outside screening of Colombia’s soccer game we got cold beer for 4000 pesos, and hanging in the park you’re offered tinto (coffee) or a bag of bread crumbles to feed the birds. The offering downtown is beyond imagination. In and around markets such as El Hueco (the hole) you’ll find dozens of blocks where merchandise is offered including comic books, car radios, dishwashers, clothes, flowers, car parts, porn DVD’s, etcetera. Every street has its own selection. Who needs Walmart anyway?
An economy of hustlers
For us, this phenomenon stands out as one of the biggest differences with everyday life at home. Many of the activities by ventas ambulantes and markets are informal or illegal. There’s no taxes being paid, healthcare or retirement plans. No zoning, formal job protection or labor unions. Some informal workers earn a good income but for most of them an informal job is the only option they have, making barely enough to get by. They take the risk of being fined or even imprisoned, although I haven’t seen anyone hiding their merchandise or running from the police. Most of the informal activities seem to be accepted, and very much a part of normal daily life.
It is estimated that the informal economy in Colombia accounts to around 64% of all jobs, making 90 billion dollars a year (34% of the GDP). With only a limited part of the population paying taxes, sustaining public services such as healthcare and safety is difficult.
The bottom of the informal sector is made up by many homeless people in the so called ‘el rebusque’ (the daily search for money to get by). Many of them provide services, like the man sleeping in our street that helps people park and looks after their cars while they’re away. These vigilantes de carros, informal parking guards (you will recognise them by their red scarves), are found in many neighbourhoods. Other people help you hail a taxi when you need one, clean your window at a traffic light, etcetera.
Entrepreneurs fulfilling every need
The presence of the informal service providers illustrates the poverty and inequality in Colombia, number 16 on the list of most unequal countries of the world. On the other hand, the informal economy shows a lot of craftiness. A local saying goes; ‘un Paisa no se vara’, which translates to: a paisa (citizen of Medellin’s province of Antioquia) doesn’t let it get him down. A paisa finds his way around problems. He gets crafty. For poor people in Medellin, this means finding ways to be of value. When it starts to rain, many people come out to sell umbrellas. A parking garage which is difficult to exit? Somebody will have made it his job to stop traffic and help you out. I’ve even heard people offer to stand in line for you at the bank, and switch places when it’s almost your turn. Many small problems of daily life in Medellin are fixed, by crafty hustlers providing the products and services people need, exactly where and when they need it. You could say this is entrepreneurship and human centered innovation in its purest form.
However, for now the informal workers problems remain intact. Even though the government recognises the issue of informal work, structural changes such as promoting labour-intensive sectors or incentivising employers to create jobs are not expected soon. Maybe for the informal workers, Barcelona provides an inspiring case of what they could do. Street vendors there have unionised and created a common brand, to improve their living conditions. This might be a first step towards claiming formal rights.
We are in a luxurious situation ourselves. Coming here without a planned job or income we have been looking for ways to make ourselves useful. We have started to volunteer in several projects, ao for Platos sin Fronteras, a social enterprise that aims to reduce poverty, malnutrition and food waste by giving food education in the comunas. This helps the comuna women to provide their families with healthier food and to find formal jobs either in a restaurant or with the catering and social snacks business we are currently setting up.
We’re combining projects like these with Spanish classes and other projects here and at home, to make ourselves useful. Does it pay the bills? Not yet, but we are confident it will. And hey, we have to integrate, right? A Paisa no se vara.
Do you need an innovative approach to your challenge? Innovation in your city? Questions about Medellin?