It’s nearly midday at the bustling Tegeta bus terminal in Tanzania’s biggest city and Olivia Mbiku is busy preparing ugali – a popular maize meal – beef stew and vegetables for her customers.
“I wake up early, light up the fire and rush to the market to buy meat, cooking oil, tomatoes and everything I need for the day,” said the 25-year-old mother of two.
Shrouded in a cloud of smoke, and with a traditional colorful ‘khanga’ tied round her waist, Mbiku takes some maize flour from a sachet and sprinkles it into boiling water while briskly stirring with a stick to make it stiff.
“I cook ugali every day because most of my customers like it,” Mbiku told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s not a lucrative business, but I get enough to feed my family.”
Mbiku is among dozens of food vendors trying to earn a living amid the hubbub of the Dar es Salaam bus terminal, where conductors hoot and yell to attract customers.
She works eight hours and day, earning around 45,000 shillings ($20) to supplement her husband’s income as a mason.
But unlike licensed hawkers who work from rows of wooden stalls, Mbiku cooks in the open air and is often harassed by the city militias for selling food without the proper papers.
“They often seize my cooking pots and sometimes lock me up. I have to pay some money to be released and get my stuff back,” she said.
Mbiku and other women with unlicensed businesses finally have a glimmer of hope after the Tanzanian government last month announced it would recognize them as part of its broader policy of empowering women.
Maria Ezekiel, 31, who has a stall serving chicken soup, chapati and tea along the busy Bagamoyo highway each morning, said the move to formalize micro-enterprises like hers was an important milestone for small-scale entrepreneurs.
A license would allow her to apply for credit to upgrade her business, she said.
“I think it’s a very good opportunity for me. As soon as the identity cards are issued I will start processing my bank loan,” Ezekiel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I want to borrow at least 500,000 shillings ($225) to modernize my cooking business.”
The roadside chef wants to buy better equipment and switch to a gas stove to replace the smoky firewood she now cooks on.
Operating in the informal sector leaves women without protection and unable to access credit, experts say.
“Urban food vending may be a good tool for creating livelihood security for the urban poor, but to achieve this there has to be better policy initiatives,” said Haji Semboja, economics professor at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Presenting the annual budget in June, Tanzania’s finance minister, Philip Mpango, said all food vendors – most of whom are women – would be brought into the mainstream sector.
The government would work with regional authorities to identify informal businesses and license them before 2020, he said.
“We will issue identity cards and designate special premises for them,” the minister told parliament.
Margareth Chacha, a banker and former chief executive of Tanzania Women’s Bank that supports small-scale women entrepreneurs, said women are held back because of strict loan conditions imposed by banks.
“Most of the women can’t access the loans because the conditions are too tough,” she said. “But if the government can act as a guarantor, I’m sure the banks will be willing to give loans.”
The benefits of thriving women-led businesses are felt throughout the economy, she said.
Back at Tegeta bus terminal, Olivia Mbiku says she is now hoping for a more stable, prosperous future.
“I would very much like to get a bank loan and start a big catering business,” she said.