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Mobile traders: Are they entrepreneurs or opportunists?

Port Moresby fish hawkerBUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO

AS an economist, I am fascinated by Papua New Guineans’ home-grown salesmanship. It seems to be the hallmark of our informal economy.

Driven by the lack of meaningful opportunities, most of youths and adults end up plying their raw business traits on the side of the road or in public areas.

Most of them pick up the mannerisms through simple observation as they are forced to take up these activities for survival’s sake.

Although considered by many people to represent a breakdown in social order, these traders nevertheless play an increasingly important role in the urban economy of PNG.

Recently, my level of interest in the economic behaviour of these mobile traders was intensified by the fact that they have become more visible as a result of the traffic congestion caused by road works in the city.

A drive around Port Moresby will see you encounter or pass by these budding entrepreneurs, some as young as eight or nine.

There are legitimate concerns amongst the public that these mobile traders are responsible for petty crimes including bag and phone snatching, car-jacking and pick pocketing.

There is also concern that child labour could be on the rise given that there is a large pool of kids engaged in petty trade. Whether these kids are trying to make ends meet for themselves, their parents or someone else, it is clear that they should be in school and not on the street.

Littering is another problem associated with mobile traders, who don’t seem to take any responsibility for the rubbish they and their clients generate. This poses a big problem to urban authorities as large amounts of money are spent on cleaning and disposal.

I have watched mobile trading in Port Moresby burgeon over time and its associated problems intensify.

The construction of the multi-million kina flyover in Erima has provided traders a wide open field to utilise their traits to maximum capacity. They normally target unsuspecting customers who, in the haste to drive home, do not have time to check the quality, content or compare prices of the goods being sold.

What started out as an activity comprising less than 10 people has expanded to well over 30 traders. In fact, since a detour was created around the back of Erima, mobile traders can be seen lining the road for hundreds of metres trying to convince the travelling public to buy their betel nut, cigarettes, assorted drinks and other items.

For those travellers who don’t want to be bothered, the sight of traders peeping through their car windows can be irritating.

Being impressed by their level of confidence and salesmanship, I wonder if these raw business skills and talents could be refined to turn these street hawkers into professionals who can become an engine of growth in the PNG economy.

If this was to become a reality, the PNG government would marvel at the rapid progress of these entrepreneurs. These people, at base, are entrepreneurs not opportunists.

Opportunists don’t themselves make things work but feed on the weaknesses of their victim. A pick pocket is a classic example.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs sweat their guts out to make something that will add value to someone’s life. They are driven by a set of goals and a vision. A mobile trader could be an example although it is debatable whether they are goal driven or merely trying to make ends meet.

Often youths drink away their money and care little about the welfare of their family. So there is perhaps a greater possibility that most of these mobile traders could really be opportunists.

That said, most of these traders are friendly and are only trying to make money. Furthermore, the amount of time and effort they put into their work and their willingness to take a risk are to be admired and encouraged.

Mobile traders provide policy-makers with a glimpse of the ingenuity and innovative thinking that is in abundance among Papua New Guineans.

This is a trait that is required for people to be competitive in a very competitive national and international business environment.

Yet if not controlled and allowed to flourish at will, there is a possibility that the negative aspects of mobile trading could predominate.

The government needs to ask itself a simple question: Are mobile traders entrepreneurs or opportunists?

The answer to this question does not start at the doorstep of the Waigani Parliament but out on the streets where the harsh reality of life manifests itself in various forms, mobile trading being one of them.


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