By Tasmi Quazi
Last week, two Professors and eight students from Goucher College based in Baltimore, USA, spent two and a half days with Asiye eTafuleni (AeT). The visit to urban and rural grass roots organisations in South Africa was designed as part of experiential learning for a course in “Civil Society and Social Change”. Through a series of preparatory planning sessions between AeT and the Professors, a collaborative research project was designed.
The process kicked off with a day’s induction into the Warwick Junction trading community, its history and evolution as a case study for inclusive urban development. The delegation then underwent a whole day’s work experience with informal workers from two different sectors, in cooked food and hardware.
This formed the basis of the action-research methodology applied and provided the means for the delegation to record a number of factors. For instance, this included the operational process of the business, type of infrastructure that the respective informal workers use, the economic dynamics of the value chain within each sector, and the social networks and associations. The data captured from the field work is currently being formatted into presentation material by the students. Preliminary discussions of personal and technical reflections have already revealed rich insights about the two sectors.
In the hardware business for example, a Goucher student remarked on the contrast between the dynamic production process and economic movement of products from as far as China which are wholesaled by local retailers, to the stillness experienced at the selling point of the products on the street – waiting for customers. After self-aggravated jitters from the waiting process, the students eventually queried the hardware entrepreneur about his marketing strategy. To which he smilingly responded, “Patience”. However, it was discovered that the two established enterprises operate with far more business acumen and pragmatism than this modest response reveals.
Another unexpected but pleasant insight was gained through the cooked food business, as the informal workers insisted that the delegation adhere to health and safety standards. This involved wearing aprons (locally known as pinafores), hair nets, as well as ensuring that the customers’ food parcels were well presented, and any spillage was wiped off. Even more positively, the wearing of the local health and safety attire by the delegation brought a greater level of acceptance and delight by the informal workers and the wider community.
This is one of the contributing factors as to why Patrick Ndlovu, AeT’s Senior Project Officer, felt that this has been the most exciting research project AeT has been involved in. This is because the Professors and the students from Goucher showed cultural sensitivity and discipline, and consequently adapted quickly to the work environment and wider community. This is despite dauntingly discovering the rigours of the business, where the delegation was sometimes just not as patient, skilled, efficient or clean enough; as the gracious entrepreneurs that hosted them.
In conclusion, the general consensus was that mutual learning had happened for the participants from Goucher College and AeT staff. The greatest outcome, though, was that the informal workers reported that they appreciated working with the students, Professors and AeT staff. They would have preferred that the work experience carried on for longer because it attracted more customers and was good for their businesses! One of the food cooks fondly called “Mama Jack” by his customers, said that his customers have been asking, “Where are your mlungu (‘white’) assistants?” To which he amusedly replied, “They are off today, and only work on Fridays!