When Technology Calls, Street Vendors Answer

This piece was originally published for our friends at www.dirt.online, a home to share stories and meals.

Up at the crack of dawn, a vendor cycles his cart out to Shivajinagar. In a country that never sleeps, he switches on his grinder to start churning batter for 250idlis. The WhatsApp notifications begin around 6am, when customers catch their first glimpse of today’s special dosapaneer masala dosa with onion thokku. Pune's earliest office-goers check their phones, know their go-to stallholder is around, and begin queuing up.

If you’ve ever been to India, food is likely one of the things you looked forward to the most—and when you got there, you could somehow taste the authenticity a whole lot more than you could at your local takeaway. The abundance and diversity of food in India is truly incredible. Everywhere you look will be vendors ready to serve you anything from fresh pani puri to Chinese food.

The low skills and relatively low level of financing required to be a street vendor makes it an accessible job to many, despite street vending being one of the toughest gigs in the Indian market. Stallholders are exposed to the elements with limited job security, low wages, no services, and restricted growth potential. The temporality of the stall makes setting up and packing up an enduring task of strength and patience, with vendors frequently cycling their equipment to and from their space or carrying them in heavy baskets. They do this all in the hope of a decent economic return.

To get that return, stallholders are turning to smartphones, a democratic way for anybody connected to the web to have instant access to marketing tools, social media, small business education, mobile banking, an endless customer base, and more.

After mobile first emerged a decade ago, mobile Internet services now cover half of the world’s population. 34% of people in developing countries already have Internet access through their smartphones—and this figure is growing, with technology looking for innovative ways to deploy WiFi signal in remote areas.

For many Internet users, a smartphone isn’t a luxury or a way to Instagram pictures of cats or food (though that might be a perk). It’s an investment vital to their economic empowerment and quality of life. Nanasaheb Sheersat, an Indian street food vendor in Bangalore, takes advantage of this. He uses his smartphone to take photos of his fresh pani puri each morning, and sends it to a WhatsApp group of hundreds of his customers. No longer just a small vendor, Sheersat now has one of the best known stalls in Bangalore.

Nobody receives training on how to use a phone. They’re designed to be intuitive, and that’s why they’ve been the fastest-adopted technology in history. WhatsApp went from 1 to 500 million users in less than a year. While a lack of telecommunication infrastructure limited connectivity, economic activity, and education for many, WiFi enabled it.

We’re seeing the same in Mexico, where a large proportion of the workforce is part of an ‘informal’ economy that underpins its iconic street markets. At the same time, Mexico issues 119 million debit and credit cards each year, slowly transforming Mexico into a cashless society.

How do street vendors reach out to card users? Through Sr. Pago, an app that lets vendors accept cards and redeem the credits for cash at local convenience stores. It’s brought them into a bigger community, and their contribution doesn’t have to be limited by a lack of economic opportunity.

It doesn’t stop at Mexico—analysts predict half the continent will be connected by 2025, a huge boost for its agriculture industry. Apps are making farming significantly less back-breaking, with functions that prompt farmers to collect and store milk, and provide real-time climate data to improve productivity and food security.

Access to a smartphone and an Internet connection may seem like a small step for some, but for stallholders who have been able to triple their income through these simple marketing opportunities, it’s life-changing. What’s more, it’s reflective of a wider trend of innovative processes democratizing the food supply chain and making food, food business, and food experiences available to more and more people.

The opportunities brought by something as simple as a smartphone, especially to those with once limited potential, are unparalleled in the food world.

That’s something to think about as I prepare for my #dinnergram.