In my neighbourhood, with children not going to school, many have taken to doing small businesses. These businesses keep them occupied throughout the day.
For instance, water scarcity is rampant in my neighbourhood. For tenants who are fortunate, property owners make sure tenants get water, via the ubiquitous blue water bowsers common in many Nairobi neighbourhoods. Other residents have to get their water from water vendors, who use handcarts to supply this precious commodity to their customers.
Children in my estate have joined this water trade. During the day, you can see them pushing and pulling handcarts full of 20-litre jerrycans. I’ve heard the old salts in the business complaining that the children are giving the “established” water vendors a run for their money.
The children are happy because they are making honest money, and helping their struggling families. But are parents ignoring the hidden risks of child labour?
Vetoing my daughter’s business ideas
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Our daughter has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. There was a time we used to make homemade potato crisps, using the microwave. She would carry some of these homemade snacks to school. When her girlfriends started commenting how the potato crisps were sweet and crunchy, Pudd’ng started having ideas.
“Dah-dee?” she proposed. “Why don’t we make these crisps, package and sell them?”
But I never got around to following through. It seemed like too much work. Plus, making the crisps was my way of bonding with my daughter, and now it was taking a life of its own.
One time, I made the ‘mistake’ of telling Pudd’ng, while we were in a supermarket, that Tenderoni used to make homemade ice cream. We were in the aisle with the products my wife used and, as a by the way, I mentioned this to Pudd’ng. “Where did she sell them?” baby girl inquired.
“A lady used to come, and my wife would put the ice cream in an ice box. The lady would sell them outside schools, and they’d share the profits.”
Next thing I know? Pudd’ng wants to set up the ice cream business. She was so adamant that she almost made me buy the products for her to set this home-based business.
She even had customers. “I know my friends will promote my business,” she enthused. “There’s a certain lady who makes homemade ice cream, but, with the help of mom, I can make tastier ice cream.”
My wife and I vetoed this idea because we thought it would interfere with Pudd’ng’s education. We know our daughter. Once she gets a mind to do something, her academics often suffer.
Parents must have the foresight and courage to say no to some of their children’s business ideas. They should do this, not just to protect their children from getting used and abused in a system that their child is clueless about, but to make sure that their children get their priorities right.
Skating on thin ice
Most of these children hawking water come from underpriviledged backgrounds. The money they earn is used to supplement the meagre family incomes.
I have interacted with parents who have been laid off or work in fewer shifts because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they are grateful that their children have shown an entrepreneurial spirit. The money the children take home is a drop of salt in the sea, but it not only helps their families; it also boosts the children’s morale and make them feel like they are part of the solution, and not the problem.
But, unbeknownst to these parents and children, they are skating on thin ice. According to Article 53 of the Constitution, every child has the right to be protected from abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, all forms of violence, inhuman treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labour.
Under the provisions of the Employment Act, a child under the age of 16 years can’t be employed. Children between the ages of 13 to 16 years may perform light work only. Employment of child under 13 years of age is prohibited.
A report by Bureau of International Labour Affairs in Kenya said that the three leading sectors of child labour are agriculture, industry and service. In the service sector, where the children in my neighbourhood fall, the activities that promote child labour include vending and transporting goods and people by bicycle, motorcycle and handcart.
For these children, many who push handcarts on busy urban roads, they risk being involved in road accidents. There are also other health issues, which can come with being involved in hard labour.
A teacher’s take
A teacher told me that, though the children doing these small-scale businesses have good intentions, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. He said that the businesses can cause early childhood development issues, which may lead to other problems, for the society and children concerned, further down the line.
“What will happen when they have to return to school, and they have no independent source of income?” the teacher posed.
“Right now, it’s a good idea. But parents don’t know that they are creating a monster; a monster that will devour them. I have interacted with school-going children who earned money, honestly or by hook and crook, and I can tell you that teachers, and sometimes parents, can’t tell these types of children anything. It seems like money goes into their heads.”