Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Lessons of the Last Café

As controversy continues over the legalisation of street vendors, Alexandria’s Last Café is blazing a trail forwards, writes Ameera Fouad

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Who has never bought fuul and falafel from a stand when going to work? Who has never bought watermelon from the fruit stand at the corner of the building when returning home from work? And who has not bought grilled corn from a street vendor in order to eat it when walking along Alexandria’s Corniche by the Mediterranean Sea? Everyone has bought items from street vendors at one time or another, but this does not stop the grumbles at the way they are filling up the city streets.
A few metres from Alexandria’s San Stefano Hotel and shopping centre recently, a large crowd was gathering around a new mobile café, called Last Café, where you could buy beverages 24 hours a day. The café was in the form of a gigantic tin can, wholly painted white, with beverage advertisements on the roof. It was parked at the side of the road, not taking up more than one parking space and not blocking the pavement as some street carts do.  
The café’s hygiene and evident cleanliness seemed to be attracting many customers in this transit hub area, where white collar workers often stop on their way to work in the mornings to grab a coffee.  
People were standing on the pavement sipping coffees and cappuccinos. Cars were stopping to grab cold drinks in the hot summer weather. Children were eating ice creams. Though the San Stefano shopping centre was also open, with its huge choice of cafés and cafeterias inside, people had chosen instead to patronise the Last Café, somewhere they could buy drinks at very reasonable prices that also competed in terms of quality with those sold at top cafés and restaurants.
Last Café was established by Last Team, a group of young people who wanted to offer something new to Alexandria residents. Whether we admit it or not, we all buy things from street vendors, including food, souvenirs, clothing, bootleg fashion items, pirated movies, used books, old magazines and more. Even horse and donkey carriages sell all kinds of vegetables and fruit. The famous fuul stands that line city streets in Egypt cannot be dispensed with either, and stands laden with grilled corn, kharroub, peanuts and other things are part of our everyday lives. Last Café wanted to capitalise on this trend, while also upping the quality of the goods sold, hoping to become a real part of Alexandrian life in the process.
Though street vendors can’t be overlooked and they certainly make it easier to buy things when one is in a hurry, they are often marginalised by society as a whole. The police sometimes harass street vendors, seeking to move them on, and the vendors are also at risk of accidents. “We wanted to establish Last Café as a way of legitimating street vending, turning their carts into proper businesses where all such activities could be brought together under the direct gaze of the authorities,” said Sameh Al-Hennawi, the human resources and marketing manager of Last Café.
“We want this project to help vendors of all kinds, helping them to legitimise and scale up their businesses, such that they too can turn their carts into proper cars like the one we are using for the café,” he added. “We started with two cars, one in Sidi Gaber and the other in San Stefano. But though the one in Sidi Gaber was also legal, the authorities removed it for no reason.”  
The idea is to bring together engineers, lawyers, graduates of Fine Arts colleges and others to help develop such street cars as a way of providing proper jobs for street vendors across Egypt, taking them out of the precarious informal economy. “Street vendors are not necessarily homeless people or ex-criminals, as some people like to think,” Al-Hennawi said. “They can be anyone — from someone seeking a first job but not having the necessary qualifications to the graduates of top faculties like those of commerce, law and medicine. Vendors selling everything from fuul to sunglasses give Alexandria’s streets much of their character and liveliness,” he added.  
According to the project’s coordinator Ehab Abdel-Salam, the Last Cafe coffee car builds on ideas that were circulating in Europe and other Arab countries in the 1970s. “The idea is to try to solve the apparently never-ending problem of coexistence between the government and the street vendors,” he said. “What we need is to legalise these vendors and to refurbish their tok toks, bicycles, carts, and so on by turning them into proper businesses, as we have tried to do with our coffee car. Street vendors should be properly employed such that they pay tax, have social insurance and pensions, and are fully integrated into the social security system,” he said.
“A preliminary study has shown that bringing street vendors into the formal economy in the way we are suggesting could provide some 3,000 job opportunities in Alexandria, employing some 40 per cent of all street vendors. This is in addition to eliminating the chaotic milieu that some street vendors currently operate in, causing complaints about the disruption and traffic blockages they can cause,” Abdel-Salam said.
The Last Café project is a pilot attempt to launch a national campaign to eliminate illegal street vendors and to bring them into the formal economy. ”If the project was not successful, people wouldn’t come for miles to buy from it,” Abdel-Salam said.
This was confirmed by the Alexandrians spoken to by Al-Ahram Weekly. “If Last Café wasn’t good, we wouldn’t buy its beverages or other products, especially given all the other cafés and restaurants in the area already,” said Jailan Hosni, a 30-year-old teacher living in the San Stefano district.
Amm Saber, a 60-year-old porter in the neighbourhood, said that he had never tasted tea as good as that he had bought from Last Café. “It is only one pound a cup, and the café is very clean and well-managed. There are no glasses to wash, only this disposable plastic cup which can be recycled. No garbage, no blocking the pavements or sidewalks… it’s all very clean and cheap,” he said happily.
Hanan Al-Sayed, a mother with four children, was crossing the street to Last Café. She asked for two orange juices, two raspberry milkshakes and one coffee with extra sugar. Five minutes later, the vendor gave her the order, which cost only LE10. “It is very clean. You can’t spot any dirt here. And the drinks are always fresh and healthy,” Al-Sayed said. “Mohamed, the vendor, always makes the juices in a very professional manner that my kids love. We don’t pay as much as we do in fixed cafés either, where there are always minimum charges,” she said.
Street vendors should be treated better by society, and the Last Café project has been suggesting ways in which this could be done. Instead of playing cat and mouse with them as is sometimes currently the case, the police harassing them and moving them on, the Last Café project has suggested a way of bringing the vendors within the formal economy and giving them secure and properly paid employment.
 

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