Jobless university graduates turn to hawking

A hawker storms a homestead to sell merchandise

A hawker storms a homestead to sell merchandise

The unemployment rate among the youth grows day by day in Uganda and this has driven many into the hands of exploiters that give them dead-end jobs, such as being glorified hawkers dubbed salesmen.

About eight years ago, companies that deal in household plastics started operating in Uganda and there are currently more than 10 companies in operation.

These are wholesale companies dealing in flasks, cups, laundry baskets, buckets, and basins among others; so, for them to make profits, they attract youths with juicy promises of office jobs as marketers, sales executives, cashiers and others. The opportunities are open for all academic stages.

Once the applicants get there, they are shocked to be told the job is to hawk this bulky merchandise.


One evening around 7:30 pm along Salaama road, I met one of these young men hawking plastics. He was smartly dressed, but looked tired and probably was on his way home. I stopped him to inquire how I could join the business, but he quickly told me, “My brother, you won’t manage this.”

I am small in stature; that gave him a quick conclusion that I couldn’t manage. I insisted and told him I had just finished school and had tried all means to get a job, which placed me in a desperate situation.

He told me the plastic hawking business is a challenging job that requires one to have the ability to move for a long distance in all weather conditions in order to make sales for himself and the company.

When he realized I was determined, he said, “My brother, I understand the situation we are all in. I won’t deny you this chance, but this is not an easy thing.”

He connected me to CY Investment Company, giving me the mobile phone number of a branch manager. The following afternoon, I called CY Investment Company Ndejje branch manager and asked him how I could join the company.

After asking how I got his number, he asked for my level of education and what I wanted in case I was granted an opportunity to start working. I was told to go to their offices in Namasuba-Ndejje with recommendation and consent letters from my area LC1 chairman and my family, two passport photos, a copy of my national ID, copies of my academic documents, and Shs 15,000 registration fee.

Within 24 hours, I had all the required documents and on June 17, I headed to their office off Entebbe road; by 9 am I had reached. At the reception, the receptionist took one look at me and advised: “You go back home and look for other things to do, young man. This business doesn’t suit you at all.”

After humbly listening to her drone on and on, I asked for a seat to wait for the manager. Soon, the person I had talked to on phone arrived; not a manager, but rather a team leader, who, I learnt, earns even bigger commission for every sales recruit he reels in. Kind of like a pyramid scheme.

Wearing a big smile, he greeted me and asked for my requirements, before commenting: “This job you are applying for involves walking long distances and being able to talk to everyone and also be able to defend the stock provided to you.”

When I again expressed my eagerness, he registered me and later took me to the branch manager’s office for more briefing. The manager told me the job I had applied for is not only about being in the field, but would elevate me to higher offices. Indeed, their media adverts say the company is in need of salesmen, cashiers, marketing executives, store managers and so on.

He said the reason they ask for academic documents is to know which office will suit me best after I complete the period of hawking plastics. Speaking about earnings, the manager said field workers are blessed as they have an open cheque...

The manager said, “The stock we give you has fixed prices which means you will receive 20 per cent commission on everything you sell; however, you are also free to increase the price, as long as it can favour you in the negotiation with customers.”

Lastly, I was told the company offers free accommodation, breakfast and supper in case I needed them. This alone partially explains why many youth are opting for this business; their inability to pay rent and get a decent meal. I thanked him for the offer, but said I still had other options.

From the manager’s office, I was taken to the stores to receive my stock. I picked up three basins each to be sold at Shs 7,000, two plastic dustbins each at Shs 3,000, one laundry basket at Shs 20,000 and other small plastic items that summed up to about Shs 150,000.

I asked to start the following day, and I was told to report very early to pick up my stock and move. The following day, by 6am I was already at the offices dressed in black trousers, shirt and a buttoned blazer, waiting to be handed my stock. I was too early for my first assignment, one of my fellow hawkers told me.

I was told the plastic hawking starts at 9am as there is always a morning briefing by team leaders. Of the stock given to you per day, you have to make sure that you sell at least three items; with shops and supermarkets selling the same items, this was clearly not for the fainthearted.

The team leader advised me that since it was my first time, I should hawk around Entebbe road from Ndejje to Kibuye and at 10 am I embarked on the journey with no transport or any other form of facilitation; just me tied up in plastics all over the body, although the weight of the stock did not bother me.

Plastic hawking is indeed for the desperate; I started feeling shy, ashamed and uncomfortable with what I was doing just after a few meters. I cared more about those looking at me like they recognized me, which created fear within me hence failure to approach any to sell them my merchandise.

I decided to wear a mask to disguise my identity, which somehow brought back my confidence and when I reached Zana, I started engaging people. I faced 10 rejections as everyone I approached brushed me off.

I made several other attempts to make sales, but all was in vain and by the time I reached Nnajjanankumbi, my hope was completely gone and I was feeling hungry and thirsty after just three hours of walking nonstop.

I decided to take a boda boda to my home and rest. I had the experience I needed. Treat hawkers kindly; theirs is a job and a half !

Since there was no field supervisor, I returned home at lunchtime and rested, I later returned to the office at 8 pm to report back to my team leader. I left a flask, plastic dustbin and basin at my home, for disguise that I had managed to sell some items and handed the money to my team leader who seemed impressed.

Little did he know, this was my first and last day at work. When the after-work meeting was done, we were given our commission – Shs 4,000 for me; money that could not even pay my fare home.

Since the following day was a Sunday, we were advised to go with our stock so that we could start early on Monday morning. I started planning my exit. When Monday dawned, I simply returned the stock that I was given and explained to my team leader that I had health issues that couldn’t allow me to move for a long time; therefore, I requested to quit.

My request was considered after being reprimanded to “never waste people’s time with false self-confidence”.


Menya Junior is a graduate of Industrial and Fine Arts from Makerere University, who said the plastics business is a win only to the most patient, but a suffering pond to those that want quick success.

He said plastic hawking is a resort for many graduates who work on promises of big offices and hope of attaining experience to push them to the next stage; however, many are trapped in the business for a long time because by the time he joined he found some graduates that had spent four years in street plastic hawking. “They got comfortable with the free accommodation and free meals that the company provides,” he said.

Menya said in April 2019, he was fired from his job as an administrative assistant after eight months. He returned home and started the job hunt afresh, and that is when he heard an advert for cashiers, office administrators, marketers, receptionists, waiters and waitresses.

“I had to utilize this chance because I was in great need of a job” he added.

In the advert, Menya said, they highlighted how the salary was high and how successful applicants were to get free accommodation and meals; he excitedly dialed the number that was read out on radio.

“I was desperate and anxious. I could not wait any minute to pass,” he noted.

When the phone call went through, he was directed to Prosper Company in Namugongo. When he reached the stage and asked for directions, someone asked whether he was looking for the company selling plastics, a statement that dropped the first seed of doubt in him.

“On reaching there, I found some other fellows already set for work, holding basins, plastic chairs, cups, flasks and so on. I proceeded to the office and found some other people in line, applying for jobs,” he said.

Menya said he was told to go with an identification card and Shs 5,000. They told him they would employ him and his pay would be Shs 150,000 for a start but the amount could raise up to Shs 400,000, the harder he worked.

“Those people don’t explain which kind of work you are going to do; they only advertise vacancies of office administrators, waitresses, cashiers, supermarket attendants, but surprisingly when you reach their offices, you are told to go to the field to train you while you hawk! You move from like Nansana to Kakiri on foot about ten kilometres per day and at the end, you are not even paid the money you were promised. You only feed on the commission you get after selling an item,” he said.

Menya said there are many problems associated with this job because it is possible for one not to make a sale in a day or sell something without commission yet without that little commission, surviving becomes hard, since transport is not provided.

Moving long distances without rest at times leads many to fall sick with no money to support their medication. Still, Menya said he will only quit plastics hawking as soon as he gets another good and paying job, and he is on the lookout.

“However, I am strengthened by the number of graduates, some of whom are even science courses graduates that are joining the company every week.”

They say, misery loves company, and indeed, according to Menya, “they keep me going and settled at heart that at least I am not the only one suffering”.

“There is nothing good that I can show for this job. I have never been given salary at any point. I adjust the price of the item I am selling from the fixed price of the company so that I earn a higher commission which works sometimes,” he said.

In case you were wondering why the queues at the airport are clogged with youth fleeing Uganda for the Arab world, there you go. The job market in Uganda can be both heart and back-breaking.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd