The Daily Hustle: The trials and tribulations of being a street vendor in Kabul

For anyone who has spent any time in Kabul, handcart sellers and street vendors are a familiar sight, as they walk around the city hawking their wares from dusk to dawn trying to eke out a meagre living for their families. Street vendors say that more and more young Afghans have been joining their ranks, trying to earn a living during a time of high unemployment. The municipality, worried about the impact on traffic congestion, revived a half-hearted policy of the Islamic Republic and banned mobile selling, insisting the vendors must buy a fixed booth and then pay monthly rent. At a time of economic hardship, those added costs have just added to the difficulties of trying to earn a living selling goods on the streets of the Afghan capital, as AAN’s Sayed Asadullah Sadat found out when he spoke to two vendors.
40-year-old Amanullah [not his real name] is a street vendor who supports a family of ten selling vegetables.

For the past ten years, I’ve been selling vegetables from a handcart in the Pul-e Bagh Umumi area of Kabul. These days, this way of earning a living has become ever more difficult. The number of street vendors in Kabul has been on the rise since the economy went bad and the jobs dried up. More and more people arrive in Kabul every day in search of a living; many end up on the streets selling everything from vegetables to clothing to used electronics. Unfortunately, this has worsened the already bad traffic situation in Kabul. You’ll see handcart vendors weaving through the vehicles trying to sell their goods, competing for space with the cars – and the streets were already crowded!

Last year, Kabul municipality came up with a plan to reduce traffic in the city and part of that was building white stationary stalls for street vendors to rent.[1] They told us we were banned from hawking our wares from handcarts or on foot. So, I borrowed 15,000 afghanis [USD 209] from my brother-in-law for the initial cost of a stall. There’s also the ongoing rent, which varies from 3,000 to 30,000 afghanis [USD 42 to 417] a month, depending on the size of the stall and its location. I could only afford the least expensive one, so my rent is 3,000 afghanis [USD 42] a month.

At first, business was good and I was able to provide for my family. But a few months ago, the municipality moved our stalls to a remote commercial vegetable market. They hadn’t even told us beforehand. One morning when I went to work, my stall was gone. I went to the police station, but they said they didn’t know anything about it and that I had to go to the municipality. At first, the municipality said they didn’t know anything about it either. Finally, after searching for most of the day, another street vendor told me the stalls had been moved to this commercial produce market near the Kabul River. That is where I finally found my stall. My vegetables were damaged from sitting in the heat all day.

I went back to the municipality to ask why the stall had been moved and they said the original location had been designated as a ‘green area’, so the stalls had to be moved to another place. I told them the new place was a private market and the owner wanted to charge an additional amount for rent. The officials told me they couldn’t do anything about that. Now, in addition to the monthly rent I pay the city, I have to pay another 1,600 afghanis [USD 22] for ground rent to the owner of the market.

Many of the other street sellers have taken their stalls home and started selling on the street [ie in front of or near their homes] again. I’m thinking of doing the same. I’m not making much money because the market’s out of the way and few people come there to shop. I’ve asked if I can move my stall to another location, with a higher footfall, but they said this was the location allocated to me and that If I wanted to move, I had to apply for another location and pay another fee.

Things didn’t used to be like this before. Street vendors didn’t have to pay money to anyone during the Republic. We weren’t hunted down like thieves and we were never taken to the police station. It’s true that in some areas, criminal gangs forced us to pay protection money and some shopkeepers charged a small fee for allowing us to set up in front of their shops, but these were not high amounts. Vendors were making enough money to provide for their families and even put some aside for a rainy day.

Hamidullah [not his real name] is a 28-year-old street vendor with a university degree, originally from Paktia province. He’s been selling children’s clothes in Kabul for the past year to support his family of nine back home.

Last year, I lost my office job and had to find work to provide for my family. I came to Kabul from Paktia province, hoping to find a job. Initially, I’d planned to go to Iran, but my friends who were already there warned me against it. They said the economy was bad, the Iranian rial had devalued, and the money you could earn wasn’t worth as much as it used to be. Plus, it was expensive to live there. They were struggling to make ends meet and couldn’t send money back home to their families. Additionally, the Iranian government had stepped up deportations, and the risk of being sent back with nothing was high. Therefore, I decided to sell children’s clothes on the streets of Kabul instead. I live in a rented room with some friends from my village who also sell things on the street. We work during the day and spend the evenings together, talking about the day that passed and our plans for the future. Sometimes, we don’t sell anything and we share what we have with each other.

It’s not easy being a street seller. The economy’s bad and people don’t have enough money to buy clothes. Still, I’m in a much better position than many other clothes vendors because I sell children’s clothes and people are more likely to spend money on their kids, especially at the start of the school year or before an Eid.

The municipality wants us to rent stalls from them, which they say is to help reduce traffic in Kabul. They put up about 200 stalls next to the Kabul River and sold them to people. Then one day, they removed all of them and leased the land to a businessman who built a modern market in their place. They call it a ‘public-private partnership’. The market has about 500 small shops, but most are empty because it’s expensive to rent one. It costs 7,000 dollars upfront and 3,000 afghanis [USD 42] rent per month. As for me, I don’t even have the money to buy a handcart, so renting a stall’s out of the question.

I have a deal with a shopkeeper who gives me the clothes on credit. Every morning, I pick up the clothes. From early morning until the end of the day, I carry the clothes in my hands, looking for customers and trying to dodge the police. In the evenings, I take what’s left back to the shop, along with the day’s earnings, and he gives me my cut. On good days, I can make as much as 300 afghanis [USD 4.20], but there are days when I don’t make a single sale.

You have to be on the lookout for the police. Since the municipality started its policy of forcing street sellers to rent stalls, they don’t allow us to sell on the street. They hunt us down and harass us. I, myself, have been taken to the police station several times. Each time, they confiscate my goods and make me promise to stop selling on the street. When they give back my stock, many of the items are damaged or soiled and sometimes things go missing. Once, I lost around 20,000 afghanis worth [USD 278] of children’s clothes. I’m still paying off the debt to the shopkeeper.

My roommates and I have started putting a little money aside each month so that we can rent a stall together. It means living more frugally than we already are and asking our families back home to do the same. It’s not easy, but we have to tolerate it. We have no other choice. We have to tighten our belts and pool our funds to secure a stable location so that we can earn money on the right side of the law and without fear of being harassed.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Kate Clark


1 Kabul Municipality’s plan to designate locations and establish fixed booths to regulate the activities of street vendors and reduce traffic congestion in Kabul dates back to the days of the Islamic Republic, but it was only enacted half-heartedly. After the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, the municipality revived the plan (see this April 2022 ToloNews report) and has enforced it strictly, with higher costs (both initial outlay and rent) for the vendors. See also AAN special report published in September 2022, ‘Taxing the Afghan Nation: What the Taleban’s pursuit of domestic revenues means for citizens, the economy and the state’.


The Daily Hustle: The trials and tribulations of being a street vendor in Kabul