SPECIAL REPORT: Soroti Central Market, Haven for Single Mothers
By Steven Enatu
Visiting Soroti Central Market in Soroti City, a group of women haggling over a few items compete for visibility and this is a normal trend on a daily basis.
Looking around the stalls, it came to my mind that many businesses in this market are manned by women who sell various items that range from fresh foods, fruits, smoked fish and other foodstuffs.
Other women sell second-hand clothes, honey that is packed in various container sizes, millet flour, cornmeal, and second-hand shoes.
Soroti market is the only biggest market in Teso sub-region that was constructed by the Markets and Agricultural Trade Improvement Project (MATIP).
It was constructed at a cost of Shs24 billion, a loan acquired from the African Development Bank (AfDB). The market accommodates at least 2,000 vendors, most of whom are women.
Soroti Central Market is one of the 21st markets that have been constructed countrywide with the sole purpose of boosting Small and Medium Enterprise businesses in the 21 municipalities and urban communities in Uganda.
Commonly known as Soroti Central Market, this market was completed in October 2021 and handed over to the city authorities for allocation with priority to the vendors who initially had their lock-ups in the old market before the new construction commenced.
In the new structure, about 2200 stalls and shops have been constructed that have been fully occupied by mainly the local businesspersons in Teso. This, therefore, serves the key aim of its establishment to serve the business community of Teso in a bid to boost the region’s economic quest.
According to the City Mayor, Joshua Edogu, the construction of this market cost the government of Uganda a whooping Shs24 billion-a fund that was acquired from the African Development Bank.
In this glamorous market, the first thing that catches your eye is women seated idly at times occasioned with chats from their fellow friends like weaver birds. An indication that women occupy most of the stalls and command business respect in Soroti City.
Various items like honey that is packed in small plastic containers, smoked fish that comprise; Nile Perch, Tilapia, and Silverfish, vegetables and citrus fruits among others are what are commonly sold in the market. Most of these stalls have attracted flies and maggots that have also kept them busy chasing them away.
Fresh vegetables like tomatoes, bananas, cabbages, onions, beans and watermelons, too, are sold at times separately from other foodstuffs.
Soroti Central Market is a state-of-art market in Teso sub-region that has attracted various business communities to Soroti City and this has helped to boost and enhance local revenue collection.
A bevy of businesspersons has boosted and enhanced beehive activities from women who are now putting right their stock to serve different categories of customers.
The local revenue collection is to the disappointment of the district administration that used to collect revenue from the market.
However, when the city was launched in 2020 by the Minister of Local Government, Hon Raphael Magezi, it emerged that the market fell under the City administration denying an opportunity for the district to be in charge of the revenue collection.
The other critical part of the businesspersons in this market is the women, some of them transact their businesses with babies straddled on their backs while others carry babies in their arms as they breastfeed them.
And this has apparently become clear that most women are the ones who own most of the stalls in the market. This has awed many customers.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), the population of Uganda is currently estimated to be standing at 46 with women at least 23.9 million and men at 22 million.
My first encounter was with a lady in her early 40s, she was seated on her stool cutting cabbage to put in a white small kavera that sells at 500shs while her two young boys played just next to her. I used to be her customer and seeing me, she knew I had gone for tomatoes but this time I explained to her my intention and she permitted me.
Dinah Achipa, 40, a single mother of five children says, “I started my grocery business in 1999 with a starting income of Shs20,000.” However, today, the business is boasting a total revenue of Shs1,500,000.”
“It’s out of this business that has enabled me to pay fees for my children,” recalls Achipa with a smile on her face.
She adds that “My first-born daughter is now a graduate nurse whom I paid for her education using the proceeds that accrued from my business. “It was not easy at the beginning but it paid off,” she recalls.
Besides paying fees for her children, Achipa says, the business also enables her to pay rent and services for other utilities like electricity, water and medical care for the family.
Just like other women in the market, Achipa runs her stall of fresh foods which she pays Shs10,000 as market dues every month.
At the viewpoint where I was talking to her, another female vendor caught my attention as she was sprinkling water on her fresh vegetables, beckoning at me saying, “Come and talk to me also.”
She had no idea what I was talking to Achipa but was quite interested in hearing from me. She explains that most of the fresh foods sold in Soroti City come from Mbale, Kapchorwa while a small percentage of the foodstuffs are from within the Teso sub-region.
Later, I learnt that her name is Philomena Akello indirectly explains to me the reason why women command authority in the market’s business. She explains it by saying, “Women are active in business and are trustworthy because they are breadwinners.”
Akello also adds that “Men have abandoned their wives at home and this has levied full family responsibilities on women.” “When you see women doing all sorts of businesses in town, it’s because huge family responsibilities of providing various basic needs are on us as women,” she offers to explain.
For example, “My husband divorced me in 1999, by then I had three children and if it was not because of this business, my children wouldn’t have gone to school” Akello narrates.
It’s against this backdrop that Akello holds that, “Having learnt that dealing in fresh foods is a lucrative venture, women have ventured into it in full swing. This business though neglected by others earns us descent living in our families.”
“I leave my house at 7 am to go to the market. And this a daily routine,” she says, adding, “Everything I do here such as cooking and packing food for the school-going children then again in the evening, I wait for them for us to start walking home at around 8 pm.”
This Akello says she does depend on how the business looks on a particular day. “For example, some days, when the business is not promising I retire home pretty early while other days whenever it’s good, I can even go beyond Nine O’clock.
She advises women to join businesses however small their capital may be, giving an example of herself, with 20,000shs; Achipa now gets stock worth Shs1 Million.
Just approximately 30 metres on the left-hand side from Achipa’s stall is a line for dry fish stalls, many of the owners are women as well. I encountered yet another promising businesswoman by the name of Harriet Mutate. Mutate is in her late 30s.
She has come to Soroti all the way from Mityana in Buganda. She came to Soroti 20 years ago having completed her studies where she had graduated with a diploma in Social Works and Social Development.
“I got married to a teacher who blocked me from getting a gainful job in either public service or private. He wanted me to be only a housewife,” Mutale said. “This did not work for me because I wanted something that would engage me actively,” she affirms.
My husband did not approve of my proposal. He then told me to choose between marriage and doing business. I took time to think about my husband’s condition; however, at last thought, I told him that, “I am opting for business,” said Mutale.
That marked the beginning of all my burdens. He left me with all the family responsibilities like taking care of our two children.
“It was hard for me in that, I first attempted to take him to the Child and Family Unit in the police’s probation office but I realized I was going to cause him many problems instead I decided to just let things go” Mutale narrates.
With the little money that I had accumulated out of pocket money that I had saved while still at school, Mutate says she ventured into the fish business. I opted to sell dry fish – a business that I have now done for 20 years.
Mutale, a former wife to a civil servant, feels proud that one of her children is now in Senior Five in Namilyango SS while the second born is at Iganga SS.
“All this is out of my efforts as I laid my hands on my small business,” Mutale notes. “Selling fish in this market has empowered me as a strong and focused woman for I know that I am a single mother,” she adds.
“My husband is still alive,” she adds. Mutale offers, “Many women in this market have absentee husbands and it’s a painful experience to us but we have nothing to do.”
In my interaction with businesswomen in Soroti Central Market, it’s common knowledge that single mothers have sacrificed to an extent that they even go hungry for the sake of their children.
Mutate, however, encourages women to stop grumbling about the behaviours of their husbands and to only wait for men to provide for them.
She also urges men to stop going drinking and wasting money on unproductive things like eating Muchomo with prostitutes while leaving their families in abject poverty.
As women, we should learn to start small businesses by venturing into productive activities that can earn revenue whether small. “Depending on men is not a good idea. Just imagine one day your husband dies finding that you are not ready to take up the mantle of providing for the family. How will such a home survive? She wonders
Goreti Aduno, another vendor says, “I got my start-up capital from a local SACCO within our village and I used it for buying items that I am now selling and the business has been good.” Aduno says, “I am now able to collect at least Shs150,000 per day out of my business.”
“Many people tend to belittle Small Micro Enterprises (SMEs) but I can assure you there is money in these enterprises and one cannot fail to provide for their families,” she reasons.
Aduno then offers a piece of advice to other women that they should start saving out of their small proceeds in a bid to engage in more productive enterprises like poultry, piggery and goat rearing.
Juliet Ipagi the Soroti City West female councillor who also doubles as the Soroti City West deputy mayor agrees that women have dominated the business in the Soroti Central Market because they are mindful of their families.
“Women have a good business mentality of breaking the glass cylinders when it comes to venturing into any businesses because they want to see their children educated and healthy,” Ipagi holds.
On the other hand, despite the fact that all seems too rosy with women, there are also challenges that have stifled the progress of businesses manned by women such as inadequate capital for expansion and lack of security to enable them to borrow loans from financial institutions.
For that, women appeal for critical support from the government in order to grow their businesses. Amidst paying residential rents, we are also meeting huge charges of paying stall rent fees which are at times exorbitant that it has become a serious challenge that has pushed away many women from businesses.
“Stalls in Soroti Central Market go at Shs10,000 per month,” Achipa says, adding that, “It has become a hindrance even for us to pay fees for children, I wish they could put it at 6000shs”
According to the World Bank report of 2021, the world is in a fragile economic crisis that is forcing many institutions and businesses to collapse. This is also attributed to the outbreak of Covid-19 that saw many countries slap a total lockdown hence affecting businesses.