Street vendors have long been part of the economic landscape in Morocco, but for some of those working in the “informal economy”, trash is treasure.
Other people’s cast-offs and garbage provide them with an income. These itinerant traders know that for every discarded or broken item, there is a potential buyer.
“This is the source of my daily livelihood,” street salesman Abdul Hadi says about the items laid out on the sidewalk. Empty bottles once used for ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard, plastic containers used for oils or mineral water, old clothes: this is merchandise, not garbage. And people are willing to pay for it.
Another merchant, Mohamed Ibrahim, says he keeps everything – from broken games to broken cups – inside his house for later re-sale. He saves empty boxes, iron screws and other odds and ends retrieved from the garbage.
“We do not compete with any of the merchants, not even street vendors, because our goods are not their wares and we do not reap huge profits,” the father of three tells Magharebia.
“They are only daily pennies, enough for us to meet our needs and not beg.”
Abdullah, on the other side of the sidewalk running the length of the famous Souk El Kouriaa market in Casablanca, sells old CD cases. Even though many are cracked, people buy them.
Other sellers stand behind cardboard and wooden boxes filled with rusty keys, picture frames, broken toys, and many things that appear to have no meaning or use. These Moroccan street vendors are of a different breed than those selling vegetables or clothes. Their customers are looking for something that cannot be found in stores or traditional market stalls.
Here, junk sells.
Mustafa a father is poking around among a pile of nails and bolts. “A small screw went missing from the cover of the pressure cooker my wife uses in the kitchen,” he explains. “The pot is no good anymore, since she can’t tighten the lid, so I am looking for a small screw to replace the lost one.”
“I could buy a new cooker for thousands of dirhams, but if I can find the right screw here, it will only cost me two or three dirhams,” he says.
Farid is under 30 but has to support his retired father, an elderly mother and several young brothers. He worked as a porter, a travelling salesman and a security guard at a Casablanca building but ended up jobless. One day, a friend proposed that he accompany him to a garbage dump. Everything has a use, his friend explained.
He took the advice and went into business. “Now I keep everything I find until someone comes along to buy it,” Shaab says.
“I pick up glass containers, and then wash and clean them to offer in the market,” he tells Magharebia. “The price is very low but it is significant for me, because I do not want to remain idle and complain about my condition.”
“Perhaps one day I may have to resort to other means to get money, but for now, I prefer working out here. My joy is great when someone finds exactly what he is looking for,” he says with a broad smile.
A woman haggles over an outdated juice machine without a cover, while another holds an old alarm clock. It still has numbers and clock hands, but she and the seller go back and forth over her demand for a reduction in price. After all, she says, it may continue to work or break after a couple days. There’s no way to tell until she gets it home.
The scrap market is not only frequented by the poor. Citizens from all social circles come here because they may not find what they need anywhere else.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says merchant Ibrahim Guidoum. “You find young people looking for a specific item. They may not know what it’s called, but they know it as soon as they see it.”
He adds: “Those who frequent the scrap metal sellers are trying to find wires, devices, tools – all the old home necessities they can’t find in shops, or where the spare part cost is too high.”
Rabia, an employee, says she goes to the junk market without embarrassment, to find something valuable at a low price, or a piece suitable to fix a kitchen appliance.
“I’m obsessed with frequenting these haphazard spaces,” Rabia tells Magharebia. “They give me the pleasure of shopping and digging and searching for what is rare.”
A recent study commissioned by the Ministry of Trade revealed that Morocco has 238,000 street vendors, 90% of whom are men. And since some 70% of them never went beyond primary school, their employment options are limited.
Abdul Razzaq is like many of his peers who sell goods on the street. He was in desperate need of a job, but doors closed in his face and he nearly lost hope in life. Then his uncle suggested he accompany him to the market.
Within a year, he had absorbed the secrets of the profession and become self-reliant through the collection and resale of junk and scrap metal.
The Moroccan government is paying particular attention to helping these itinerant merchants. Economic Affairs Minister Nizar Baraka told Magharebia that help is on the horizon: “The main thing is to bring about a transition from the informal to the formal sector, that’s what needs to happen.”
Local authorities, meanwhile, have been working to regulate Moroccan street vendors within special areas, Abdul Razzaq says.
“They’ve been showing a kind of indulgence recently, as if they understand our situation and our unemployment,” he says.
“We hope to get a permanent space,” the young scrap salesman says. “That would help us earn a livelihood without resorting to begging or theft or falling into problems we can do without.”