Vendors of Coconut Water: An Insight

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The realities and economics of vending coconut water give an insight into the lives of entreprising street vendors.

Coconut vendors make a simple living, from a simple product. With a firm hand, they chop off the top of the coconut with their machetes, place a straw inside the coconut water and hand out the perfect refreshment – in nature’s own packaging.

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Twenty-nine-year old Suresh has sold coconut water for twelve years. With a four-wheel wooden cart and a machete, as investment, he continues to provide respite for hundreds of thirsty clients with this delicious and healthy drink, often referred as nature’s champagne.

Over a decade ago, infection by cement caused him to switch from working as a manual laborer in the construction industry to a coconut vending entrepreneur, a street hawker, earning about Rs. 200-400 each day.

With coconuts (raw materials) and plastic straws as his recurring costs, his skill in chopping coconuts and his smile attracts thirsty customers. However, his cash turnover depends on the weather. With each changing season his little fortune can soar or shrink. “Winters aren’t the season for coconut water. The highest turnovers are made in the summers”, he says. But the summers bring risks of the coconuts going bad.

All these are not without their consequences. With two small daughters in nursery and primary school, he can’t afford to put them through a private school. “Admission fees alone for private school is Rs. 5000 – how can I pay that much, let alone the fees?” he asks. But his goal is to educate his children so that they don’t have to do what he is doing.

Stories of others who sell this natural champagne are similar.

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Nagavelli Gopi takes an active approach to sales in the morning. Pushing his cart down the streets, shouting ‘kobari bondalu!’ (green coconuts), he sells as many as he can through his rich voice before setting up shop on the sidewalk.

“I don’t call out to customers then, I just keep the coconuts on display with a board marking the price (Rs. 15). They come to me, then.”

Like the other vendors, he takes the coconuts on credit from a wholesaler in the morning, paying them back in the evening for the whole amount – irrespective of how many he’s sold. The blade he uses to chop the coconuts costs Rs. 400, and can be sharpened for Rs. 30. With two kids in 9th and 11th grade, his educational expenses are low since they study in a government school.

However, the one recurring cost that most vendors are forced to factor in, apart from the coconuts, blades and straws, is the Baksheesh to the local municipality officials to keep their stalls harassment free.

He and the other vendors were asked by the local councillors to register for a license to vend. Being illiterate, they do not know the details of the documents that are required to register.

The councillor came, asked us to register, took our signatures and went. We don’t really know what it was for.

Most of them are still waiting for their licenses, despite weeks passing since their signatures were taken.

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act, 2014, “to protect the rights of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending activities” requires vendors registration – but few are aware of its provisions, and implementation across states has been sporadic.

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Forty-eight-year old Dunne Srinivas, a coconut seller, spends most of his income on his children’s education, spending over Rs. 35,000 a year (£350) for their fees. His wife works as a maid to help him pay off their children’s school fees. “I hope their luck will be good and they will get a job”, says Dunne.

With most of these vendors existing out of the formal economy, their earnings, job securities and access to social security remain mired in uncertainty.

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R. Srinivas, sold coconut water on the streets with his wife. He had an open-heart surgery a couple of years ago, and is unable to wield the machete for longer hours. Together, they can only afford to send their children to a public college – private college fees being far outside their reach.

Vendors survive financial and formal exclusion from the system, but have little room for upward mobility. Nevertheless, the saying that India grows not because of the government, but despite it, holds true in their case.

What these vendors do believe in, is educating their children. All of them are working towards putting their children through school and college, so that they could avoid an uncertain future. A little bit of inclusion, recognition and training in technology could go a long way.

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