Pillows Get Comfy in Informal Market

The key to a good night's sleep is a pillow and it is not unusual to see vendors carrying pillows on the streets of Addis Abeba these days. This new niche in the informal market comes as a delight for residents as well as for the youth looking for a chance to better their lives. But, being a part of this market comes at a cost; hawkers grapple with the police just to sell their products, while health experts doubt the quality of the products which many fail to consider, reports YIBELTAL GEBREGZIABER, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

These days it has become common to find youth on the streets carrying pillows made of linen and “feather”, which is actually fibre, in Addis Abeba.

Although the fact that these individuals are engaged in the informal sector does not allow for precise data, increased sightings of street vendors along the streets of Merkato, Lideta and Mexico, just to name a few, show that the market is growing.

“The market has flourished within four to six months”, said Awot Teklemariam, 21, a street vendor, who came from the northern part of the country.

Having travelled to the capital in the hopes of making a viable livelihood, he adds, comparing his previous one where he worked at a steel retailer.

“The earnings are low and the risk of working on the streets is high, but we make do,” he said.

He buys the pillows from retailers in Merkato marketplace that sell them in bulk. While he buys the merchandise in the price range of 60 Br to 72 Br, the pillows sell for a price of 110 Br to 140 Br.

“Sometimes it becomes necessary for us to reduce the price, to about 95 Br a piece, in the hopes that more customers would be attracted to buy”, he adds while also stressing that selling on the streets without any type of regulation frequently gets them into trouble with the law.

“All of us, street vendors, have to negotiate with the police, offer a kind of bribe, to stay in business,” stressing the hardship of operating in the informal sector.

Pictured below are the older models of rectangular pillows stuffed with foam.

Ayalew Mengistu, 49, married and father of two, is one person that would hate to see the pillow market go out of business. Working at Merkato’s Shema Tera, he was surprised to find pillows being sold on the streets by the vendors.

“What attracted me most is the ease of access and the price of the items,” said Ayalew, who is a regular customer of goods in the informal market.

Currently, pillows fetch in the range of 150 Br, depending on the location of the retail shops, in the formal sector. Some of the renowned manufacturers of fibre pillows are Rainbow Plastic & Foam Industry and Amaga Plc, both of which are based in Ethiopia.

There were 69 factories engaged in the manufacturing of foam and plastic, according to the Ethiopian Investment Agency (EIC). Out of these, three are Chinese investments, while one hails from Yemen and the remaining are locals.

Aside from Rainbow and Amaga, known brands such as Kangaroo Plastic Plc, and the less known ones like Tiger Foam and New Flower Foam, also engage in the production of foam. This is in contrast to a quarter of a century ago where Addis Abeba Foam & Plastic Factory was the only player until Kangaroo and Rainbow followed a year later.

But, the street vendors, who can be found selling their pillows in Teklehaymanot, Lideta and Sebategna, prefer buying the older model of pillows that are stuffed with foam. This is because of the variance in the quality of imported fibre pillows, which are softer than the ones that are manufactured here.

Nonetheless, Helen Abera, with ten years of experience in the foam and plastic industry, reflects that the street vendors actually have it wrong.

“The imports are from unknown places, hence we can’t tell if they are of good quality or not,” she says regarding the lack of knowledge about the raw materials used for the pillows.

A street vendor walks along the street looking for customers, carrying soft pillows on his back.

The locally manufactured pillows with domestically sourced raw materials have a much higher quality than the ones the street vendors prefer to put up for sale she explains. A case in her favour may be the price range of the pillows, where the “the pure ones” cost about 220 Br minimum.

Amaga’s plastic production department head, Addisu Foge, whose company’s primary line of business is spring and foam mattresses, but has recently entered the production of fibre pillows agrees when it comes to the imports.

“They are unoriginal pillows made of cheap raw materials,” he says, adding that there is a contrast in that they are working to build consumer confidence by providing quality products.

What they promote are their own quality brand pillows, which they deem are “speciality fibre products” as opposed to the imported ones. Getting consumers to buy the pillows from retailers in the formal market will also provide livelihoods to more players, like dealers, from the pillow market, Addisu asserts.

Consumers replace their pillows almost every three years, which is the quickest rate for any sleep accessory other than bed sheets, according to a research by various countries over multiple individuals.

The quality assessment does not cease there. The types of pillows that are used have health implications, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not, at least according to Addis-alem Kinfe, a senior psychotherapist. Pillows that are beneficial for the neck are those that are c-shaped, while older people with spinal problems are prescribed cervical pillows.

“The material out of which the pillows are made should matter, as the area that is at the back of our necks is very sensitive”, he concludes.

Indeed, there is a lack of understanding when it comes to pillows, where out of 2,200 men and women, only 18pc know they should replace their pillows every other two years, according to the pillow manufacturer Ergoflex.

One thing is for sure. One way or the other, for customers, the pillow market is buoyant. The new types of fibre pillows allow customers to enjoy the types that are different from the ones stuffed with cotton or in most cases foam. They can either be locally manufactured or imported from overseas, for which customers can arbiter based on quality and price.

Whatever the case may be, what matters most to Awot and his colleagues in the field is that people continue to buy the pillows. By the road-side that is full of vendors that sell all sorts of peculiar merchandises, from garments to electronic goods, pillows have received a market share.

“Sometimes we sell many, while at other times, there is no business,” one of his colleagues attests.




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