Selling lemons in the streets at ₾1 ($0.38) for a bag of 5, Tbilisi’s lemon vendors — almost exclusively elderly women — struggle to scrape out a living.
Tina Giguashvili, 69, stands with her hands up, a bag of lemons hanging from each finger. Since December, she’s been selling lemons every other day near the Okriba bus station in Tbilisi. For women like her, the fragrant, West Georgian citrus is not only a healthy fruit but a means of survival.
For close to 20 years, Tina Giguashvili worked at a bakery in Khashuri, in central Georgia, before her health took a turn for the worst and she was forced to find a new means to support herself and her family.
She told OC Media that it has taken some time to get used to the change: ‘This is the kind of job where you have to talk a lot to attract people, and I’m not really that kind of person’.
Still, with three children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, she’s motivated to help her family, especially as every other adult member of the family is either unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, or in jail.
Here, Giguashvili, like most of the city’s lemon vendors, purchases her goods from the wholesalers for ₾1.3–₾1.5 ($0.49–$0.57) per kilo. She will sell a bag of five to six small lemons for ₾1 ($0.38). On a good day, she makes between ₾10–₾15 ($3.80–$5.70).
‘I start at about noon and stand as long as I can, usually until around six in the evening, but my feet are usually killing me, so I sometimes go home earlier. And by the end, when you’re holding just a couple of bags, it’s less likely people will buy them. People are kind to me though; sometimes they buy more out of pity rather than need, or they just give me money.’
The money Giguashvili makes is not enough to support the family, which is why her daughter-in-law is emigrating to Greece to find work. Giguashvili hopes she can then abandon the streets and look after the household in Khashuri.
[Read on OC Media: ‘People’s goodwill is my only hope for survival’ — elderly poverty in Georgia]
Tsisana Kobelashvili, 82, is a veteran of the business — she’s been selling lemons for the past 26 years. Though she’s lived through three governments, nothing has changed.
‘I started coming here when I had two small children on my hands, my husband was unemployed, and I had his sick parents to take care of. We live in [Tbilisi’s Dighomi District] and never managed to climb out of poverty’.
Kobelashvili says the work is not all bad. ‘I’ve seen so much sorrow that coming here, moving, joking with other vendors can sometimes make me forget what I’ve been through.’
When Kobelashvili’s daughter died in a car crash, her work helped her cope with the loss. ‘I also had to help my orphaned grandchildren. And now my son is in jail, and I’m here to make a bit of money to send him for the New Year.’
Kobelashvili says her pension provides hardly enough to survive, so she has to work constantly. Because of that, she hasn’t applied for socially vulnerable person’s status — which comes with monthly benefits payments — she says she just doesn’t have the time.
‘When I come home, my grandson is sitting by the computer, and the heating is off — he turns it off to save money. I go straight to bed to warm myself a bit. I have a lot of energy, but my health is deteriorating’.
Kobelashvili recently had to take a break from work because her shoulder ligaments were stretched from holding the lemons. Now she’s back but is worried about the weather. ‘I don’t have any proper shoes. Hopefully it will be dry, otherwise, I won’t be able to come out’.
Street vending, though technically illegal, is a far-reaching business in Tbilisi. Selling lemons is seen as one of the least profitable forms of vending and is done almost exclusively by elderly women.
For vendors that serve minibuses, lemons are just a side product, which, when compared to bananas, sunflower seeds, and napkins, aren’t worth much. But for those who cannot move much or can only stand for several hours, lemons are the perfect choice. They are on demand in every household, though not as heavily as bananas, and although they are low-value items, the markup is high. ‘I always buy Georgian lemons from Zugdidi, not the expensive imported ones,’ Kobelashvili says.
From the wholesalers, lemons travel to different destinations throughout Georgia. Those who are lucky enough to have a stand in the market or a small shop sell a bag of three or four lemons for ₾1, but this also has its hardships.
Seventy-year-old Manana (not her real name), who sits at the entrance of Navtlughi Market, says she hardly ever sells anything since she’s not able to stand and offer her goods to people directly.
‘I had a stroke and can’t move around much’, Manana says. ‘Sometimes the whole day passes and I go unnoticed.’ Manana is also ‘protected’ by other sellers in the market, who prevent her from talking to strangers too much.
Lemon-selling represents only a fraction of the businesses the elderly are involved in in Georgia. Georgian’s pension of ₾200 ($73) is barely enough to cover food and medical costs.
Though a new accumulative pension scheme has come in, this only benefited the current pensioners by a small rise of ₾20 ($7).
[Read by Tornike Chivadze on OC Media: Opinion | Georgia’s pension reforms do nothing for most Georgians]