African leaders are increasingly seeking to “modernize” their cities. That means making them “globally competitive” and “smart”.

The hope is to strategically place cities in Africa to drive the continent’s much-needed socio-economic transformation.

But these aspirations tend to marginalize and antagonize the informal sector. The sector includes a complex of types of economic activity of workers and economic units, which – by law or in practice – are not covered (or insufficiently covered) by official arrangements.

We are a team of international scientists researching sustainable cities in Africa. In our latest paper, we explore the dual role played by the informal sector in Africa’s urban economy.

On the one hand, it plays a positive role. It provides employment, secures family income and savings, provides basic family needs, and increases civic engagement.

But the sector also plays a negative role. It contributes to social and gender inequality, insecurity, overcrowding and environmental pollution.

Overall, we found that the informal sector has a lot to offer the future of African cities. We therefore recommend that public policy focus more on regularizing the sector rather than crowding it out.

This is often done to make room for elite major capital projects.

Furthermore, we warn that ignoring or marginalizing the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the sector could cause social bloodshed on the continent.

In Africa, the “smart cities” craze.

In Africa, there has been renewed interest in the construction of so-called “smart”, “modern”, “globally competitive” cities. Some seek to build entirely new cities.

But, for the most part, most governments want to put cities on the “map” through large-scale renovation or “upgrading” of existing urban areas.

African cities have long been blamed for not serving as engines of growth and structural transformation, as their counterparts did during the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

It makes it refreshing to see leaders on the continent looking to make a difference.

The problem, however, is that these visions of urban modernization tend to strongly marginalize and antagonize the informal sector in their formulation and implementation.

Some even focus heavily on displacing informal workers and activities – especially traders and merchants, slum and slum dwellers – from the central business districts of cities.

For example, earlier this year, Nigerian authorities sent a combined team of police, military and other law enforcement officials to destroy the Port Harcourt informal settlement, which was home to about 15,000 families.

Their counterparts in Ghana are now conducting similar exercises.

These decisions are often justified by the fact that informal workers and their activities create “congestion”, “crime”, “filth” and “disorder”.

In other words, they hinder sustainable urban development and thus must be eradicated.

But is this premise supported by the evidence? This question was recently asked by our team.

We concluded that the informal sector is rather the goose that lays Africa’s golden eggs.

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Unpacking data

In our paper, we argue that African leaders need to rethink the informal sector as a potential platform for innovation and solutions.

Consider, for example, the potential for job creation. In 2018, a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that the informal sector employs about 89.2% of the total workforce in sub-Saharan Africa, if agriculture is included.

Even without agriculture, the share of informal employment remains significant: 76.8%. In Central Africa without agriculture, the share of employment in this sector fluctuated between 78.8% and 91% with agriculture.

In East Africa, contributions were 76.6% without agriculture and 91.6% with agriculture. The figures for southern and western Africa hovered around 36.1% and 87% excluding agriculture and 40.2% and 92.4% including agriculture.

The informal sector also makes an important contribution to Africa’s economy.

In 2000, the gross value added of the informal sector of Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo (including agriculture) hovered around 71.6%, 55.8%, 51.5% and 72.5% of the countries’ total GDP.

The sector’s contribution to housing construction is also significant. The most prominent form of informal housing, popularly known as “slums,” provides housing for millions of urban dwellers on the continent.

Figures from the United Nations show that the proportion of Nigeria’s urban population living in slums was 50.2% as of 2015. In Ethiopia – 73.9%; Uganda 53.6%; Tanzania – 50.7%. Ghana and Rwanda hovered around 37.9% and 53.2% respectively.

It is clear that the informal sector contributes a lot to Africa’s urban economy. This makes it highly unlikely that any visions of transforming life on the continent can succeed without proper consideration of the sector.

More importantly, the millions of working class people whose lives depend on the sector have consistently demonstrated that they will not accept continued marginalization lying down. They often resist eviction orders.

Perhaps the most profound moment of their resistance was witnessed in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

Many African governments have imposed lockdowns to limit community transmission of the virus. However, after subjecting informal workers to severe abuse, they still refused to comply, prompting many governments to suspend the lockdown.

The pandemic has shown that the ongoing systematic marginalization of informal workers engaged in the creation of the city portends new problems in the future.

Informality at the heart of urban planning

It is not that city governments should allow informal workers and activities to remain unchecked. They clearly have a responsibility to solve problems in the sector to ensure the safety and health of the public. Including the informal workers themselves.

The problem with current approaches is that they largely disenfranchise and displace workers to make room for large capital projects that serve the needs of a privileged few.

African leaders must recognize the enormous potential of the continent’s informal workers and begin to better integrate them into their urban visions and strategies.

The recent integration of informal waste collectors/recyclers is a popular name Zabbalin – on waste management in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, offers excellent lessons.

The Zabbalin long neglected so-called “formal” private companies, which, however, continued to be inefficient and structurally unable to navigate the narrow streets of several districts of Cairo.

When the Cairo authorities finally admitted that art Zabbalin better suited for the job, they changed course and brought them on board.

The findings suggest that the changes are paying some fruitful dividends in improved sanitation.

The progressive example of Cairo paints a powerful picture of how the empowerment of informal workers can be seriously incorporated and integrated into the construction of African cities.

Hopefully, more such interventions will be replicated in other sectors of the continent’s urban economy.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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