Africa’s burgeoning informal sector is often seen as one of the continent’s strengths, but a conference on sustainable cities has heard how the phenomenon of informality mitigates against sustainable growth and prosperity.
Professor Edgar Pieterse, the South African research chair in urban policy and director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, said that there was a romanticised perception that informality was always good.
“Informality is not necessarily a good in and of itself,” he said. “It’s a compensation for the fact that people can’t get a proper job.”
Speaking during the 2018 conference on Sustainable African Cities which took place in Accra, Ghana, this week, Pieterse said that the informal sector was characterised by low wages which were incredibly irregular which made it virtually impossible for households or neighbourhoods to plan.
The irregular nature of income from the informal sector also excluded many people from accessing finance for things such as formal housing.
“We are told informality is always good…it is not. Working informally is not a choice, it is a necessity, and within that people are subjected to very difficult and oppressive conditions and there are always strongmen who manage the markets, who manage the traders, and they are vicious,” Pieterse told the African News Agency (ANA) on the sidelines of the conference.
“It is very exploitative, so of course you don’t have to have this romantic idea that formalisation is not needed.
“As we think about the systems of urban reproduction, is that if you have wages in the informal economy it tends to be extremely low, but most importantly it is erratic, so it makes it very difficult for households and neighbourhoods to plan because of the incredible variability in income.”
Pieterse said that East and West Africa “by far represent the rump of urban growth over the next 30 to 35 years”.
“One of the things that is significant about the African continent is the predominance of informality, both in terms of social reproduction, how people live and where they live, but also in terms of jobs,” he added. “This has been coupled over the last 30, 35, 40 years to a lack of investment in the built environment.”
According to Pieterse, the waste and sanitation crisis in Ghana is one expression of that lack of investment
– African News Agency (ANA)