Informal traders in Africa’s cities: coopted, coerced or just neglected?
n early 2018, as Zambia’s capital of Lusaka faced a widening cholera epidemic, the country’s president called in police and the military to raze makeshift food stalls in the city. The Minister of Local Government also issued an order to impose tighter restrictions on informal vending across the country.
By early July 2019, however, the minister’s approach was notably different. Lusaka police should immediately stop confiscating products from street vendors, he declared, noting that they should be treated humanely.
With local by-elections planned at the end of that month and an increasingly polarized partisan atmosphere, cultivating good will among urban traders was a politically strategic move—even if underlying issues of substandard food safety among traders remained.
Informal food vendors in cities across many developing countries contend with volatile policies that, at best, lead to poor working conditions and, at worst, result in harassment and confiscation of merchandise. Two new studies focused on African cities shows that such policy inconsistencies are not necessarily arbitrary; rather, they reflect varying underlying political dynamics and local governance structures.
Governments in Lusaka; Accra, Ghana; and Dakar, Senegal are grappling with managing the demands of a burgeoning middle-class along with those of a still large constituency of urban poor who disproportionately rely on livelihoods in the informal sector, either as street hawkers or in open air public markets (i.e. wet markets).
However, a database compiled on violent crackdowns of food vendors—episodes of forced relocation or outright destruction of property and merchandise—in the three cities from 2000-2016 shows each responding quite differently to these roughly similar circumstances.
In Accra, crackdowns have been relatively consistent over time; they also occur in other major Ghanaian cities. In Dakar, violence increased in the late 2000s but not in other Senegalese cities; while in Lusaka, it decreased around the same time but increased in Zambian opposition-controlled cities.
"Informal food trade represents a critical source of employment and food security for the urban poor, and also of tax revenue to cities. But these potential contributions are often stifled by either benign neglect or outright harassment."
While other studies have argued that crackdowns reflect either a lack of collective action among traders to defend their rights or governments’ preoccupation with creating pristine cities, I found that the patterns observed in these three cities can be attributed to an interaction between the extent of political decentralization, administrative decentralization, and vendors’ partisan affiliations.
“Political decentralization” refers to whether mayors are elected or appointed. “Administrative decentralization” captures whether laws give cities a high level of autonomy to regulate informal trade.
When mayors are appointed and administrative decentralization over informal trade is high, as in Ghana, city officials prioritize their mandate to regulate vending and national governments rarely intervene.
But where administrative decentralization is high and mayors are elected, they must decide whether aggressively regulating vending will alienate core constituents. That depends on which constituency has more influence. If it’s vendors, then they experience fewer crackdowns; if it’s middle-class residents and formal retailers, elected mayors may use crackdowns as a political gesture to convey that they are actively working to improve urban public space. This was the case in Dakar from 2009-2016 under then-Mayor Khalifa Sall.
Finally, where mayors are elected but the regulation of informal trade is shared across tiers of government (and thus administrative decentralization is low), the electoral importance of traders is key to both the city and central governments—and political affiliation comes into play. The national government has more scope to intervene locally, and it will initiate or halt crackdowns depending on whether the city is controlled by the opposition and whether vendors are critical to the opposition’s electoral fortunes. This third scenario best typifies the dynamics in Zambia, where crackdowns increased as control of Lusaka shifted to the then opposition Patriotic Front in the mid-2000s.
In Nigeria, meanwhile, the Lagos state government has long maintained a particularly draconian “zero tolerance” policy towards informal traders. But a survey of more than 1,000 vendors in two of Nigeria’s secondary cities, Calabar in Cross River State and Minna in Niger State, found a very different picture.
Only 18% of those surveyed in Calabar and 3% in Minna had experienced one or more types of harassment by authorities—seizure of goods, removals, or arrests. Such harassment was ranked as relatively low among traders’ many other anxieties, foremost of which was simply not having enough customers. Rather than harassment, neglect by officials appeared to be the main experience of a majority of the sample.
What is behind this indifference? Numerous state and local government area (LGA) actors are responsible for regulating traders, including ministries of health, environment, and transport, state police, as well as local revenue departments and task forces. This complex governance structure is a recipe for inaction. It undermines accountability for service provision and oversight of traders—sometimes with consequences for public health.
Most sampled traders, including those who provide prepared meals, had no hygiene training or experience with food licensing. In addition, many lack access to basic public services essential for hygienic food preparation. For example, less than half of those surveyed in both cities had access to trash collection, while less than 20% reported access to clean, running water. Given scarce capacity and resources, the Nigerian government should consider consolidating responsibilities for informal traders in one subnational unit at the LGA level to enhance accountability and oversight.
Much of Africa’s structural change in recent years has been driven by people transitioning out of agriculture and into unskilled retail trade, recent scholarship shows. Informal food trade represents a critical source of employment and food security for the urban poor, and also of tax revenue to cities. But these potential contributions are often stifled by either benign neglect or outright harassment. If the international community is serious about fostering inclusive and sustainable cities—the main ambition of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11—then it should encourage innovative policies to ensure humane and effective governance for some of urban Africa’s most vulnerable residents.
This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), led by IFPRI, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Nigeria Agricultural Productivity Project.
(Main image: African seller with colorful fabrics in a shop, Comoé, Abengourou, Ivory Coast on May 9, 2019 in Abengourou, Ivory Coast -Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.