Panel 7

Beyond marginality. Ambiguities and potentialities of informality in Africa

Panel organisers: Anna Baral, University of Uppsala, Sweden and Cristiano Lanzano, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden


Despite its ambiguities and the critiques formulated against it, the concept of informality keeps being ethnographically and theoretically productive. Hart, who popularized the concept in a seminal article (1972), has himself acknowledged its complexity and clarified that the informal sector is not a reserve for the poor. Yet, informality has predominantly been used to evoke low productivity, unreliability and insecurity characterizing large sectors of the African economies. In the public debate and the development sector, informal workers have been either victimized and made targets of policy interventions, or romanticized as neoliberal heroes (De Soto, 1989).

To be sure, the sectors that have been analysed through the lens of informality – such as urban petty trade, domestic work, small-scale mining, but also smuggling, trafficking and other less legitimate occupations –  all share elements of unpredictability and precariousness. However, a significant body of work in African studies has shown that informality is a multifaceted field, where structural relations with the formal sphere are constantly rebuilt. Informal economies undergo transformations and processes of accumulation of capital and power. Informal workers unite, mobilise or simply find ways to navigate the uncertainties of their predicament (Lindell, 2010): not only do they survive, but some also prosper, constructing mechanism of social security that shun the control of the state, or are variably related to it. Thus, analyses of the informal need to go beyond essentialist views confining it to marginality.

The panel welcomes ethnographic contributions on informal economies in Africa and their ambiguous connections with states and formal markets, on processes of social differentiation within the informal sector, and on the ways in which informal workers seek to create the conditions for prosperity in precarious situations. We also encourage discussion on alternative frameworks to approach informality in Africa and on its links with broader global processes.  

Approved abstracts panel 7

1. Rubber does hit the road: The reality and significance of the informal economy in Africa

Author: Christopher Changwe Nshimbi, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

This paper underscores the reality and significance of the disputed and often-tainted informal economy in Africa. The paper focuses on two key components of the informal economy—employment and production—and simultaneously highlights three key issues in informality that are significant to regional integration by the spatial way in which they relate to borders. The paper draws on a thorough review of the literature and documentary evidence on informality, borders and regional integration to show that though difficult to assess, the informal economy is a permanent African reality that dates back to the Iron Age. It is also a source of employment for many, sustains livelihoods and contributes to local, national and regional economies and, to regional economic integration from the bottom up. On their part, African nation-state borders regulate movement, presenting sever restrictions on especially undocumented labour migration and informal trade. With supportive policies, however, cross-border movers are potentially useful partners of the state and African integration. These actors could help deepen integration by participating in measures designed to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. Because grassroots actors suffer abuse, are ill-treated at borders and in host countries, and lack access to social protection, African borders should be transformed into functional bridges that link communities straddling proximate states, to establish amorphous borderlands that would enhance economic, social and cultural integration.

2. Large-scale transport infrastructure projects and informality in Maputo

Author: Ilda Lindell, University of Stockholm, Sweden.

Large-scale transport infrastructure projects are emerging and reworking many African cities. Seeking to improve the connectivity within and beyond cities, these projects are also vehicles for the realization of particular forms of urban modernity. As they materialize, such projects lead to significant socio-spatial transformations including the displacement of people and activities to make room for the new infrastructures. In particular, tensions may emerge between these high-profile investments and people depending on informality for their livelihoods and residence. Drawing upon theoretical debates on the political import of infrastructure and on informality, this paper will discuss the experienced effects and responses by displaced vendors and marketers in connection to large-scale road infrastructure development in Maputo, Mozambique.

In Maputo, the construction of a ring road is intended to connect the centre of the city to its peripheries and facilitate their redevelopment. It encompasses the building of a huge bridge linking the city to Catembe across Maputo bay. Financed and built by Chinese corporations, the road and the bridge are approaching completion and have already prompted important changes in the urban fabric. New real estate residential developments in adjacent land have in some cases required the relocation of previous inhabitants. People conducting informal livelihoods on public spaces and unplanned markets in the vicinity of these transport infrastructures are also affected. In the city centre, the construction of the bridge has recently caused the displacement and relocation of hundreds of vendors. Prior to displacement however, the vendors mounted considerable resistance. Navigating a complex and changing governance configuration, they were able to delay the mega-project by a whole year. Based on qualitative interviews among vendors in the area as well as with prominent actors supervising the construction, the paper will uncover in particular the politics of the vendors in relation to exclusionary transport infrastructure development.

3. Small-Scale Trade, Citizen-Making, and the Politics of Informality in Northern Ghana

Author: Ulrik Jennische, University of Stockholm, Sweden.

In the last decades, the government of Ghana have in line with a global development discourse sought to formalize the economy of small-scale trade, while simultaneously define it as informal. Through welfare services, such as health insurance and pension schemes specifically designed for actors in the “informal sector”, and through the National Urban Policy that describe how urban planning should provide for the activities of the “informal economy” by strengthen its capacity, the state seeks to bring previously excluded actors under its realm of control and construct new markets. This process of citizen-making and market creation articulates a contradictory politics of informality that diminishes the analytical value of informal economy. Meanwhile, this process entails a moral engagement with the everyday life of traders. It not only defines the good citizen but transforms and merges different conflicting moral economies. For instance, the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre Act (GIPC 2013) reserves market and street trading to Ghanaians only. The policy is rarely enforced because it simultaneously competes with international agreements. But it enables traders to politically mobilize against foreign traders as immoral Others. This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork among small-scale traders in Northern Ghana with a specific interest to the intersection of state, market and citizenship. It investigates how the state, amid its national project, frames its politics around the categories of informal and formal. It argues that this process complicates the use of informal economy, and explores the possibilities of moral economy (Fassin 2009) to illuminate the underlying moralities of this process.

4. Motivation, Mobility and Money: Eritrean Asylum-Seekers engaging in informal, precarious employment opportunities and skill-building activities in Accra, Ghana

Author: Liah Yecalo-Tecle, SOAS/University of London, UK.

The paper draws on primary research concerning Eritrean asylum-seekers in Accra, Ghana and their struggles and successes in seeking, creating and engaging in employment opportunities and skill-building activities. Through the use of semi-structured interviews and employing a snowball-sampling technique across three months, the author was able to capture disclosed attempts, successes and failures with respect to this. Moreover, the Eritrean asylum-seekers in Accra have had to informally institutionalise forms of detecting, coping, resisting and overcoming obstacles which could prevent them from engagements that could provide them with financial and human capital. The mechanisms informally devised include concealment of their asylum-seeker status, networking and knowledge-exchange with people in Accra as well as contacts abroad. Although most employment opportunities presented are precarious, informal and underpaid, many are forced to take it with little to no other option. This is consolidated by their ‘legal limbo’ in Ghana as asylum-seekers, given that the Ghana Refugee Board prohibits asylum-seekers from formally engaging in any work or business activity till their asylum claim is processed and a decision is made upon granting refugee status. Hence, the paper wishes to illuminate the deep structural constraint and the lack of resources and support which propels people to engage, innovate and devise in such conditions. Aside from the formal actors concerned, the Eritrean community in Accra and local Church has provided an informal infrastructure that the Eritrean asylum-seekers can use to build their livelihoods. The paper draws attention to the gap in research and provisions and policy that could strengthen the means by which this specific group of people can survive, provide and even thrive in their circumstance.

5. “When I grow up, I want to be like you”: young men, poverty and aspirational masculinities in contemporary Nairobi

Author: Carolyne Egesa, University of Amsterdam.

Building on recent calls for focus on street-level optimism about life and the world, exemplified in Appadurai’s (2013) concept of ethics of possibility, this paper takes up the question of “aspirational masculinities” among poor young men living in marginalized neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya. For many of these young men, aspirational is the best way to describe their longing for particular forms of manhood, which remain beyond their reach due to economic marginality.  Despite their economic marginality, most men associated ‘proper’ masculinity with hegemonic societal norms, including marriage, provisioning, breadwinning, wealth accumulation, and self-reliance. Perhaps as compensation for their failure to consistently perform such modes of hegemonic masculinity, however, these men articulated strong aspirations for masculinities that embody values of care such as positive emotion, interdependence, relationality, and the rejection of domination and its associated traits. Drawing on examples from 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper attempts to theorize the complex structural, social and individual factors that contribute to the aspirational ‘caring masculinities. We contend that the masculinity aspirations of poor Nairobi youth are complex; fashioned at the crossroads of structural constraints and agentive projects for a good life, and simultaneously supportive and resistive of traditional hegemonic manliness ideals.  Limited and mediated through their location on a peculiar local and global context, these young men’s aspirational masculinities both reflect an objective condition of practical and enduring inequality as well as a deep desire for positive social change.

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