The booming sound of a honking omnibus and a young man yelling out for commuters at 3 am shakes Marilyn out of her sleepy stupor. She yawns and stretches herself out of bed as she immediately begins preparing to go to the fruit and vegetable market, commonly known as Mbare musika, in Harare. To make ends meet and feed her three children, Marilyn must be at the market to meet with farmers by 5a.m, when the first traces of morning sunlight begin shimmering. After hoarding big bundles of fresh vegetables, she must repack them into smaller bundles in order to realise a profit. As she straps her last born son onto her back, she hopes that the municipal police will not raid the streets today, in busy areas of the city where she sells her commodities. Her friend Susan was unlucky yesterday after she was arrested by overzealous police and thrown into the back of a truck, together with her baby. Perhaps today will be better.
Marilyn’s story is a small glimpse into the everyday struggles of sub-Saharan African women making a living in the informal sector. African women have for long been entrapped in economic situations borne out of structural post-colonial inequalities. The creation of the informal sector was the result of the dual and enclave nature of most African economies inherited at independence. The male-dominated formal sector was secured by state policies and it co-existed with a women-dominated informal economy. The formal economy had and continues to have beneficial linkages to the global economy while the burgeoning informal sector remains consigned to the periphery of development discourse.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines the informal economy as "all economic activities by workers or economic units that are, in law or practice, not sufficiently covered by formal arrangements." This encompasses a wide range of jobs and economic activities with no work-based social protection, from street vending, home-based work, waste picking, domestic work to short-term contract work.
According to the ILO, "in most countries for which data disaggregated by sex are available, the share of women in informal employment in non-agricultural activities outnumbers that of men. In sub-Saharan Africa, 74% of women’s employment (non-agricultural) is informal, in contrast with 61% for men."
In the past decade, statistical surveys confirm a significant increase in women’s informal sector participation, leading to what has been called the ‘feminisation of informal labour'. Critical feminist analyses have argued that the informal economy represents a poverty trap for women, concentrating them in low-skill, low-income activities with little prospect of advancement. Throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, women’s participation in the labour market remains a huge challenge, as they must contend with discriminatory laws and policies, as well as attitudes and institutions that restrict their ability to take part in leadership roles which would otherwise improve their life circumstances. Rising informal economic participation for women has been accompanied by intensification rather than a reversal of gender disparities in income, economic opportunity and burdens of reproductive labour.
Economist John Robertson told me in an interview for openDemocracy that the informal sector is usually opaque, beyond the bounds of regulation, taxation and social protection, so nobody knows the actual value of what they produce.
"The informal sector does generate millions of dollars in revenue but those figures do not function in GDP calculations, everything is pretty much based on estimations. In economic terms, it is difficult to calculate the sector’s contribution to the GDP in terms of exports, revenue or employment," he said.
"The proliferation of women in the informal sector is all really a lack of options, they have no choice. These women have to engage in the informal sector because of the need to survive, but given the choice of decent employment, they would certainly leave this occupation" said Robertson.
Economic experiments gone awry
Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) President Lorraine Sibanda told me that economic structural adjustment programmes spearheaded by Bretton Woods institutions in the 1990s, as a precondition for African governments to access loans, were the major historical cause for the growth of the informal sector.
“It’s important to note that large informal sectors are not unique to Zimbabwe but are also pervasive in most countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The structural adjustment programmes led to massive layoffs which diminished traditional family set-ups where fathers were the breadwinners but now women are driven into the informal economy because of the need to provide their families with basics such as school fees, food, healthcare and rent,” she said.
Sibanda said that government was not only victimising women seeking to survive by clamping down on their micro enterprises but was focusing on irrelevant economic policies that prioritise the relatively minute formal economy.
“Being poor doesn’t mean that one is devoid of thinking ability. It’s time government acknowledges, recognises and accepts that Zimbabwe has a very large informal economy. There is need for consultation and engagement directly with people involved in the informal economy, not just cosmetic consultation to window dress the problem.” .
The ZCIEA estimates that around 70% of street vendors in Zimbabwe are women, most of them widowed, single mothers, homeless or disabled. This sector is at times typified as a breeding ground for criminals, and an area of potential political instability. As a result, most governments and multilateral financial institutions are hardly supportive and have adopted an ambivalent attitude to this sector. Government-led violent reprisals against the informal sector have been witnessed in the past, with the example of Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina or ‘clear out the trash/restore order’ being a case in point.
The globalisation factor
The emergence of global value chains and global supply chains has hugely changed the world of work, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The global organisation of production has afforded self-employed women a great deal of independence but with its own latent downside. For example, informal traders and vendors who sell mobile phone airtime for multinational telecommunication companies are viewed as self-employed workers rather than employees. These telecom companies can then rely on them for market access, while offsetting all risks ranging from occupational health and safety, depressed sales and access to public areas, among others.
Political economist Fantu Cheru argues that the typical African economy is community-based and it represents socio-political entities with their own rules, forms of organisation and internal hierarchies, constituting a node of resistance and defiance against state domination. It also represents a defiance of globalised views of economic activity.
In other words, collectivist principles are more practical for participants, in particular women, in the informal sector as opposed to neoliberal economic policies and Western principles commonly espoused by governments. Paradoxically, this sector has also rapidly adapted to by-products of globalisation such as information communication technologies in the form of the internet, social media and mobile money transfer, including Zimbabwe’s Ecocash system, Tanzania’s Safaricom, Mozambique’s MoWoza and Kenya’s MPESA, among others.
The informal politics of femininity
For women in the informal sector, feminism is not just about challenging male domination but acquiring space and opportunity for better living standards for themselves and their children. They are feminizing the city by sharing spaces, identifying livelihood opportunities and organizing collective action. Academic Mary Kinyanjui aptly puts it that an understanding of the existence of the informal economy must be seen in the context of the desire for self-governance in politics and the economy, that permeated many nationalist struggles against colonialism and concomitant capitalist enterprise.
Identifying and solving the continuum of complex factors defining women’s roles and work in the informal economy remains a conundrum. Issues to do with the power and interests of globalisation, recognition or lack thereof of women in the informal sector by governments, socio-cultural values and practices in African contexts among many others remain relevant in any debate to do with empowerment of women.
For Marilyn and millions of other women caught up in the informal sector for a livelihood, the prospect of realising her full economic potential seems bleak. Only through concerted political engagement with government on the part of women in the informal sector and a radical shift in mindsets with regard to this inescapable area of developing country economies will women be fully empowered.