In many cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal economy is larger and more dynamic than the formal economy. In Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso, for example, the informal sector accounts for over 80% of non-agricultural employment.
Yet, in many African cities, government policies discriminate against these workers. For example, street vendors and waste collectors are often banned from using public spaces. They may even suffer harassment from government officials.
Yet they play a central role in increasing the resilience of the city. Waste pickers recycle large amount of material, reducing pollution and maintain city cleanliness. This helps prevent diseases, particularly those spread by bacteria, insects and vermin that might otherwise feed or breed on garbage. Street vendors play a critical role in providing and producing food, particularly to poor people living in urban areas.
The informal economy is not perfect. Informality creates risks for consumers and workers. A lack of state oversight makes it difficult to enforce regulation, such as water treatment standards. Waste pickers in particular face severe health risks due to their work. Informal housing is often in hazard prone parts of the city.
But there can be little doubt that informal service provision or informal livelihoods are better than none at all.
Successful strategies to reduce risk therefore need to be developed in collaboration with informal workers in sectors such as food, water, housing and solid waste management. Similarly, partnerships with communities living in informal settlements can ensure that the voices of vulnerable urban residents are heard, and their needs are addressed.