Women and the Informal Economy in Urban Africa:
From the Margins to the Centre

Mary Njeri Kinyanjui

Book Review

In an affluent neighbourhood of Nairobi, an African vegetable vendor uses her mobile phone to contact her Asian-origin woman customer in a high-rise building. The customer lowers a bag attached to a rope to the vegetable vendor who fills the bag with vegetables for the customer. On a street in the central business district of Nairobi, shops owned by businessmen of Asian origin have been sub-divided into stalls and kiosks owned and operated by African informal traders, mostly women.

These two images of women informal traders prompted Mary Njeri Kinyanjui, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, to undertake a study and write a book on women informal garment traders on that street, Taveta Road, in central Nairobi.

This important book begins with a review of the theoretical debates on the informal economy (what the author calls ‘economic informality’) in African cities, and an overview of the history of the relationships between urban planners and the informal economy in Nairobi. These are followed by two chapters on women migrants to Nairobi and mobility (or the lack thereof) of women informal traders within the city. The heart and strength of the book, however, is the case study of women informal garment traders in Taveta Road, including the transformation of the businesses on that road from Asian-owned shops to African-owned stalls and kiosks, the occupation of many of those stalls and kiosks by women, and the role of collective organisations of women in that process. The book concludes with reflections on how conventional urban planning tends to exclude informal workers in general, and women in particular, and why this approach needs to be changed; on why urban planning models inherited from the global North need to be indigenised to reflect the reality of African cities, on African economies, on African models of market activities, and on collective organisation.

An interesting and insightful section of the book focuses on different models of feminism and gender analysis: foreign elite, local elite, and local subaltern (meaning those who are economically and socially excluded or disadvantaged). The author encourages African feminists to integrate women informal workers into their frameworks and analysis. However, the author herself does not sufficiently differentiate between women in this book. The reader is left to assume that when the author refers to ‘women’ she is referring almost exclusively to African women, not to the Asian women who have lived in Kenya for generations. The author doesn’t sufficiently differentiate between what she calls ‘economically informal women’ either. It took this reader sometime to realise that the author’s study and case study focused exclusively on ‘informal women traders’ and, only by reading the author’s biography, that these were informal women traders who sold garments, not fruits and vegetables, crafts, or other products. Also, the author does not mention until p. 92 (out of 123) that the informal women traders featured in the case study are from different socioeconomic backgrounds: some are former formal workers who were laid-off, others have always worked in the informal economy; some hire workers, others do not. Further, the author does not refer to migrant traders until the concluding chapter, and only in passing: and yet tensions between local and migrant traders are common in many African cities.

At several points in the book, the author refers to the fact that city officials and urban planners tend to discriminate against all informal traders, women and men. She attributes this to Kenya’s colonial heritage, the current preoccupation with modernity, and the domination of capitalist elites, often foreign. Also, at several points in the book, the author refers to the discrimination faced by ‘ordinary Africans’, women and men, due to class, race, and ethnicity. However, through much of the book, the author conflates these different axes of discrimination and does not analyse the ways in which they disadvantage male informal traders as well as female informal traders.

The key target audience of the book is urban planners. The author talks about ‘patriarchal’ and ‘masculine’ urban planning ideologies, about ‘European’ and ‘colonial’ urban planning ideologies, and about the domination of capitalists and the interests of formal firms in urban politics, but without clearly stating whether and how these ideologies and interests interact with each other in Nairobi; and which of these ideologies or interests would be most antithetical to the indigenisation of urban planning in African cities.

It is difficult to integrate gender analysis with analysis by class, race, and ethnicity. But this book suggests that it is important to do so because, historically, women migrants to Nairobi have faced barriers due to local gender norms, patriarchal ideology, and foreign capitalist interests; and because, today, women informal traders face barriers that male informal traders face as well as barriers unique to being women.

It is even more difficult to address barriers associated with gender, class, race, and ethnicity, but this book suggests that doing so is possible if women are organised to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. In this case, collective organisation enabled women informal traders to seize the opportunity of moving into the stalls or kiosks on Taveta Road that was created when the Asian shopkeepers moved out due to a mix of economic pressures (increased rents and competition) and urban policies (in support of market stalls). Another lesson, which deserved more emphasis, is that urban planners and municipal officials can and should engage with organisations of informal workers in the process of developing urban plans, regulations, and policies.

In sum, this valuable book tells the story of when and how women informal garment traders occupied stalls along one road in the Central Business District of Nairobi, and sets this case study within a wider historical, cultural, and politicaleconomy context. Its value lies in the detailed case study. And its value is for both those working on the informal economy and those working on gender and development: indeed, on the intersection of these two topics. But the narrative would have been enhanced if the author had highlighted the segmentation within the informal economy, including within informal trade; and the gendered analysis would have been enhanced if the author had more systematically highlighted the disadvantages that all informal traders face, both men and women, because of their class, race, and ethnicity.

© 2015, Martha (Marty) Chen, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Affiliated Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design, USA, and International Coordinator, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) Network

Women and the Informal Economy in Urban Africa  is published by Zed Books
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.2 (2015)