Cape Town and Accra Embrace Urban Informality to Help Build More Resilient African Cities

Informal development is an increasingly visible sign of urbanization in the Global South, especially in Africa. Cities as diverse as Accra and Kigali currently count those living in informal settlements at 58% and 79% of their cities’ population, respectively. Yet informality – in physical settlements, transport services, and within the economy – has historically been at best dismissed and at worst marginalized by official policy and planning. Many African metropolises continue to consider informal development as a temporary form to be eradicated, despite evidence showing it to be the primary manifestation of urbanization across the continent.

With support from 100RC, Chief Resilience Officers from the continent are seeking to change that viewpoint. We joined the Cape Town and Accra resilience teams at the International Urban Conference, held 1-3 February 2018 at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. The ACC Conference brought together an eclectic mix of leading urban scholars, policymakers, and practitioners as well as artists from Africa and across the globe, providing a unique opportunity for 100RC to engage with cutting-edge urban research and to learn about innovative practices emerging from different parts of the continent. It also presented the perfect forum for an important dialogue on “Urban Informality and Building a More Inclusive, Resilient African City.”

Already a prominent part of the urban landscape, informality in Sub-Saharan Africa is on the rise. The region’s urban slum population increased from 183.2 million in 2010 to 200.7 million in 2014; on top of that, at least 66% of non-agricultural employment is in the informal sector. The informal economy plays a critical role in providing a safety net in Cape Town, keeping 186,000 people out of poverty – effectively reducing the number of residents living below the poverty line by 5 percent.

Yet informal workers are highly vulnerable, their livelihoods and security often at risk from unexpected man-made or natural disasters, or they may themselves present stresses to city operations. Informal settlements, often excluded from city plans, usually develop in areas prone to physical hazards and risks such as flooding, landslides, traffic accidents, and pollution, and lack access to public services and the city’s basic infrastructure, exacerbating the shocks when those do occur.

At the ACC Conference, the resilience teams from Accra and Cape Town addressed these risks by presenting their experiences of approaching informality differently, and the benefits of doing so. The two cities now recognize the imperative of embracing informality and its complexities as a prerequisite to building resilience, understanding that the informal sector constitutes a significant proportion of each city and possesses qualities that can be leveraged to build resilience.

  • In Cape Town, CRO Craig Kesson and Deputy CRO Gareth Morgan stressed the interdependency between the formal and informal economies. By one estimate, were informal employment to be eliminated, unemployment in the city could increase by up to 11%. Far from a threat, informal businesses could represent a means for the city to address its unemployment challenge. For example, in a city where the average monthly income is 5,000 Rand, informally-employed Capetonians in certain industries like metalworking can earn anywhere from 8,500 to 12,000 Rand per month. This presents an opportunity for the City of Cape Town to focus on initiatives that help grow informal businesses in these industries.
  • Accra CRO Desmond Appiah reflected that in his city, “greater appreciation of the importance of the informal economy is leading to change.” He attributes this shift in part to a new vision coming from the city’s political leadership. Conference attendees didn’t have to take Desmond’s word alone as proof; on the second day of the conference, Mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowah of Accra demonstrated his own commitment on a panel with members from the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor to discuss community-managed profiling and enumeration of informal settlements.

Cape Town and Accra are both currently developing their first-ever Resilience Strategies, and are taking steps to ensure that considerations of informality are fully integrated into the process. One way they are doing so is through meaningful and early engagement with stakeholders in the informal sector. As part of an ambitious engagement plan, the City of Cape Town recently finalized a mass door-to-door household survey in informal settlements. The 11,178 Capetonians surveyed identified crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment as the most critical stresses facing the city, and drought or water shortages and disease outbreak as the most concerning shocks – all invaluable input in the Resilience Strategy development process.

In Accra, months of intensive consultation preceded a decongestion program that moves informal vendors from pavements to concentrated demarcated areas, in an effort to enhance pedestrian mobility and increase economic activity. Resulting in a 35% decrease in waste generated and a 50% decrease in commuting times within the Central Business District, these efforts have a direct impact on three of the city’s main resilience pillars: mobility, flooding and waste, and informality. The city hypothesizes that these efforts have also proven more successful than controversial decongestion programs carried out in the past, due in large part to extensive community engagement. The resilience team is exploring other initiatives that respond to vendors’ preference to pavements over existing demarcated areas, including conducting focus groups with informal vendors.

To better inform city resilience and planning processes, both cities are also taking part in project to bridge knowledge gaps on informality. In collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities, Slum Dwellers International, and the monitoring and evaluation firm ITAD, Cape Town and Accra are testing how community-generated data at the slum level can be utilized within city government. Recommendations and lessons learned from this pilot project will be shared across the 100RC network to help guide other cities in the Global South that seek to leverage and integrate community-collected data on informality into their resilience planning processes.