Informal food retail in Africa’s cities: governance, politics, policy issues


by Danielle Resnick and Evgeniya Anisimova | October 31, 2020

The theme of this year’s UN World Cities Day (October 31) is “Valuing Our Communities and Cities,” which stresses the key role of local urban communities in contributing to keeping people safe and maintaining some economic activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rapid urbanization in Africa south of the Sahara continues to highlight the importance of informal retailers as a source of both food and employment for the urban poor. The most recent Africa Agriculture Status Report emphasizes that, due to demographic and socioeconomic transformation in the region, the center of gravity of Africa’s food system is shifting to urban areas. Informal retailers—including those who vend in open-air wet markets and hawk on pavements and streets—provide a critical link between agricultural producers and consumers. While the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically highlighted the vulnerability of this group, informal traders have long been victims of other public health, economic, and climate shocks. To build the resilience of informal traders and enhance their contributions to urban food security, fundamental governance issues need to be addressed.

A new PIM Synthesis Brief, released just before World Cities Day, summarizes recent research on urban food traders in African cities. The work spanned Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zambia and involved various comparative research methods including analysis of media events data, surveys with traders, and interviews with urban bureaucrats. Read on for key insights and download the brief for more details.

Informal food retailers are an extremely diverse group

As Table 1 shows, Ghanaian cities have a higher share of female traders and of older traders. At the same time, Ghana’s traders are less likely to have completed secondary education or obtained a post-secondary qualification than their counterparts in Nigeria and Zambia. More traders are likely to be migrants in capital cities (Accra and Lusaka) than in smaller cities. For more than 70 percent of food traders in Ghanaian and Nigerian cities, at least one of their parents was a trader, which suggests that working in the informal economy is not always just a coping strategy but often a family tradition.

Table 1: Comparison of trader profiles across African cities

Sources: Compiled from Resnick, Sivasubramanian et al. (2019), Resnick and Sivasubramanian (2020), and Resnick (forthcom-ing). Notes: The Zambian survey focused on all informal traders—of whom food vendors were the majority—while those in Ghana and Nigeria specifically targeted only food vendors. N/A means the question was not asked.


Informal food retailers must navigate complex institutional and legal environments

One of the main challenges for traders is that they are governed by a complex array of institutions and regulations that can be difficult to understand (Figure 1). In Ghana, the formal structures created by the government also overlap with other types of authority, including “market queens” who control the distribution of particular commodities, resolve disputes, manage credit relations, and provide assistance during crisis events. In Zambia, some markets are run by the city councils while others are overseen by market cooperatives.

Figure 1: Institutional landscape for informal food trade in Ghana’s metropolitan assemblies

Source: Resnick and Sivasubramanian (2020)


Capacity constraints in city governments often undermine the implementation of food safety regulations in markets

Substandard water, sanitation, and waste collection is a common challenge in markets across cities, even though many countries have food safety regulations.

Low access to key services can be attributed to multiple factors. First, only a small portion of the revenue collected from markets goes back into markets, and the remainder goes to city coffers to fund broader services. Second, efforts to raise rates among city residents for services that benefit vendors can be met with resistance by wealthier residents who shop at more established supermarkets. Third, city governments may outsource the collection of waste to private contractors and community-based organizations that have dramatically different capacities, equipment, and incentives.

Insufficient city capacity for waste collection is a major hazard for Lusaka markets. Photo: D. Resnick.


Informal traders encounter many different taxes levied by city governments and other types of actors

Although informality is often equated with tax evasion, most informal retailers pay a host of market and licensing fees to their local governments (see Table 1), along with user charges to access toilets and storage facilities. Their informality derives more from their lack of access to formal social protections (including pensions and healthcare) and their lack of registration with certified business authorities. At the same time, within marketplaces, formal businesses may operate among informal traders or employ street hawkers to distribute their goods to consumers along roads and pavements.

Analysis shows that higher concentrations of revenue officers and better provision of services tend to be associated with higher tax compliance. Importantly, traders who are more satisfied with the services they receive have higher trust in their city governments.

Partisan politics permeates informal trade in various ways

Informal vendors frequently are involved in disputes with local governments over rights to public space. Upgrading initiatives may force traders to relocate to inconvenient sites that are far from their established supplier and customer base. The new stalls that emerge in upgraded markets may be too expensive for the poorest traders, pushing them into street hawking.

Since traders are a sizable electoral constituency, they are less likely to face harassment in electoral years. However, outside of election years, other dynamics affect whether they are pushed off the streets by local authorities. An analysis of violence toward vendors in cities in Ghana, Senegal, and Zambia between 2000 and 2016 revealed that three variables play a role: political decentralization (mayors are elected rather than appointed), administrative decentralization (cities have a mandate over informal vending), and the importance of vendors to political parties at the national and municipal levels.

Policy issues

Synthesizing from this PIM research, several policy issues emerge.

First, many African cities lack comprehensive urban food policies. Designing such policies and considering their implications for land-use planning, infrastructure investment, regulation, and human resources would provide a useful focal point for different municipal and metropolitan departments to see how their disparate mandates can contribute to a holistic agenda.

Second, transparency in the collection of revenues from markets and street hawkers is essential. Many traders do not know how their money is used or even if revenue officers remit their funds to the government. Some African countries already allow mobile payments for taxation, and this can be extended to remitting local government revenues.

Third, city governments, civil society groups, and traders’ associations should work to create entry points for traders into urban policymaking processes relevant to their livelihoods. Existing examples include legal advocacy to help street vendors better understand their legal environments, fostering formal contracts between cities and traders, and traders’ scorecards that map service provision deficiencies.

Many international initiatives are giving greater attention to the role of cities in bolstering food security, including the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda and Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which thus far has been signed by mayors of 27 African cities. Such initiatives aim to improve rural-urban linkages, enhance nutrition outcomes, and address environmental sustainability. Yet, as this PIM research on urban traders highlights, the feasibility of attaining these objectives will depend on greater understanding of how food systems intersect with cities’ institutional structures and political dynamics.


Resnick, Danielle. 2020. The politics and governance of informal food retail in urban Africa. PIM Synthesis Brief. October, 2020. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Danielle Resnick is a Senior Research Fellow in the Development Strategy and Governance Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of the Political Economy and Policy Processes research cluster in the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). Evgeniya Anisimova is PIM Communications Manager. 

Research summarized in this brief has been undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by IFPRI and supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund and through bilateral funding agreements.

Banner photo: Kumasi vendors. Carsten ten Brink

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