Kusi-Appiah: Covid and transportation in Africa

Andy Kusi-Appiah

by Prof. Kusi-Appiah,

“Informality & Transportation in the age of COVID-19: Is the African city safe?”

by Prof. Kusi-Appiah, QE Scholar, 2019/2020


In spite of the numerous changes worldwide that COVID-19 pandemic has brought in its wake, the transportation system (any transportation system that can be accessed by any citizen) in most urban centres of sub-Saharan Africa has not changed much. People are still using the public transportation system without any modifications. To be clear, the majority of marginalized Ghanaians living in urban centres still use minibuses (aka tro-tro, okada), or other public conveyances to go to work or to the farm, or to transport goods, this includes bicycles and motorbikes as they also play a role in the public domain. When the conveyance is privately owned but anyone in the public can access it, I call that ‘public transportation in the realm of informality.’

The above, which is part of what is commonly known in political-economic circles as the “informal economic system – a system that has persisted over the years to meet the needs of mostly the marginalized in society, requires us to look no further than the system itself to understand how COVID-19 spreads in urban centres of sub-Saharan Africa (Myres, 2020). From Dakar, to Accra, and to Abidjan, and to Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Johannesburg, informality is the way in which urban dwellers operate, and the transportation system is not exempt. It is in these environments that one would encounter transportation systems like the use of carts, bicycles and motorbikes, and even the use of human and animal conveyances (there are people who transport water by foot [aka ‘kakdee’] to their final destinations).

Informality and the African context

Fiege (1990: 990) defines informality as “those actions of economic agents that fail to adhere to the established institutional rules or are denied their protection” (Portes and Haller, 2005: 404). Following Fiege’s (1990) definition, one can surmise that informality is usually discussed within the context of formality; it has to do with laws and regulations mostly put in place by a national government and in favour of market forces (Harris, 2018; Myres, 2011; Hart, 1973). The criteria for identifying an informal system is its ‘ease of entry’, reliance on indigenous resources, family ownership of enterprises, small scale of operation, labour intensive and adapted technology.

Almost all of the above skills are exclusively acquired outside the formal school system, and unregulated and competitive markets (ILO, 1972: 6; Myres, 2011: 72). According to Harris (2018), informality is universal and an important characteristic of urban environments worldwide. However, the informal sector in any region is unique to that region and different from what pertains in any other region. For example, the informal sector in Mzuzu, Malawi, is unique and completely different from informal arrangements in Ottawa, Canada. As recently as September 2018, the sale of cannabis was illegal in Ottawa, punishable by prison terms, but in October 2018, the Canadian federal government legalized its sale, moving it away from the informal sector to the formal sector (Butler et al. 2019).

Informality is shaped by history, legislation or absence of legislation, and the willingness to enforce rules (Harris, 2018; Castells, Benton and Portes, 1989). In sub-Saharan Africa informality is usually the norm, as most government enforcement agencies are weak to begin with (Harris, 2018; Myres, 2011; Konadu-Agyeman, 2001). Here (sub-Saharan Africa that is), there is a strong trend toward what Myres (2011) refer to as ‘informalization’, implying an overall growth in informal activities on the sub-continent (Myres, 2011; Konadu-Agyeman, 2001), with most activities beyond the purview of the state (Meissner and Jacobs, 2016). The rules governing such activities are also informal, but they are well understood and enforced through indigenous practices and norms (Mkandawire, Luginaah and Baxter, 2014). In sub-Saharan Africa, informal/illegal businesses are usually cooped by formal structures through legislation and regulation. Governments make these laws in order to monitor, regulate and tax those businesses which have been brought into the formal fold. However, within the formal sector, ‘informality’ lurks and, for the most part, thrive. With the informal sector spearheading efforts at progress, it is important to interrogate this system to find out ways in which the pandemic can be contained which, we wait for in the roll out of vaccines for everybody.

COVID-19, transportation & the informal economy

During my recent sojourn in Ghana (on the west coast of Africa) in January 2021, I witnessed firsthand, the leading role of the public transportation system in the revival of the Ghanaian economy. Ghanaians do brisk business from dawn to dusk to put food on the tables and a roof over their heads, while relying on public transport systems to bring them to their work places/farms etc., and back home. While COVID-19 remains a threat, people still prefer public transportation (i.e., ‘tro-tro’, packed taxis, mini buses) even though this may expose them to the hazards posed by the pandemic. This is because most urban settlers in Ghana (as well as in Malawi) do not have access to personal cars or cannot afford to ‘charter private transportation’ when they want to travel with their immediate family.

A daily routine of walking/jogging opened my eyes to how easily the pandemic could spread through public transportation. On a daily basis I encountered minibuses and other vehicles transporting citizens to their work places and to the market/farms, and even though most of them wore facemasks, the lack of social distancing in such warm temperatures is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, I noticed that some people were on foot, motorbikes and bicycles, as well as single passenger vehicles. These citizens seemed safe considering that people in such conveyances do practice at least one or more of the pandemic protocols namely hand washing with soap, wearing facemasks, and keeping a safe social distance.

Looking ahead

The good news is that the majority of transactions within urban centres occur within walking distance of work places/farms etc., including local markets, manufacturing campuses, schools and retail outlets within the urban centre. This implies that travel is not always via a public medium. I am envisioning a situation where more people will begin to cultivate the habit of walking to and from their local grocery outlets or markets if it is within a kilometer radius. In this way, it will be easier for citizens to wear their facemasks while practicing social distancing and improving their wellbeing. It is now up to community members to lobby their denizens to stay within their communities where they can do everything within walking distance, for this can minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

We are still supposed to continue our work with those preventive measures because COVID-19 is real and we can only survive it if we do something about our daily routines in the informal economy, because in Ghana (and in Malawi and Zambia), no one can escape the informal sector of the economy – it is the hub of every action in Ghana and COVID-19 is now in the mix.

Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are on the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).

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