The economy of Africa’s cities

When I started out in the 1960s, most of what anthropologists’ knew about African cities came from the Manchester school who worked in Central/Southern Africa, mainly in Northern Rhodesia (which became Zambia and was best known for the Copperbelt). Cities in this region had been largely built and were controlled by white settler regimes. The example of South Africa, where a white working class lobbied effectively to keep down African wages and working conditions, weighed heavily there. Urban areas were considered to belong to the whites, with blacks allowed only temporary sojourn there from their natural homelands in the countryside.

The Manchester anthropologists (Max Gluckman, Bill Epstein, Clyde Mitchell and others) insisted strongly that this normative division was false. An African living in the town was a townsman with urban associations and relations, not a displaced villager. Class politics mattered more than race or traditional culture. This stereotype had been challenged, for example by Philip Mayer working in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; and some West African anthropologists like Michael Banton and Kenneth Little had pointed to very different conditions in that region. But still the Manchester paradigm of “African urbanization” was dominant.

West African cities, by contrast, were built and supplied by Africans who moved freely between them and the countryside. White settlers were largely absent and mines were a relatively small part of the regional economy. A tiny colonial administration relied heavily on self-organized rural regimes for government. Commerce was controlled by European merchants, but their Lebanese counterparts were quite successful in inserting themselves into the import/export trade. The most significant export commodities — cocoa in the Gold Coast (later Ghana) and groundnuts in N. Nigeria and Senegal — were almost exclusively in indigenous hands. This meant that West Africans, even when there were few earlier precedents for urban settlement, largely built these cities, supplying them with housing, transport, food, infrastructure and a wide variety of commercial services including marketplaces where indigenous traders (often women) predominated. Understanding this is a valuable corrective to the implicit notion that anything modern must have been introduced by whites in Africa.

I discovered quite soon that most West Africans could not plan to spend their lives in the city or to treat those lives as being exclusively urban. They tended to grow up in the countryside and, even if they found urban employment, needed rural kin for food supplies and help with marriage, to raise and educate some of their children and to provide support in the event of sickness or worse. It was unsurprising therefore that the migrant workers I knew expected to retire back home. One of my first published papers emphasized how ethnic identity was reinforced by these life cycle considerations, with marriages and funerals as the principal focus of social life in the city. I came to see rural and urban areas as a single field traversed by social networks in all directions. In retrospect, this was a vision of society as essentially translocal, an anticipation of globalisation as it later unfolded, but here mainly within the boundaries of the new nation-state.

I have mentioned that I was never able to complete a monograph based on my urban ethnography. Bizarrely, the only book I produced based on my West African research was The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (1982), a historical survey of the literature originally commissioned by USAID. There are no living people in this account and I probably wouldn’t recognize a millet stalk if it hit me in the face, so my treatment of agriculture is rather abstract. I concluded that the concentration of economic resources by political means in a few primate cities would lead to disaster unless backward agriculture or some other sector generated modern machine capitalism. At much the same time, a friend of mine, Paul Richards was writing Indigenous Agricultural Revolution (1985) based on his ethnography of small farmers in Sierra Leone. he was rightly contemptuous of my ignorance concerning farmers, but my historical analysis proved to be more prophetic than his celebration of their ingenuity. In the course of writing the book, I learned one thing that might help to explain my failure to write an urban ehngoraphy. It now seemed to me that West African cities were not distinctive from the surrounding countryside, but were rather extensions of long-established agrarian societies.

When I graduated to the field of development studies, the picture of West Africa’s cities was just as distorted as one you might get from boorowing a Manchester school perspective. Here the emphasis of the economists was on the new states’ ability to pursue a neo-Keynesian development program. How could ‘we’ (the politicians, bureaucrats and their academic advisers) provide the jobs and other needs of the hordes flocking into the cities at the time? It was assumed that such provision had to come through the bureaucracy and conform to state-made laws. My paper on ‘informal income opportunities and urban employment’ pointed to the wide range of economic activities that were invisible to bureacracy. But even I saw them through a statist lens (“seeing like a state”), hence the term ‘informal’, not regulated by the bureaucracy. At that time I assumed that the bulk of economic progress must come though public and private sector enterprise of a corporate type.

The informal economy was never adequately described or defined, but these days it is commonplace to read assertions that African economies are 70-90% ‘informal’. Certainly the deregulation undertaken over the last three decades of neoliberal economic policies have led to a radical informalization of the world economy, not least in Africa. But to label these activities ‘informal’ is to avoid identifying what they are positively for or how they are organized, by which social principles.

I would say that the last half-century has seen a massive transfer of population to the cities, where most people have been left to generate their own forms of commerce. The informal economy in this sense has been a holding operation allowing many people to survive in the city and some to flourish. Whatever is coming up next will draw to some extent on this sprawling self-organized economic activity. Our task is to find out more about the promising sectors spawned by such a development.

Comments |5|

  • Poverty, despair and mental health issues are ameliorated by informal supports. As you mentioned, more people are sustained in the cities than in the countryside now. As in the US, where i work as social worker, the need to help these troubles is partly met by the informal sector- the question is – what is the role of the philanthropist?

  • What I suggested, for the case of my own original research in Ghana, was that the city was not an adequate source of support for most of its inhabitants, either formally or informally (although whatever support was available was informal).The important ties were those of kinship and marriage and fear of dying alone without any prospect of becoming an ancestor was a powerful reinforcement of those ties.

    Your question about philanthropy threw me a bit, since I think of individuals who have amassed fortunes in western countries and then endow bureaucracies which do good works. Such figures appear in Africa mainly in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with their programs of poverty alleviation. But I would need to think some more about what form the indigenous philanthropist might take in Africa, perhaps that of a ‘big man’ or chief with many dependents.

  • Would a native social service worker necessarily evolve into a big man? e.g. are ethnic nurses and doctors and engineers who help people in rural and city settings given that status? Does it help their work, make them more vulnerable to persecution and envy?

    My thoughts center around a field service professional who can authorize money free of bureaucracy, directly as part of his or her normal involvement with their people? Has such an agent been involved with the people you’ve met? Is this a polyanna idea?