Household microenterprises in African cities: A conversation with Selina Pasirayi and Rollins Chitika

Jan 24, 2023

“This is kind of a hub, if you will, that’s bringing in goods and services to the wider group of people in the informal settlements. And you can think about anything that you need in your life, in your home. So things to do with food, clothes, anything that you need in your house or maybe maintenance of your house – carpentry works, metal works, hardware. For people that are in the informal settlements, they access all this through the HMEs.”
In this episode, Ademola Omoegun talks to two city-based researchers from the neighbourhood and district economic development domain – Selina Pasirayi (Harare) and Rollins Chitika (Lilongwe) – about the critical role that household microenterprises (HMEs) play in African cities.

Drawing on their research in HarareLilongwe and Lagos, they discuss the centrality of HMEs in the lives of informal settlement residents, the blurring boundaries between formality and informality, challenges around accessing finance and critical infrastructure, and how neighbourhood and district economic development intersects with the seven other domains being explored by ACRC.

Selina Pasirayi leads ACRC’s neighbourhood and district economic development domain research in Harare. With research interests in urban social movements, urban informality and urban development, she has also worked as a practitioner for civil society organisations and NGOs around resilience work, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. 

Rollins Chitika leads ACRC’s neighbourhood and district economic development domain research in Lilongwe. He is a consultant with Equip Consulting Group and has a background in private sector development, project management and research.

Ademola Omoegun is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, working in the neighbourhood and district economic development domain.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Intro Welcome to the African Cities podcast.

Ademola Omoegun Hello. Good afternoon. This is Ademola speaking from Nairobi, Kenya. I’m one of the postdoctoral research fellows at the African Cities Research Consortium, based in The University of Manchester. And just to welcome everyone and it’s a pleasure to be a hosting this podcast today, just to give you a bit of insight into the work that we are doing at the ACRC, specifically in one of the domains, one of eight domains, which I belong to, which is the neighbourhood and district economic development domain. So here with me today, I have two specialists, I’d like to say. So they are city-based specialists. They have a lot of on-the-ground knowledge with regards to the work we’re doing in the neighbourhood and district economic development domain. So what I’ll do is, before I let them introduce themselves, I’ll just give a brief background of what our work in the domain entails. We focus on household microenterprises, what we refer to as HMEs, and the urban spaces in which they work and operate. HMEs basically are informal businesses employing only the entrepreneur and members of their household, for which the home often plays an important role in the activity. So we highlighted a few key sectors of the NDED domain. So three categories are: home-based workers; traders, including street traders, street vendors and market traders selling fresh foods, prepared foods, household goods, among other things; and the third category is wastepickers. So what we aim to achieve in the domain is to look at how these microenterprises, the economic activity within their value chains, asking whether they add value, how they earn incomes, how much and where in the city do they earn from and how their productivity can be increased. And the enterprises and markets that they are engaged in, how they can become more sustainable, both economically and environmentally, and what the impact of the interactions between these microenterprises and larger and more established and stable enterprises, both formal and informal, are. So that was just to give you a brief background of what the work in the domain entails. So just to apologise, I think I’ve taken a bit too much time. So now I’ll give the floor to my two specialists in the room to introduce themselves. Give us a bit of background, tell us about yourself. Tell us about your research experience, your academic background and how you relate to this particular domain and what you will be seeking to achieve. So, just as they say, I would say ‘ladies first’. So Selina, I’d like you to just give us a brief introduction. 

Selina Pasirayi Thank you very much, Ademola. I am a city researcher for Harare for the neighbourhood and district economic development domain. My name is Selina Pasirayi. I have a PhD from the University of Sussex, an MA in Disaster Adaptation and Development from King’s College London, a Masters in Economics and a Bachelors in Economics from the University of Zimbabwe. So that’s my academic background. I am also a practitioner. I have worked for different civil society organisations and NGOs in the areas that are important and covered in this domain. I’ve worked with informal sector employees. I’ve done a lot of resilience work, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction. And my research interests are around urban social movements, around urban informality, urban development, city systems and African urbanism. So this ACRC project is very interesting and appealing to me and I am very honoured to be part of it. Thank you. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much Selina, that was a very encapsulating background. Thank you very much. So I go over to our Lilongwe specialist, that is Rollins. Could you just introduce yourself briefly please. 

Rollins Chitika Thank you Ademola. My name is Rollins Chitika and I am from Lilongwe, Malawi, also a city-based researcher in this domain. A brief of my background. I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Economics and also a Masters degree in Applied Economics and I’ve done a lot of research and also managed a lot of projects in the development space and pretty much looking at private sector development, enterprise development, value chains development, and also investment and finance. And what I find very interesting about my background and the work that we are doing is pretty much looking at the household microenterprises, their behaviour, and linking that to my experience around working with small and medium enterprises and the linkages around that. I’m currently working with a consulting firm called Equip Consulting Group, and pretty much we work with small and medium enterprises. We do a lot of research and in-project management. And yeah, I find a lot of synergies around this. Let me stop there. Thank you. 

Ademola Omoegun Okay. Thank you very much Rollins as well for that very full and interesting introduction and background to your person, especially as it relates to our work in the domain. So very quickly, I’ll go to the second question. So now we’re just going to try to get a bit of a feel of this domain in your two cities, that is Harare and Lilongwe. So I’ll just ask, so from your experience past, previous and presently, so what is the scale, the level or the nature of HMEs? So we just want to get the feel of the nature, the scale, the level of HMEs in Harare, Lilongwe. How important do you think they are? What sort of role do they play in the urban environment? And maybe some of the challenges that they’ve had in the past or challenges that you are aware that they are facing presently. Just give us a bit of an insight into the operations, into the functions of HMEs in your city. So I would go back to Selina.

Selina Pasirayi Thank you very much Ademola. So for HMEs in Harare, I’ll just possibly give a background of the informal sector in Harare, as it were. The 2019 Zimbabwe ZimStat Labour Force Survey estimated that about 2.9 million of the 2.5 million people that are employed aged over 15 years, above 2.2 million, representing about 76%, were in informal employment. So that’s a very huge number, in terms of countrywide statistics. From those statistics, we see that men are comprising 58.3%. So that’s the bulk of the labour force in informal employment are male, with women contributing about 41.6%. So, in terms of the statistics of the gender disaggregation and suggests the overall contribution of the informal economy to the national economy, you can see that it is quite significant. For females, definitely, the informal sector is very interesting because it’s flexible. It gives them flexible working hours, it has low capital outlay and this applies to both genders. The attractiveness of the informal and household HMEs, because of the low barriers to entry, and they also offer, particularly for women, economic independence and enhance their self-esteem. In terms of the HMEs as well, we realise that females also dominate areas around accommodation, food services, retail trade and social work, a bit of financial activity as well. So you see men dominating more technical aspects, such as woodworking, brick making and those activities that require more capital outlay, furniture making. Those activities that are more labour-intensive, but also that require more capital outlay. But we’ve generally seen that the share of men in the informal economy has increased gradually post-2010, while obviously that of women has decreased in recent years. Some of the challenges in the HMEs particularly – sorry I’m using these terms inchangeably – low capital, so these are some of the challenges that people in the sector are facing, limited access to credit, so that has come up, issues of finance, dilapidated critical infrastructure or unavailable critical infrastructure, when you’re looking at your roads and your public access to public services, as it were, that you need. Also since 2005 we’ve had operation Murambatsvina, where you have evictions and demolitions of people’s operating stalls and vending stalls. So this is some of the challenges that I can just think of at the top of my head. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much Selina. It’s interesting you mention operation Murambatsvina, Selina – did I get the pronunciation correctly? Could you guys help me? 

Selina Pasirayi He is Nigerian (laughter). Operation Murambatsvina.

Ademola Omoegun It’s interesting because in the literature actually it comes up a lot in terms of street trader evictions, which are HMEs as well. So, I think, it’s argued to be one of the largest-scale and most intense operations against street traders and informal actors, largely generally in the body of literature. So it’s a notable standpoint in policies and practices towards HMEs, under which street traders, informal traders fall under. So that’s like a key landmark, so it’s interesting you mention that. 

Selina Pasirayi So I was just going to come in and say, so it’s been followed up by other low-scale, lower-scale demolitions or lower-scale evictions. So when we were going through the Covid lockdowns, when you had those Covid lockdowns, there were a bit of small-scale clean-up campaigns and demolitions of different facilities, vendors’ facilities, because of the city’s imaginary aesthetic modernism ideas, where you want the city to look good, but also under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 restrictions and trying to make sure that you are adhering to some public health measures. Of course, most of these policies, you want them to happen when there’s been consultations with the people that are affected or impacted by their effects, but I’m sure we will discuss more. 

Ademola Omoegun So sorry to dwell, like I said, it’s a key landmark in the policy space towards HMEs. If I’m not mistaken, the name Murambatsvina, what does it mean? I think it means “cleaning up filth”. 

Selina Pasirayi It means “cleaning up filth”. But then its official translation was “restoring order”. 

Ademola Omoegun It just goes to show the narratives that underlie some of the policies against these HMEs and the sort of policy environment within which they operate and the challenges that they face. Thank you for that. That’s actually a very interesting example. So Rollins, take us to Lilongwe, just give us a bit of a feel of HME activity. 

Rollins Chitika Sure. Thank you so much. Just to give you a picture, Lilongwe is the capital city of Malawi. And Malawi as a nation, you have around 20% that are in the urban areas and the rest, like 80%, are in the rural areas. And when you go to the urban areas, like in the city, like Lilongwe, you find that over 70% of the people are actually dwelling in the informal areas, in the informal settlements. So that already gives you an idea of how the city is structured. So the small proportion is quite formal and the majority are informal. And that brings me to the point of where the HMEs are very important, the household microenterprises. This is kind of a hub, if you will, that’s bringing in goods and services to the wider group of people in the informal settlements. And you can think about anything that you need in your life, in your home. So things to do with food, clothes, anything that you need in your house or maybe maintenance of your house – carpentry works, metal works, hardware shops. For people that are in the informal settlements, they access all this through the HMEs. Because if you can go to the other side, where the formal towns and city is, it is very different, it’s expensive for them. There are big and formal shops which they cannot afford. So you can see the role that the HMEs are playing in the city of Lilongwe is very critical when it comes to the HMEs. I think your question asked about scale. In terms of scale, these are quite small, but many – they are numerous, they are all over the place. We are talking about a shop or a microenterprise that is controlled and managed by one or two people. And usually these are people that are within the household. These are household members. They would rarely employ another person to come and work in that. And there’s so many dynamics around that. And this could be something that they solely depend on for their livelihoods. Or someone can have an informal employment, where it may be seasonal, but this would be like, if you may call it, a side hustle or something that is complementing to their income. So there are all those dynamics around the HMEs that we are also trying to understand. And when it comes to their nature, I think I hinted a bit about that. But you are talking about a wide range of services and goods. So it could be those that have retail shops, like selling groceries, offering services like hair salons and barbershops, childcare services, and they would either be in their homes. So you can picture a house where you have a window that is like an outlet of the shop. So you have everything inside. So in the morning you just open the window and then you start selling. But there are other HMEs that are operating right in the street, so they would rent a proper shop – may not be that big, but they’re operating in the streets. You have others that are in the open markets. So you have a wide range of these HMEs, when it comes to the scale and also the nature of it. And, like I said, they are quite important. They are playing a critical role to the society, to the informal settlements. Because, for example, let me give you an example: food. If they are bringing in food, you are touching on so many things, because there could be nutrition issues, health issues. And what you are trying to look at is the holistic approach. How can these HMEs, what are the challenges around them? What can be done to improve their operations? And we can touch on a number of things that are linked to these HMEs. Even with the other domains and maybe city of systems. You’re talking about water and maybe electricity and then land. So it’s kind of a hub that is playing a critical role and also has links with, if I may put it, maybe all the domains, but the economic centre of activities is the HMEs. So that’s also the picture that we have pretty much in Lilongwe. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much for that Rollins, and thank you to Selina, to you both for your responses so far, it’s been quite enlightening. So correct me if I’m wrong, I think the population of Lilongwe is about a million. 

Rollins Chitika Yes. 

Ademola Omoegun Slightly less than a million. And Harare is about, I think about 1.5 million, between 1.5 and 2 million, thereabouts?. 

Selina Pasirayi Yes. So there’s been talk about the daytime population as well. And then the overnight population. 

Ademola Omoegun So just a rough estimate, it wasn’t exact. 

Selina Pasirayi Yeah. 

Ademola Omoegun About 1.5, 2 million, thereabouts. Where I’m going to with this point is, I come from Lagos, Nigeria. So similarly as well, we have issues of data, and it cuts across the continent. So even the exact population of Lagos is a subject of contention and the last agreed number was around 20 million, 22 million or thereabouts. And I can say as well categorically that HMEs are abundant, they are numerous and they play a critical role as well. So it would seem from that, that irrespective of the size of the city, probably across, but in many African cities, African urban contexts, HMEs play a critical role in service production, service provision, goods provision, getting access to important products, getting access to food, among other things. So I think the point that I was trying to drive out there, that resonated with me when both of you were speaking, was irrespective of the population, irrespective of the scale of the city, nonetheless, HMEs are actually quite important to the operation and to the lives and livelihoods of a significant number of urban citizens in Africa generally. So it shows the importance of the domain as well. HMEs are things you see on a daily basis. But now when we’ve asked you to begin to look critically at these enterprises as part of this research, so is there anything interesting that you’ve found so far in the field, as you’ve gone to begin to speak directly with these HMEs? Anything particularly interesting so far?  

Rollins Chitika Well there are a number of things that are really coming out from my interactions with HMEs that we’ve talked to. So, just to give you an example, in Lilongwe we have three areas. The first one is called Mchesi in Area 2. This is very close to Old Town. Of course, in the papers, we are saying an area that is close to the city centre, but we call it Old Town. And anyone from Malawi would understand that. But that is close to where you have the centre of economic activities. And then we have Area 23, which is the periphery of the city. And then Kanengo, which is the industrial area, which is kind of the centre of the tobacco industry. And we have HMEs around that, that we are already talking to. But what we found so far is the disconnect between policy and the direction that, the development path that the government is taking. Between the policy and the informal sector – in this case, particularly the HMEs. So what I mean is, when you look at all the programmes and the policies, they are really looking at formalising and also working with formal businesses at whatever scale, could be small, medium or micro. But they’re looking at those businesses that have a registration or are willing to register. They can pay taxes. They can have their production processes standardised by the Malawi Bureau of Standards. But, in reality, that proportion is so small. Our private sector is so small. And yet we cannot run away from the reality that the majority of the HMEs, like I already said, just trying to emphasise the importance of HMEs, the majority are none of that, they are not registered, they are very small. And I think we have to begin to think that how can we link the two? How can we make sure that we put in place measures to also start addressing challenges around HMEs, recognising their importance, or the critical role that they are playing in the economy. So that’s the first thing that we’ve already noted. But secondly I also wanted to say that there are now other services that these HMEs also need, that are kind of formal, but they are required. And it is difficult for them to do that because of their nature of operation. So I’ll give an example, like water. So a water connection to these informal settlements would be something that is very difficult, but is critical. Looking at what they are doing, the nature of businesses and all that, and looking at their skill, one small HME cannot go to Lilongwe Water Board and get connected, you know, it’s just a lot of hassle. It’s almost impossible because of the processes that are around that. But still we have to address things like those. You know, you talk about energy. You talk about road infrastructure in those informal settlements. So we are already seeing that it’s an area that we cannot ignore. We have to find ways that can start addressing these challenges in the informal sector, particularly looking at the HMEs. And this might be unique to the area or unique to the country, unique to the city. But we have to start unpacking that. And this is something that we are already finding interesting by talking to the HMEs, doing key informant interviews with other players in the industry, to try, we are now beginning to think that, what can be done for HMES to make sure that, if we’re talking about development, then we put in place measures that are relevant to that. So maybe let me stop there, and Selina can come in. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much. I think you highlight a key issue when it comes to matters regarding HMEs is the disconnect between policy and reality. So oftentimes policy is quite disconnected from the reality on the ground, so oftentimes, like you said, the policies often are not targeted at these HMEs. And even at times when they are, the policies still don’t address the core issues, the core needs of HMEs, which is a major factor why this domain was set up to begin to gather data, get more information, get more insights into these issues and these challenges, and hopefully be able, based on evidence, to propose more practical and more policies that will bring about, at least a small enhancement of their productivity. So we go back to Selina. The same question. Give us a feel for Harare in terms of, so what have you found interesting, curious, intriguing? What has particularly struck you? 

Selina Pasirayi I don’t know about new, but it’s been very interesting and an enlightening experience and exercise. What has struck me is that HMEs operate in different guises and forms. And as the importance of the informal sector or informal economy, as it gains prominence relative to the national economy, you are seeing the dichotomy between formality and informality becoming blurred, as well as the dichotomy between legal and illegal also becoming blurred. That has been very interesting. I think in terms of the operations of the HMEs themselves, there is an understanding that they work hard and they work long hours, and the profit margins are low in most cases. And there is generally a lack of security. Security from confiscation of their wares, but also security in terms of crime and theft of their wares. I think the issue that you raised about demolitions and evacuations is a very critical issue that needs further interrogation, as far as the HMEs in Harare are concerned, to see whether there are continuities from the operation Murambatsvina, restore order, “clear the filth”, exercise that was done in 2005. Are there continuities or are there discontinuities? In what ways has that impacted or affected or changed the ways that the city authorities or the government, the national government deals with informal traders or small HMEs in that respect? I think some of the issues, we’ve touched on them a bit. But I also think Rollins touched on the issues of poor access to critical infrastructure in public services. I think this also goes down to the city policy towards HMEs. So, in some instances, they don’t think that they should get the public services because they are occupying illegal spaces in the first place. And if the city had the resources, it could clear all that “filth”, as it were. Yeah. So the operating environment is very constricted. There is minimal institutional support in terms access to social security services, and also poor safety standards in some instances where people are making maybe industrial goods in very confined spaces. So I would like to think these are the preliminary findings and thinking around the informal economy and HMEs that are operating in the different areas that we are studying in Harare. But I hope we have more discussion when we have finished and analysed this data, then we can offer a more nuanced explanation of the things that we are finding. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much for that, Selina. I think you touched on an interesting point when you talk in terms of the safety and the security of HMEs. Like I said earlier on, we are one domain and there are eight domains in the consortium looking at different things. So ours is looking at neighbourhood and district economic development. There’s another domain looking at informal settlements, there’s another looking at land connectivity, there’s another one looking at safety and security, which is where I’m going exactly. So the interesting thing, after we’ve engaged with them amongst other domains, is how they conceptualise safety and security. So it’s not just the stereotypical or the standard conceptualisation of safety and security. So they’ve gone as far as looking at safety and security in terms of security of tenure, in terms of the fear of evictions as being a concern for their safety, as being a concern for their security. I think that has a significant connection with our own work, in terms of that fear of evictions that HMEs face, especially those working in public space, like the street traders. So there’s that constant fear of evictions, especially in intolerant policy environments. That just resonated. And as part of the work we’re trying to do at ACRC, so it’s not just working in silos, just in individual domains, but just to give you a full picture and a full insight into the challenges that are faced or that are encountered in African cities. And the major point of ACRC, is to begin to generate evidence-based policymaking, to begin to get evidence that can bring the, hopefully bring about reforms that improve the situation of things and enhance more inclusivity, more sustainability within African urban environments. So thank you for raising that Selina in your response to the last question. So finally, as the last question, I’d like us just to touch upon in this conversation, is so, what would you say that you find most exciting about the ACRC project as a whole? So Rollins would you like to take a start on this?

Rollins Chitika Yeah. I find it very, very important and exciting. The first thing I want to talk about is just coordination. So, like you said, as a domain, one of the eight domains, we are not working in isolation. And there are a lot of linkages and synergies that we’ve identified as we work and that brings us together. So we have to work with people in the informal settlements, in the political settlements, city of systems and health and nutrition, because there are all these linkages to our domain. So, much as it’s such a big project trying to solve complex issues, but you find that coordination is just a necessity, it’s just part of us, and which makes the experience rich, because in the process, you end up being exposed to other areas and learning from a lot of people. And also, just looking at the diversity of skills that are in the teams, in the domains, I think is quite exciting. Like I’ve said, it enriches the experiences as we go along. And, of course, it was good to meet people in person and there was a lot of networking happening here. I think nothing beats in-person meetings. And also one of the things that I also wanted to mention is the connection or balance between practitioners and the academia. You could see that there’s this complementarity, that we’re trying to use our strengths, our core competencies to solve complex issues. And in most cases you find that people in the academia end with publishing things and all that, and those in the industry would also not appreciate the academia side, but there’s a lot of knowledge generated from either side. So we’re seeing knowledge that is being generated in the academia, being taken by the practitioners for application. So there’s all those good things that are happening and I’ve found to be very important. And maybe the last thing I want to talk about, which is quite interesting for me, is the uptake side. So this is not a programme that is looking at research and we talk about policies and these are the changes, but we are also looking at how best can we implement  these recommendations, you know, the practical application of the knowledge that has been generated. So the uptake bit is also quite fascinating for me. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much, Rollins. Over to you, Selina. 

Selina Pasirayi Yeah, it is all that Rollins has said (laughter). Yeah. I think Rollins has touched on some of the most critical aspects of the ACRC project as far as I’m concerned as well. The issues of the practitioner, academics, the nuances around uptake and action-oriented research, and also harnessing expertise from different localities and in different areas of the urban. So that’s been very important to me as well. I think the other issue that I would like to highlight is the issue of scale. So operating from the global and then where you have this global institution that is anchoring the whole project and then drawing down to the national and you’re dealing with the city level, and you’re actually also working at grassroots and community levels and then trying to link that whole chain is very interesting and fascinating, because you’re able to identify problems even within the chain and identify them. So that’s been very interesting about the ACRC as far as I’m concerned. I like the theory of change, which has a political lens as well. So it takes into account the fact that urban politics and national politics ultimately affects the experiences of citizens. Citizens being people that live in the city, loosely translated in this case. So I like that political lens and I like looking at the different systems within the city, having a city of systems approach. I’m also happy about the ACRC project, because it is taking on board issues of safeguarding, which is very important, issues of decolonisation, issues of climate change, and crosscutting issues of gender and social inclusion within its design. So I think that’s my answer, in addition to all that Rollins said.

Ademola Omoegun So thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much to you both for that. I think you’ve virtually said it all. I think from the title of the project, the African Cities Research Consortium, the key word there I find is consortium. So this idea of coalitions, of bringing several groups, several professionals, like Rollins mentioned, both academics, practitioners, even activists on the ground, but exactly on the ground, in African cities already doing the effort. So many members of this consortium have already done significant and important amounts of work, were oftentimes in silos individually. And what this consortium does, is to bring a united platform together, such that we appreciate, we recognise and we bring together these efforts, this expertise, this knowledge, come together and to have a bit more of an impact together as a coalition. So there’s a higher tendency that impact can go further when we come together as the united platform. So powerful coming together, usually typically stronger than just working in smaller, smaller groups. I find that particularly interesting and I believe it’s quite important as well. So fingers crossed, we’ll be able to make at least a significant contribution to transformation and urban reform on the African continent. 

Rollins Chitika Sure. 

Selina Pasirayi Sure. 

Ademola Omoegun Once again, I’d like to thank you both, I’d like to thank Selina, our underground expert in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Rollins, our underground expert in Lilongwe, Malawi. 

Rollins Chitika Thanks for having me. 

Ademola Omoegun Thank you very much for your time. 

Selina Pasirayi You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. 

Rollins Chitika It was a pleasure. 

Ademola Omoegun It was a pleasure as well. Thank you very much. 

Rollins Chitika Thank you. 

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Header photo credit: SimplyCreativePhotography / iStock. Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.

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