Recognising Africa’s true entrepreneurs, for good or ill

Neuwirth says that evidence of similar demolition and relocation in other parts of the continent, doesn’t inspire confidence. For example, in 2010, the government of Luanda, Angola, relocated Roque Santeiro, the city’s largest informal market, to catastrophic results. “Most local residents couldn’t afford to make the twenty five-mile round trip to work at the new market, so unemployment skyrocketed and crime escalated dramatically. Customers also avoided making the lengthy trip to Panguila, the new location, and traders report a steep decline in business.”

He continues that “in almost every city and country, these plans to banish markets from the central streets of the cities bring up the larger issue of what constitutes economic development. In Lagos, where 80% of the working people make their money in [the informal economy], it’s hard to see how Fashola’s plan constitutes anything other than an act of civic suicide. Destroying the positive homegrown entrepreneurial fabric of the city in the name of driving out the criminals and decongesting the roads is a far too broad policy. It hurts legitimate [informal] businesses far more than it hits the criminals.”

In an earlier interview with How we made it in Africa, Yinka Ogunsulire, managing director of Nigeria’s ARM Properties at the time, said that informal trading is likely to remain an important aspect of commerce in most parts of the country for some time to come. “Informal trading thrives well in countries like Nigeria simply because alternatives do not really exist and even where they do, they do not offer the ‘convenience’ that informal street trading offers; such as, bringing commodities directly to people, whether they are in traffic or simply going for a walk. Also, ‘haggling’ or the process of intense negotiations is a cultural norm with most Nigerians, and it will take some time for most people to come to terms with a fixed price regime in formal settings.”

“Our forecast is that the retail sector will steadily become more organised, largely driven by the move by some of the State governments to ban street trading, revitalise city centres and modernise trading standards. This is however unlikely to lead to the complete disappearance of the informal and ‘highly mobile’ markets,” she added.


In Stealth of Nations, Neuwirth does an excellent job of recognising and celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit and business-savvy of Africa’s informal entrepreneurs.Without MBAs and often with very little capital to their disposal, thousands have managed to establish successful enterprises.

Whether street hawkers and chaotic markets should be part of Africa’s future is debatable. However, it is a system that is not going to disappear soon, and until the time that Africa is littered with Western-style shopping malls and drive-through restaurants, informal traders will continue to play a critical role in society.