Tourist-Friendly Informality Doesn’t Always Tell the Whole Story

Accra | 03/04/2013 9:34am
Victoria Okoye | Guest Blogger

Within a few generations, the district of Osu has transformed from a traditional Ga settlement as old as Accra itself into a central hub accommodating one of the city’s main tourist destinations. Cantonments Road, locally known as Oxford Street, is Osu’s busiest thoroughfare, throwing the city’s globalization tensions into sharp relief. Space is an economic commodity, and the forces vying for it can be roughly split into the local and the global, the formal and the informal.

The street stretches for some 1.5 kilometers in a long row of restaurants and chop bars, clothing and electronics retailers, boutiques, telcom offices and service centers. Smaller scale, mostly informal enterprises usurp would-be pedestrian walkways and storefront spaces, with semi-permanent kiosks and metal containers outfitted for commercial purposes. Street hawkers and pavement sellers weave throughout, matching their pace with the vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Some of them balance perfectly folded and brightly printed fabric atop their heads. Others, mostly men, wield fresh fish, sandals, wood-carved tables and wide trays of knockoff sunglasses. Unenforced formal planning regulations combined with the ingenuity of street vendors means every spot marks an opportunity for economic gain.

“I’ve been here two years,” says Saratu, who sells women’s dresses along the bright green fence of a construction site on Oxford Street where a multistory building, nearly complete, is going up. Saratu is originally from Wa in the Upper West region of Ghana. In Accra, she sits here in her blue plastic chair hawking dresses that hang, long and flowing, from armless mannequins and the fence itself.

“I just came, and I just put my market here,” she says. She struck a deal with the contractor who allowed her to set up her makeshift shop, and although the location isn’t ideal, business has been relatively good. She’s able to make about 80 Ghana cedis ($43 USD) on a good day without having to pay rent. But this location is also temporary. Within two month’s time, when the construction team finishes its work, the fence will come down and the area will be opened to the public, she explains, and she’ll have to relocate. She is already in negotiations with a local landowner for a spot off the main road; if she can, she would like to re-establish there.

As a tourism, leisure and commercial magnet, Osu attracts not only human traffic, but also new businesses, including informal ones, that hope to profit from its stream of potential customers. People come here to spend money, and Saratu, like many sellers, hopes to profit from that. Oxford Street provides a pleasing tourist experience: The opportunity to haggle and engage with roadside vendors, and buy the same artistic items sold at places like Art Centre, but in a smaller scale, more digestible environment than Circle, or Kaneshie or Makola markets. Because of that, and because of these street vendors, the area continues to thrive with economic opportunity.

Before coming to Oxford Street, Saratu was at Kwame Nkrumah Circle for more than six years, selling even more merchandise out of a container shop. A heavy rainfall that flooded the area two years ago prompted the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) to launch a decongestion exercise in which they evicted scores of shop owners through the demolition of their unauthorized structures. It happened one Sunday night — the AMA, with police officers and firefighters in tow, came after the vendors had closed up shop and gone home. With bulldozers, the officials razed Saratu’s and others’ retail spaces.

“When I came [the next morning],” she says, “the AMA, they came and demolished everything…all of my things – everything.” She had locked up all of her merchandise in that container, like many vendors, so when her store was razed, all of her commercial assets went along with it. Saratu estimates that she lost at least 7,000 Ghana cedis (about $3,780 USD).

For Saratu, a widow and a mother of four whose family couldn’t afford to pay her way into secondary school, selling is a survival strategy. But informal street vendors’ livelihoods can be unstable; without legal protections, they can fall victim to the whims (often politically influenced) of government agencies. For instance, the demolition exercise that destroyed Saratu’s shop was aimed at clearing illegal commercial activity from pedestrian walkways, which was slowing down traffic in one of Accra’s busiest areas. But Saratu had been paying regular annual fees to patrol officials from both the AMA (700 Ghana cedis, or $470 USD) and the Internal Revenue Service (450 Ghana cedis, or $300 USD).

Many of the vendors here say they pay fees to AMA collectors who regularly come around to extract taxes from small-scale shop owners. It’s the only time they ever hear from the AMA, which makes most of them believe that the process represents an agreement that provides them some sort of legal protection to operate in this space.

Alex, who operates a small jewelry and arts shop near Saratu, says it’s through this process that his shop is officially registered with the AMA. It wasn’t hard to get registered, he says. “You go pay … 350, 400 [Ghana cedis ($189, $216 USD)],” he says. “Next year, you pay again.” In addition, he pays rent – three months upfront – to the landowner.

His shop is a red shipping container accented with artwork, sculptures, jewelry and metalwork for sale. It is one of many along Oxford Street, and is part of Ghana’s increasingly ubiquitous kiosk-vendor trend that makes commercial use of locally manufactured shipping containers as workable building structures. Locally sourced, these structures are more affordable than a traditional shop — they come in adjustable sizes, accommodating operators’ limited startup capital. Like the wood kiosks, these containers are constant features of urban informality.

Seventy-year-old Emmanuel, who’s been operating his own container shop further down the street for more than 15 years, transitioned into this occupation from the formal sector. He has employees, and keeps books to track his expenditures and revenues. He says that as long as he and other shop owners pay their annual fees to the AMA and keep the area tidy, the government agencies allow them to operate freely.

Prof. Ohene Sarfoh, an urban development and housing specialist in Accra, points out an important contrast between Circle and Osu: “The container operators around Nkrumah Circle were tolerated until the floods, when they were accused of being the cause of the obstructions of the water course.” In Osu, he points out, the container shops don’t pose that environmental threat.

Saratu says another aspect – the overwhelming presence of tourists and foreigners – provides an additional sense of safety for the street vendors here. “They don’t worry me here. Here is peaceful,” she says. “The AMA doesn’t disturb.”

She says in Circle, Kaneshie Market and Makola Market, everyday she saw street vendors threatened and harassed by AMA officials cracking down on unauthorized activities. Vendors were flogged and their wares were destroyed. “But they know that here, the white men have been coming here. So if [the AMA does] something like this, they will see it,” says Saratu. “That’s why they don’t want to do it here, because here is Oxford Street, so every tourist, they come here. So if they go flog somebody, they beat him, everybody go see. The white people, they go see, they go tell them in their country. So they don’t want that. But if you go to Kaneshie, Circle, Accra, they are flogging people, because you’re selling. But if you don’t sell, how will you eat?”

Less than a year ago, some of the street vendors came together to create the Oxford Street Vendors’ Association. Neither Alex nor Saratu are members, but Emmanuel is. He says the association started as a means of organizing their activities; he boasts of being a member and a leader. The group is now more than 100 members strong, but limited to those with physical shops – not street hawkers, nor those with more impermanent structures, so it excludes the less temporally and physically permanent vendors like Saratu.

For now, the vendors focus on short-term progress – for the association, that means protecting themselves against area boys who might cause havoc, Emmanuel says, and keeping the road, its shoulder and their commercial space clean. (They haven’t engaged with the AMA yet). For Saratu, that means working to upgrade from her current spot at the fence to a container structure in front of a shop, like the one she had at Circle before it was demolished. “I want to have a [container], and be selling there,” she says, smiling with hope. “I’ll do it very nice.”

If she’s lucky and the landlord is willing, she’ll be able to do so, or even build a structure with cement blocks. She would pay rent, which would mean more overhead costs, but she would also be able to carry more merchandise, she says, and could invest in fabrics, clothes and jewelry. Despite her hurdles, she remains hopeful.