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close this bookWomen in Informal Sector (Dar Es Salaam University Press, 1995, 46 p.)
View the documentA Historical Note
View the documentWhy Women Enter Into The Informal Sector?
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A Historical Note

The idea that the informal sector is the product of the formal sector failure to meet the demands of surplus labour in the urban areas (Leys 1974) cannot be accepted wholly since women’s participation in the sector has been in existence ever since communities began to organize themselves and assign roles and tasks to individuals in society according to sex and age (Omari 1989). Under the barter system, for example, women went to the markets to exchange their farm or non-farm products with other commodities. Normally, the value and price of the commodity was determined by mutual agreement between the seller and the buyer of the produces. For example, in traditional marketing system among the Pare and Shambala societies of North Eastern Tanzania, it was the task of the women to go to the market to do the transaction. Agricultural produces such as bananas, vegetables and milk, were controlled and sold in the market by women. In Mwanga District, handicraft products were the work of women who also dominated the pottery markets. Some of the men in Usangi became rich through the development of pottery business at household level (B. Omari 1975). They sold their produces not only in the local markets, but also to distant markets in Moshi and elsewhere.

However, as the cash economy penetrated the subsistence economy, women begun to develop mechanisms to cope with the changes. They had to find alternatives to enable them play their respective roles better at the household level. Fortman (1982:194) has suggested that:

while money making opportunities for men are expanding, women alternatives seem to be narrowing. Thus they are forced to respond in economic crisis by increasing their economic productivity along the traditional lives.

The traditional economic activities which women have been dealing with at household level can be put under three categories:

(i) Production of food and cash crop.
(ii) Household management, services and care.
(iii) Trade or business.

While the first two categories of activities have been normally carried out within the household compound or vicinity, the third category has involved travelling outside the household. The last category, in the wake of economic changes and stagnation, has involved non-traditional activities such as travelling to distant places for trading purposes. In an earlier research (Omari 1989), found that women in Mwanga, Kilimanjaro region, travelled to Taveta in Kenya, to get commodities for selling in the markets. This involved a trip of about two days, away from home. As a result, many women are overburdened with so many household activities, which, according to the division of labour based on sex, are within their expected roles.

During the period of mass mobilization and awareness creation among various groups of people for the support of the policy of ujamaa and self-reliance in the 1970s, a call was extended to the women to participate in the money economy. The famous statement; “Women do not sit in the economy” Wanawake msikalie uchumi in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a call by the government and Party officials to involve women more and more in the cash economy for they were already involved in numerous economic activities. The women’s power was invoked i order to involve them in the productive sector. It is doubtful, however, whether during this period in Tanzania political history, the leadership group had a clear picture of the role the informal sector was playing in the national economy. It is possible that they were concerned only with women getting more into the formal sector. Even those who joined formal employment, have ended up in the low paying jobs (Meghji 1977; Swantz 1985), primarily due to lack of eduction and skills.

Women’s participation in the informal sector has been closely related to the power structure and power relation in society. Such relations, for instance the call for the women “not to sit on the economy” referred to earlier, may be said to have a multi-dimensional meaning. In Ghana for example, women control the retail business in Kumasi market. One can miss a spare part in downtown stores, which is readily available in the Kumasi market. The late Kwame Nkrumar (then head of state of Ghana) recognized this power the women wielded and successfully used it for political organisation and mobilisation. Similarly the current head of State, Flight Lt. Rawlings has recognized this aspect of women’s power and used it for his populist ends. This is why he is popular among the ordinary people in rural and urban areas.

The call by the Tanzanian politicians that women should not sit on the economy, is also a recognition of the existence of women’s power in controlling the available resources and space. But one may be tempted to ask: was the call a way of giving women independence and freedom or was it merely a political gimmick? Discussing the role of the African women entrepreneur in the society, Simms (1981:160) has concluded that: “The African female entrepreneur holds a critical position in the internal production and distribution of goods and services to the consuming public.” Did the Tanzanian politicians recognize this? If one examines the attitudes of many male politicians towards women, the answer cannot be anything but skeptical.

The economic crisis of the 1980s has forced a number of women into informal businesses. Whether the call by Tanzanian politicians in late 1960s and early 1970s has added impetus to this move, is unclear. But what is clear is that the spontaneous social changes that are taking place in the country have forced women to utilize their creative potentials more positively, often going beyond their traditionally assigned place and role in society. For example, according to the 1978 census, out of a total of 5,223,863 people categorized as self-employed, 2,240,170 (42.88%) were women. Most of them (87.62%) are still involved in household subsistence related informal economic activities, and only 12.38% of the women were engaged in non-subsistence informal economic activities (Kasungu 1990:7).

In her situational analysis of the women in employment, Kasungu (1990:6) categorizes women in the informal sector in three groups. The first category includes women who are waged employment but are also involved in the informal business. The second category is that of “relatively rich women who are in their professions and are highly paid.” The third category includes less educated and poor unskilled women who cannot be employed in the formal sector. Kasungu’s categorization could be improved further to show the class character of the women who, are involved in the informal business as follows.

First, we have housewives and mothers who are at home but bring in income from their informal economic activities, which is twice or thrice that of their husbands/male partners. Secondly, there are employed women who are in the lower ranks and whose income from official employment is insufficient to meet the household minimum requirements. Third, there are the high salaried women who use their offices to run their informal business. These, like their male counterparts, spend most of their time outside the office doing their business. Although according to government regulations, these women are supposed to engage in such activities after office hours, it is difficult to control them because they have shrewdly divided their time between serving their employers and doing informal business. Normally this group of women use their offices as a contact place for their business. (Tripp (1990).

The resulting absenteeism from work places eventually work against women however. For example, it may allow their male bosses to assess them negatively, and hence become an impediment to their promotion (Tripp (1990).

Lastly, there are professional business women who conduct both the informal and formal businesses without experiencing any conflict.

Why Women Enter Into The Informal Sector?

Much of the literature on the informal sector in general, emphasizes on the utilization of the urban surplus labour, (ILO 1972: Shields 1980). According to this view people who migrate into the urban centres searching for jobs in the formal sector find themselves being “jobless.” In order to survive, they enter into the informal sector. For them the informal sector is a transit station before securing “gainful employment in the formal sector.” It is this group of people whom Gutkind (1968, a-b; 1973; 1974) concentrated on and called them the “dispossessed.” The proletarization process in Africa, which has created urban squatters or spontaneous settlements, has created a reserve army of labour. The forces behind such a move are more socio-economic than social. Also, our educational system which does not relate with the available formal jobs in the market, has added to the problem (Ishumi 1983; Shields 1980).

Other reasons why we have a surplus labour engaging in the informal sector include the existing insecurity of jobs in the formal labour market. New technologies that require skills and education of different sorts, put some youths off the formal labour market because of lack of specialized skills. In this group women are the majority since they generally constitute the larger number of those who lack “formal eduction” and the required skills. Shields (1980:47), in her study on labour migration in Tanzania, concluded that the women are better represented in the non-formal sector of the labour market than in the formal sector, partly because most jobs in this sector do not require certification.

Looking at women in Uganda, Obbo (1982:122) has shown that even those who migrated into the urban centres for non-economic reasons do engage in informal business activities.

Even for women who had migrated for non-economic reasons, economic factors became primary... Even in jobs requiring no great skills the women found themselves competing with the men who regard them as a threat

With regard to women, it is a gender issue in relation to the opportunity and freedom accorded to them at household level. There is abundant literature showing how, in a patriarchal society, women are dominated by men in the realms of decision making, economic control and management (Omari and Shayo 1990). It is, therefore, urged that women’s participation in the formal sector gives them the opportunity to manage and control the economic activities and space on their own.

There are two aspects of this statement. There is the idea that since many women are not in the formal sector due to lack of education and skills as stated above, the informal sector gives them a chance to exercise their managerial capacity regardless of whether the activities they are engaged in are legal or illegal.

Studying women’s struggle for economic independence in Africa Obbo (1982:123) observed:

The self employed in the informal sector are often illegal employed, either operating without trading licences, or stretching and bending the laws a little.

And Arizpe (1977) concluded that women in developing countries are the majority in this sector. Aboagye (1958:1) in the JASPA report to the government of Tanzania says that the informal sector employs 40-60 percent of the urban women labour force and contributes 3/4-1/4 of the total urban income. Unfortunately the report does not address the rural sector, where 70-80 percent of the labour force are women and contribute very significantly to the economy of the country.

There is also an interesting idea that the domination over women by men has worked positively among some women for it has enhanced their creativity which, for a long time, has been suppressed through the social structures and institutions created by men (Swantz 1985). Steady (1985:11) presenting a less antagonist feminist view of the role of women in the society says that in traditional African societies the sexual division of labour gave women “a great deal of autonomy and independence.” She even praises polygamous marriages, which, according to her, contributed to the self-reliant ideology among women in traditional African societies. She says:

Ironically polygamy, viewed from some perspectives as oppressive to women, in many ways contributed to the development of this ideology... Patriarchal authority in polygamous families, unlike monogamous families, could therefore be regarded as “limited” rather than absolute; since it could not be exercised over all women on a continuous basis, and men could be viewed as peripheral to each wife/child unit (Steady 1981:16).

The above quotation applies to the rural families where land is still plenty and agricultural based economic activities are practised. The question is: Can we adopt and apply the ideology of self-reliance as a factor behind many women going into the informal sector? If so, can we relate it to the culture of space and control?

Many reports and papers have shown that “independence” and “self-reliance” are the reasons which, among others, force many women to involve themselves in the informal sector (Omari and Koda 1989). In order to show their real independence from men, women sometimes conceal their incomes to their husbands. Nyagwaru (1990:81-82) studying the impact of commercialization of food crops and how this affects the households in Ngara District, has found that women do not only not tell their husbands about their income, but they at times also keep their money with their neighbours.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that getting into the informal sector signifies economic collapse in both the formal sector and the agricultural sector. Livingstone (1986:76) writing about the Kenyan situation, argues that whenever family farm acreage becomes small (hence reducing the demand for family labour), the search for non-farm activities becomes inevitable. Women, as “managers” and “servants” of the household, cannot stay idle while the children and other members of their households are starving or missing their basic needs. Traditionally, women worked in the farm and kitchen to produce and prepare food for the families. Women are expected to perform these traditional roles of producing food even when things get rough in the money economy. Thus as an alternative strategy for survival, they get into the informal sector to do what I have called “important and essential projects.”

This kind of reasoning comes out clearly in many reports and research results done in Tanzania. This implies that if we were economically stronger, then the women would not have got involved in the informal sector. On the contrary, a major premise of our discussion is that women will continue with informal businesses whether the economy improves or not. To be sure, there may be some changes in the categories of activities and intensity of business due to the changes in economy, but as a part of the development of “independence and self-reliance ideology” among the women (Steady 1981), the sector will continue to flourish.

Fourthly, women have been integrated into the world economic system (Steady 1981:11), where many of them cannot compete with men in the formal sector, for education and skills are the key to opportunities (Fortman 1982). Furthermore due to the cultural heritage sustained by the existing division of labour at household level and community at large (Omari and Shayo 1990), women may decide to enter into the informal sector so as to play their respective roles as mothers, housewives and producers. This is also another way of finding adequate “jobs” in the society. It is, therefore, not surprising that this sector is regarded as a major source of future growth by some scholars (Leys 1974).

The participation of women in the informal sector is an index of the social changes now taking place at household and the community levels. It shows the dynamism of the social unit and how its members can adapt to changes either as a response to specific socio-economic situations or as a way of adjusting to the family labour turnover and cycles.

The Class Connotation

Women in the informal sector have been given several names signifying the type of economic activities they are doing or the level of their status in the community. Many of the names are derivative. For example, in Ghana, the market women are called Makola; in Tanzania, especially in Dar es Salaam - the low class women who cook and sell food in open spaces and make-shift shatters are popularly known as mama ntilie. In Yaunde and Gaundere, Cameroun, women display their merchandizes and products under umbrellas along the side walks hence the name, “umbrella women.”

The names attached to these women show a class connotation of the whole sector. Since the business and types of commodities sold in the sector vary in size, women in Tanzania engage in business according to their financial capability and knowledge to handle the business. In this sense, it is both an open and closed sector. There is no specialization and therefore people can get in and move out easily. At the same time, some women may not feel comfortable engaging themselves in certain activities categorized as informal businesses. For example, many women do not like to associate themselves with prostitution and the brewing of illicit beer though these are categorized as informal business by some scholars. However, others feel they have no alternative except to engage themselves in such jobs.

It is also a gender issue. Most of the businesses carried out by women in this sector are within the traditional division of labour based on sex. It is therefore, not surprising that even the international community and agencies tend to favour and support the economic activities of women in Tanzania, which fall under the traditional division of labour. Most of them are within what I have called the “5ks” meaning: Kusuka, Kufuma/Kushona; Kupika, and Kusaga.

Table 1 summarises the economic activities of various women surveyed in Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Kilimanjaro Regions and reveals some interesting social dimensions of women in the informal sector. Some of the upper class women are involved in the export of prawns, horticulture and clothing business. Unlike Kenya, Tanzania does not have strong women groups exporting crafts like those who are in the kiondo business. It is unfortunate that in Tanzania, both men and women lack the most basic business requirements such as viable capital, aggressiveness, and marketing strategies. Only women in the upper class have had an opportunity to get loans from banks.

Table 1: Women in Informal Sector: Their Place in the Society


Category of business

Area of Residence


Selling Flour Mill

Manzese Market

Selling Vegetable

Arusha Market

Selling Charcoal

Manzese, Kagera Dar es Salaam

Selling Cooked Food

Kariakoo, Construction sites in the Urban area

Selling Banana at Market

Moshi, Arusha

Places and Milk

Selling Local Beer

Manzese, Mlalakua

Hair Stylist (Msusi)

Mwenge, Dar es Salaam, Buguruni


Tie and Dye Clothing and retail trade

Dar es Salaam


Dar es Salaam, Arusha

Diary Cows (up to 2)

Dar es Salaam

Food Products like oil and fish

Moshi, Arusha


Diary Cows (up to 10)

Dar es Salaam, Moshi


Arusha, Dar es Salaam



Dar es Salaam, Arusha

Source: Various Reports from the Field 1987-1990

I have purposely left out some of the business that many women are involved in because they didn’t feature much in my researches on women’s small entrepreneurship. This does not however’ mean that they are non-existent. Nevertheless, I would like to classify and comment briefly on the type of local beer sold by poor women in the informal sector. These types of locally brewed beer, many of them brewed at the backyards, have a variety of names. In Dar es Salaam we have the komoni; in Mwanga we have dengelua and puya; in Ngara we have ugwangwa; in Moshi we have mbege and in Mbeya we have kindi, ulamzi and komoni to mention just a few of the locally brewed beers. These types of beer are mainly for the consumption of low class people, both in rural and urban centres.

The link that exists between the classes of women and the formal sector can be discussed very briefly. From Table 1 above, it can be deduced that most of the women are engaged in the service sector which touches the working class. They provide essential services which can not be obtained easily in other places, by ordinary workers.

Nevertheless even the upper class is served by the women who do business activities targeted to low income people. For example, the mama ntilies whose job is to cook simple, but “adequate” food in open spaces of Dar es Salaam, serve people of different classes. When the University of Dar es Salaam introduced the system of providing the students with cash meal allowances in the 1988/89 academic year (instead of providing them with food from University cafeteria), many students bought their meals from the mama ntilies. The students call these cooking stalls “Hiltons” to match with their aspired social class instead of magenge which carries low class status. The food from these stalls is sold at a cheaper price which the students can afford while saving some money for their other accepted needs.

In the urban areas some people do not take their breakfast anywhere else but at the mama ntilies. At construction sites and near the factories, workers get their hot meals from the mama ntilie makeshift “hotels”. At Mwanza harbour, “mama ntilie hotels” serve the passengers who are waiting for the boats to arrive.

The majority of people including those in the middle class, who eat spinach, dough-nuts (maandazi, vitumbua) or flat cakes chapati get their food from the women who prepare them from their houses. These may be prepared from the normal kitchens or along the backyards or corridors. So, workers save time due to the services provided by these women.

The link between this sector, especially as carried out by women, with the formal one can only be observed in the tie-and dye clothing, retail business and the export of horticulture. Locally made products such as baskets, mats and pots, are very often sold at tourist centres and shops. People in Tanzania have not been well organized for export oriented business although there is a great potential. Thus a direct relationship between what women do in the formal and informal sectors needs more research and analysis, focusing on dress making, horticulture and export business, which are emerging now.

One thing which automatically happens among the rural women as a result their informal businesses is networking. While doing research in Kilimanjaro during 1987, I found out that market women in Mwanga town had developed a kind of network with women from the rural and mountainous areas of Ugweno. The network works well among the individuals and is very informal. Friendship and good social relationship between the buyer and the seller become the basis for conducting business, in this case, people go beyond the business relationship (which ends with a transaction) to more socially oriented relationships which last beyond the business transaction.


Most of the women who are engaged in the informal sector, are relatively young. Out of the 300 women surveyed, 100 from Arusha, 100 from Moshi, 80 from Dar es Salaam and 20 from Mwanga; almost three quarters 220 or (73.3%), were of the age group between 18-35. The majority, 160 or (53.3%) were in the 18-30 age group.

The involvement of relatively young women in the informal sector is influenced by type and nature of the activities involved. While doing research in Moshi and Mwanga, old women who were involved in the informal business told me that there are young women who go as far as Taveta to buy items for their businesses. The same happened in Arusha during the time of shortages in 1980s where some of the women travelled to Namanga to buy some items from neighbouring Kenya.

In Dar es Salaam, it was a mixed bag with regard to the age structure. Although many of the young women did their business in market places, selling food items such as maize floor, some of them were selling local beer. Very few upper class(middle class) young women, in fact none in Dar e salaam, did this kind of business. This leads us to the conclusion that those in the middle and upper middle class engage in the informal business activities which involves big capital. Most of the young women do not have enough capital, are poor and have no accessibility to formal financial or lending institutions. It can also be deduced from the field data and observation made that there is a close relationship between age and capital formation among the women in the informal sector. The older the woman, the higher the possibility of being able to carry out the informal business profitably.

But it is not age alone that contributes to the accumulation of capital. Marital status also matters. While the majority (31) among the young women in the informal sector in Manzese and Buguruni in Dar es Salaam (N=48) were either singles or divorcees, the majority of the women in the upper class in Dar es Salaam were married and had support from their husbands in acquiring capital.


Although the usual definition of the concept “informal business” does not regard education as an important variable we maintain that education is essential in any kind of informal business. Among the total number of women surveyed (N=300) the majority (N= 190=63.3%) had primary school education. None in the lower and middle classes had any University education. Only 2(0.66%) upper class women had a University education, all of whom had retired or resigned from government service to carry out their informal businesses.

Inspite of the lack of adequate eduction among many women in the informal sector, they make some profits which enable them to survive, even though the profit obtained in some businesses (less than 1%) is not enough to warrant them to be regarded as businesses at all. These women must acquire some kind of education and skills which will help them run the businesses more profitably.