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close this bookWomen in Informal Sector (Dar Es Salaam University Press, 1995, 46 p.)
close this folderWho Are the Women in the Informal Sector?
View the documentThe Class Connotation
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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.