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close this bookWomen in Informal Sector (Dar Es Salaam University Press, 1995, 46 p.)
close this folderTHE SOCIAL DIMENSION
close this folderThe Limits
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEducation and Time
View the documentMarkets
View the documentWork Burden
View the documentSecurity and Health
View the documentFirewood Collection
View the documentOpen Space Cooking
View the documentBeer Brewing
View the documentFeminization of Poverty


Kasungu (1990:7) has summarized the social conditions in which women in the informal sector work. Whether it is in the rural or in the urban areas the women face almost the same problems. In this subsection we shall look at some of the limiting conditions in which the women find themselves working, hence reducing their productivity and sometimes making it impossible for them to work.

My own experience based on researches and various reports have consistently shown the number of projects and even programmes which were run by women but finally collapsed. What caused them to collapse? We should not blame the women for this, for, in many instances, the causes are external, (beyond their control), or the women were not well prepared to engage themselves in such programmes and or projects.

Education and Time

In whatever sector, form and level it is carried out, the present day informal sector demands skills, labour power and time investment - variables which were not necessarily needed in the barter economic system which women were traditionally involved. The above statement contradicts, to some extent, with child rearing, household chores and other activities, which are traditional roles assigned to women. It also raises the expectation of women whose level of skills and education is not very high. It is wrong and unfair to expect the women to engage in the informal business activities within the framework of cash economy while at the same time they do not have adequate skills to enable them to do so. It is also unfair to expect them to put sufficient time in their businesses while the burden of other respective household chores have not been reduced through redistribution of equal roles/tasks among the members of the family unit.

These days many donor agencies include educational packages in their women’s projects. My own advice has always been that women need prior training in management skills of their prospective programmes or projects otherwise the money spent either on the projects or programmes will just be wasted. Yet there is more to be done in order to rearrange the roles at the household level so as to make them more effective in their businesses. The majority of the women are assisted by their children and not their husbands. After doing their business for the day, they are also compelled to undertake household responsibilities that fall under their respective gender roles.

In the traditional societies, there were other institutions that were specially established to ease the women’s household burden, especially that of looking after the children. Today’s women in the informal sector work with babies on their backs. This may have negative effects on the growth of the children and even add the burden to the women themselves.

Indeed, the informal business run by women with primary school going children has greatly contributed to the rising number of school drop-outs. These children spend most of their time helping their mothers. If this trend continues, it will add to the already growing numbers of illiterates in the country - although in the past Tanzania has been one of the few countries in Africa which had achieved great success in wiping out adult illiteracy.

Because of the aforementioned reasons the performance of women in the informal business is limited. Either they are not performing well, or they choose businesses which can be carried out while at home or near homes. These would more or less fall within the “5ks” syndrome I mentioned above and are within the traditional sex-based division of labour.

Another effect resulting from having little skills or education, is profit-making in the business. Although most of the women’s informal business contribute up to 50 percent of the household budget, most of them are doing badly in business for they make very little profit. They are not making sufficient money to enable them meet even their daily subsistence and then reinvest in the business. A good example comes from Sinza area in Dar es Salaam. Ntukula (1990) reports the example of a woman who borrowed Tshs.500/= from her husband in 1984 to carry out petty business in ice-cream. By 1987 at the time of the research, the capital had only reached Tshs.l000/=. She has only diversified her business to include dry fish and charcoal but she does not make profit at all in such businesses.


Many women’s informal businesses are limited due to lack of markets. This may be related to their lack of education and time as suggested above. In order to establish a marketing network, especially in the craft and production section, women must be aggressive through advertisement and research, things which women in the informal sector do not have time for. The networks established by market women, e.g. in Mwanga, in Kilimanjaro Region, work within the traditional marketing system while the crafts marketing system works within modern marketing system. Arusha offers a good example.

During my research in Arusha in 1988,1 found a group of women at Ngarenaro Catholic Church who had organized themselves as a production unit which produced high quality items such as crafts, table cloths and other decorative items for household use. Yet they had no market for such items - a great bottle net which threatened the existence of the group. This group of women could, for example, have sold their products to the tourist hotels in Arusha. Tourism in the Northern parts of the country is a ready made market for such products. But the women lacked the information and the skills to advertise their products. Modern marketing demands that we do so. People with commodities for sell cannot just sit around and wait for customers to come as they do at the market places.

Work Burden

Women in this sector are overburdened because of their many roles. After working for a whole day they come home so tired and have no leisure time. They cannot even look after themselves properly. As a result some of them often have poor health. My own researches have established that women in the rural settings work for about 14 hours daily serving others. As a result, they hardly read newspapers, new books and magazines related to development (Omari 1987).

The fact that women spend much of their time working for others, means that they never have time to participate in politics both at the community and the national levels. Thus, involvement in the informal business, may be a way of diverting women’s participation in formal politics where social issues related to development are discussed and decision made on the implementation of policies. Many of these policies have lasting effects on women’s development. Yet women have very minimal role, if any, in making decisions due to their involvement in the “important projects” necessary for their survival and “development”.

The multi-faceted roles that women play in the community, have both negative and positive effects to them. On the one hand, it may be a way for them to participate in various developmental activities. On the other hand, they get involved in so many activities that many are unaccomplished.

Security and Health

Women in the informal sector sometimes work in poor and hazardous environments. Below are some of the activities that may affect their health and that of children.

Firewood Collection

In the rural areas, women spend a lot of their time walking and searching for firewood, the only source of energy available for them. With them are the children on their backs. Whether it is a rainy or sunny day it does not make a difference. They have to collect enough firewood for the household energy needs and even for sale if they are involved in informal businesses. There are risks involved in this process. For example, in the forest they may meet snakes; and since they are in the bush and are unshod, a thorn or dried stick may pierce their feet or legs.

Open Space Cooking

The women commonly known as mama ntilie in Dar es Salaam, prepare their food in makeshift houses of cardboard or other hard boards such as cigarette boxes. Generally they cook in open spaces. They sometimes work with their children whom they carry on their backs or place near their cooking places. The smoke and fire itself is a threat to the health of both the mothers and the children.

When preparing doughnuts (maandazi) and rice cakes (vitumbua) or the flat cakes (chapati) they use cooking oil and charcoal along the corridors or verandas of their houses for example in Manzese, Buguruni and Kariakoo. Sometimes the charcoal may produce smoke and burst into flames. If there are children around, it is a great risk to their health. So whatever they do as women, it is a risk to their health.

Beer Brewing

Women who do this business are the most insecure in the whole informal business sector. The nature of the business requires them to bear with all sorts of people, most of them drunkards who use abusive language. They even beat them and refuse to pay for their drinks. Furthermore, the environment for this kind of business is hazardous to health, let alone the fact that some of the local brews are illicit and therefore sold in hidden places and during odd hours. Often this locally brewed stuff is sold at homes or near homes. The children may imitate some of the bad manners from both the customers and their mothers. If the place where the stuff is sold is far from home, the women are at a risk of being beaten, sexually harassed and even raped.

Furthermore, the beer selling business is associated with prostitution. Some people can not understand how one can sell beer without being a prostitute. The labelling theory here applies very much. Thus the women become the target of verbal abuse even if when they are not in the prostitution business. Beer brewing business is dehumanizing indeed. That is why women interviewed in Mlalakuwa, Manzese, Buguruni, Moshi and Mwanga, say that if they had other occupations open to them, they could not have opted for it.

Feminization of Poverty

Researchers and consultants have now found out that issues of children, women and environment are areas which get a lot of money from the funding agencies. Because women have been identified as a poor social group, they deserve all the assistance to alleviate/mitigate their poverty and ultimately improve their wellbeing.

Policy statements have consequently been repeatedly made; programmes have been established; projects have been conceived and planned for; funds and institutions have been established in the name of poor women. However, there is a tendency to overplay this issue and get into “informal sectorism” which Davis (1978) cautioned as the “excessive and uncritical enthusiasm”. We need to go into the root causes of the development of the informal sector among the poor people so as to bring about real development among them by dealing with the root causes rather than treating the symptoms.

We have reached a stage where we cannot talk about development without women (Swantz 1987; Dines 1977). At least people now have realized that women issues are important if any meaningful development is to be realized. However, many people have not critically evaluated whether by promoting women issues in development without at the same time evaluating the linkages of exploitation and oppression (Mbilinyi, 1984) which come in new and different forms in our societies, we are actually addressing the problem correctly. For example, it is fashionable nowadays to have WID offices or women’s desks or even a ministry (as in Tanzania) without considering the competence and ability of those who are supposed to serve the women. Or take another example, have we really examined the mushrooming NGOs in the country, which use the name of poor women in the informal sector as their launching pad and employment bureaux? It is an open secret that some people in the country have established non-governmental organizations for women as old age security system or retirement plans. These are not necessarily for women’s development. Women activities in the informal sector have all the potentialities to continue getting financial support for the next ten to fifteen years after retirement! So a founder of an organization dealing with women’s activities has nothing to worry for his/her future is well secured. Ten years after retirement? Afterall that is the maximum period they expect to live after retirement.

Writing about women’s support in development through taxation Bujra (1990:50) has shown how WID divides women into social classes. Expatriate women join the local women elite through organisations and study groups or networks. But by doing so, they separate themselves from the poor women they came to serve. Both the expatriates and the local women elites use the poor women to meet their own social ends. It is not the poor women who are the beneficiaries but the elite and expatriates.

Women’s activities have also been used as an employment bureaux for men. Since some projects or programmes have technological packages, and since many women lack skills and knowledge in these areas, men are employed to handle them (Omari 1989b). As a result women do not control or manage their projects; men speak on behalf of the women, while at the same time giving priority to their own interests. Women are being used and the informal sector may have been popularized for this reason. No wonder more and more women prefer working on their own rather than joining any organized group in the informal sector (Omari 1989a).

Another aspect of how women’s informal business has been used by opportunistic men comes from the local milk production activities. Mlambiti’s (1985) study on agricultural development in Kilimanjaro region shows how milk production, traditionally the domain of women, has now been taken over by men as a result of commercialization of the product. In many instances men only allow women to carry on with the informal business as long as it is not expanding and remains for household consumption only. Once it is lucrative, and has cash income, it becomes a man’s domain! What a way to transform marriage into an economic project!

At another level, we have an example from pottery. After the introduction of new technology in pottery men are now encroaching on the pottery business which has traditionally been a women’s domain among the Pare (Omari, B. 1975). It is also known that some of those projects and programmes have not originated from the grassroot level. Some people assume that because they have the financial ability, they can introduce informal business projects among the women without seeking their participation at grassroot level or without involving them in deciding what activity should be introduced.

A good example comes from the Southern Highlands where projects for the women were introduced by foreign sponsors without even consulting the women who would have been the beneficiaries. Currently, there are about 140 different women’s groups dealing with informal business in Dar es Salaam. I am not sure whether all these emanated from below or have been superimposed on the women’s groups because of the availability of funds.