Redesigning Urban Markets Post-Covid

Farmer displays her produce at a market in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Suleiman Mbatiah/IPS

By Etta Madete and Carl Manlan
NAIROBI, Nov 16 2020 – Across Africa, even in cities with relatively modern infrastructure, many shoppers prefer the informal markets. In our case, both our mothers preferred the fresh produce sold at informal markets by women from the rural areas.

Thus, in cities as far apart as Nairobi and Abidjan, our mothers took us to buy fruits and vegetables sold by women entrepreneurs in the muddy corners of our neighbourhoods or at the vendors along main roads.

Reminiscing about these weekly visits to the local food market reminded us of the importance of informal traders in our food system. Most of these traders are women. In Abidjan, for example, the “Marché Gouro” run by women controls 97.5 percent of the fresh food supply and in Kenya women make up 80% of all farmers.

The merging of formal and informal markets has worked well in places such as the famous street markets of London or the souks of Marrakech. At a policy level, African governments can build a stronger relationship with informal entrepreneurs to learn from their skills, community engagement and spatial need

As adults, we still frequent the market. The modern indoor supermarkets and malls had most of what we were looking for but lack character and the animated bargaining conversations with the women traders we grew up with.

This holds true for most African countries where the vast majority of consumer spending is in the informal sector even where formal retail markets are well developed.

The informal transactions have an important element of trust – traders often give an extra banana to top up the purchase or simply add another fruit to test for taste. Through these market experiences, we were able to reconnect to our mothers upbringing in rural areas.

Traditionally, the market was the heart of the village and was often surrounded by important community buildings such as the chief’s camp, the healer’s hut, places of worship and even schools.

The design of these traditional bazaar-like markets with small moveable stalls; considered the social nature of both the buyer and seller. This enabled informal interactions that created a bond of trust that made our mothers and now us retain our connection to the women in the farms where the food comes from.

In the modern city, the market is still the centre for trade, and social activities. In Kenya, the informal market accounts for 82% of the retail market sector with the formal markets only capturing 18%.

Unfortunately, open-air markets, where most people buy their food, are increasingly being closed by governments to stop the spread of the coronavirus, leaving, millions across the continent jobless.

Yet, the inherent design of the open-air market is actually the safest way to shop. With proper sanitation methods in place, the natural ventilation and a buyers access to a multitude of shops these markets are safer than indoor malls.

Africa’s population is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, including 60% living in cities. Transforming the market is investing in the 85.8 percent of Africans generating their income in the informal economy. Moreover, improving market access for the women growing 70 percent of Africa’s food.

Yet, despite the rapidly urbanising centres, the working conditions of informal vendors have not improved over time. Now, however, rebuilding after the coronavirus pandemic is a catalyst to redesign our markets with women at the centre.

In Africa, this means embracing the “Soko stall” for both informal and formal markets. We can learn from the food courts and hawkers in Singapore as well as the design of the Souk in Abu Dhabi Central Market combining traditional and modern architecture.

The traditional bazaar structures have character and most importantly are simple and portable. This allows users to move around the city for ease of market access. It is also more equitable as rents and permanent stalls require high monthly costs.

The urban market with social distancing restrictions will take up more space, we can use the space no longer being taken up by cars, such as quiet streets and parking lots to make temporary space for informal vendors. Thus offering citizens safer environments to meet, trade and build communities.

Furthermore coronavirus, health and safety requires hand washing stations to become a permanent feature in the markets. Some traders can be seen already attempting this by having a handwashing station by their stalls, wearing gloves, and distancing themselves from their neighbours.

This is not a mall versus market debate.

The merging of formal and informal markets has worked well in places such as the famous street markets of London or the souks of Marrakech. At a policy level, African governments can build a stronger relationship with informal entrepreneurs to learn from their skills, community engagement and spatial needs.

When the market becomes a public good — just like schools and hospitals — we are reminded that taxpayers’ resources must enable prosperity by being a source of skills development and prevention of diseases when adequate sanitary measures are in place.

Across the world, policies have been unable to quarantine inequalities. As African cities rebuild their economy, the urban market, formal or informal, can be the space that brings people together, creates employment and adds life to the city.


Etta Madete is an architectural designer at BuildX Studio and lecturer (TF) at the University of Nairobi with a passion for design innovation. She is a 2020 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ettamadete.

Carl Manlan, a 2016 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is Chief Operating Officer at the Ecobank Foundation.

They Deserve No Less in Central Sahel

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, Nov 16 2020 (IPS-Partners)

“I am so happy. This is my success!” says 13-year old Cynthia, beaming proudly as she shows her Primary School Certificate with an average mark of 120 out of 150. Thanks to the Radio Education Programme, she will now graduate on to Grade 6! Cynthia’s sense of pride, joy and achievement can only be fully understood when placed in the context of her circumstances. Cynthia is an internally displaced girl, living in Burkina Faso in Central Sahel.

Yasmine Sherif

According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, insecurity and direct attacks on school infrastructure and staff had already forced some 4,000 schools in the Central Sahel to close in early 2020. The impact of COVID-19 further exacerbated this situation, resulting in an estimated 13 million children now out of school across Burkina-Faso, Mali and Niger. The violence of armed conflict first forced Cynthia and her family to flee for their lives, quickly followed by the pandemic.

The result? Cynthia – a young girl already burdened by extreme poverty and gender-inequality – was forced out of school. Yet, she held onto her dreams, had the opportunity to participate in the Radio Education Programme, and now she looks forward to continuing to learn in Grade 6. Cynthia is an inspiration, and her sense of success is testament to the transformative power of delivering education with speed and quality in emergencies and protracted crises.

Empowering Cynthia to surmount the obstacles placed around her was only made possible because donor funds were readily and rapidly disbursable to UN agencies and civil society organizations working with the Ministry of Education. Through pooled investments from Education Cannot Wait, the Ministry of National Education and UNICEF rolled out continuity of learning of 65,000 children by April 2020, with a focus on girls, affected by both armed conflict and COVID-19. Cynthia was one of them.

Oumar, a 17-year-old refugee boy from Mali, now living in Burkina Faso, also succeeded in overcoming the barriers to his education. Due to violence and insecurity in the region, Oumar has been fleeing from refugee camp to refugee camp for the past eight years, while always yearning for some stability to attend school. And then came COVID-19, shattering his last shred of hope.

But today, Oumar has returned to learning! Since June 2020, Education Cannot Wait has provided investments to UNHCR, who together with the government, implements a Radio Education Programme for primary and secondary refugee students. “I now dare to hope again,” says Oumar, who is benefitting from radio-based education just like Cynthia.

Over the past 18 months, Education Cannot Wait has invested almost $30 million in over 20 partners in the areas hardest-hit by the multiple crises confronting girls and boys in the Sahel. These funds are currently reaching over a quarter of a million children and youth. This is possible thanks to continued, generous support from ECW’s 20 strategic donors (see ECW’s Donor Chart below), including recent, top-up support for the Sahel by the United Kingdom and the United States.

But much more needs to be urgently done. The Central Sahel Ministerial Roundtable convened on 20 October 2020, and Education Cannot Wait was invited to join 23 donor partners, who together pledged over US$1.7 billion to Central Sahel. Education Cannot Wait pledged important seed funding to cover one-third of the total budget of its forthcoming Multi-Year Resilience Education Programmes (MYRPs) in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Donor support to close the remaining $94 million funding gap is now a priority for children like Cynthia and Oumar.

The ECW-facilitated joint programmes bridge humanitarian and development efforts in the education sector. Governments in Central Sahel, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations on the ground are ready to work together in delivering holistic, crisis-sensitive, protection-oriented and gender-responsive quality education, with a focus on the most disadvantaged children and youth, especially girls.

However, without full funding, millions of crisis-affected children and youth may never experience feelings of pride, joy and achievement and may never dare to hope again. Instead of learning, they will be even more vulnerable to poverty, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, child labor, recruitment into armed and criminal groups, hunger, trauma and loss of hope. This can all be prevented. These barriers can be surmounted. Cynthia and Oumar have proven this, as have many other resilient girls and boys in the region.

The UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, is currently traveling in the Sahel. She has just visited a girls’ secondary school in Nigeria and met with 300 girls surviving the horrors of Boko Haram. All of them are now learning, achieving and able to fulfill their dreams.

In her opening statement to Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Committee, in September, UN-DSG Amina Mohammed stated: “Education is foundational to all the Sustainable Development Goals, but to advance on the Decade of Action and to recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must step up our efforts to ensure that all girls and boys, including the poorest and most marginalized, are able to complete their primary and secondary education.”

With the Central Sahel Conference, we stepped up our efforts. Now, pledges have to be delivered and education has to be given priority in the allocations. Education Cannot Wait therefore calls on all our strategic donor partners in government and the private sector to fill the $94 million gap for the ECW-facilitated Multi-Year Resilience Education Programmes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Cynthia and Oumar not only yearn for hope and education, but they have worked for it and persevered by surmounting high barriers. They show that it is possible to succeed even in the most difficult circumstances. We must rise together to the challenge, too. The 13 million children and youth in Central Sahel deserve no less from us.


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