Geographical Association

Join the GA

The leading subject association for all teachers of geography

Images of Southern Africa - Informal sector

The informal sector

Geographers use the term ‘informal sector’ to refer to work carried out outside the ‘formal’ sector. It includes work such as petty (small-scale) trading, self-employment, casual and irregular work. It is unregulated, relatively labour intensive, exists outside the tax system and is often illegal. Such work is increasing throughout the world.

There are problems associated with using this term: it suggests that all work can be neatly subdivided into either ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, and its use has also encouraged governments and planners to look down on the informal sector thus undervaluing its contribution to a nation’s economy. A less value-laden term, such as parallel traders, is preferred when referring to activities such as that carried out by the woman in the photograph.

Three aspects of the informal sector in South Africa make it unusual. Firstly, it is relatively small when compared with many other developing countries; estimates by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation suggest that globally percentages vary from 20% to 70%. For example, in Kumasi, Ghana, the sector is estimated to be as high as 70% of the workforce; in Lagos, Nigeria, 50% and in Nairobi, Kenya, 44%. The figure for South Africa is around 12%.

Secondly, the South African informal sector is predominantly made up of women. This is a direct consequence of the migration of males into the formal sector, which includes mining. There is also marked gender division in informal activity; with women concentrated in low-profit activities (such as street trading, food preparation, childcare and dressmaking) while more profitable work (such as metal production, wood processing and transport enterprises) tends to have male proprietors.

Thirdly, with the rapid increase in unemployment in South Africa (now estimated to be around 40% of the workforce), informal sector work is increasing as individuals and families struggle to survive.

This woman is selling a variety of fruit in a street in Umtata. She has either obtained the fruit from a market trader or brought it from her village in the early morning. While her returns will be low, the income from the fruit will have a significant value to her. The woman will have carefully chosen this location in order to maximise her sales, perhaps siting herself near a bus or railway station.

The photograph also illustrates an interesting set of graffiti on the wall behind the woman. ‘Save It’ in large letters obviously refers to water and, further along the wall, is the additional exhortation ‘To have H2O is your right but to save water it’s your responsibility’ (see Collecting Water 1 and Collecting Water 2).

Ideas for further exploration:

  • An informal sector exists in every country. Make a list of examples of possible informal sector employment in the UK and compare it with those described above.
  • Arguments can be made both for and against informal sector employment. In a group, set up a role play in which two of you play the woman in the photograph and two others take the role of the Chief of Urban Planning for a city. Argue the case from your own viewpoints and reach a decision as to the value or otherwise of the informal sector to the economy of the city.

<<< back to image menu

Comment on this page

Comments made by GA members appear instantly and don't require security words to be entered - make sure you're logged in!   Guest comments will be sent to a moderator for approval.

GA members can add a profile picture and their comments appear instantly

Join the GA

Please complete all fields

Journals - Free Access for GA Members

The Summer 2014 issue of Primary Geography focuses on 'Cor!' geography, celebrating geography's unique ability to link with every subject in the curriculum and combine this with the subject's awe and wonder

The focus of this issue is 'health geography'. Besides the focus articles it includes many articles that will be useful to teachers planning a new key stage 3 for the autumn.

The Summer 2014 issue of Geography

Online Shop - Up to 30% Discount for all GA Members

Barnaby Bear’s UK and World Map Offer

£23.99 / £15.99 *

Add to basket

SuperSchemes: Investigating Rivers

£14.99 / £9.99 *

Add to basket

United Kingdom Wall Map

£10.99 / £9.99 *

Add to basket

The Everyday Guide to Primary Geography: Story

£15.99 / £10.99 *

Add to basket

Glaciation: Processes and Landforms (DVD)

£61.99 / £50.99 *

Add to basket

SuperSchemes: Barnaby Bear Investigates the World

£14.99 / £9.99 *

Add to basket

Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learn..

£31.99 / £22.99 *

Add to basket

The Alps: Opportunities and Challenges (DVD)

£61.99 / £50.99 *

Add to basket

Countries of the World Wall Map

£10.99 / £9.99 *

Add to basket

Barnaby Bear’s UK Map

£13.99 / £9.99 *

Add to basket
<-- -->

Your shopping basket is empty.

Items in basket 0

Basket Total £0.00

View/Edit Basket

* Applies to Full Personal, Group and
Concessionary members only

Resource Finder

Enter a keyword below or click 'advanced search' for more options


Advanced Search





Resources section
  • Find out more
  • Visit the Discover the World website for geography resources
  • Advertisement: Geography Education at the IOE

© Copyright The Geographical Association 2013

Charity No: 1135148 Company No: 07139068

Website design and development by Ledgard Jepson