New research builds strong case for including informal migrant economies

April 21, 2016
Gloria Lihemo

The informal sector is a major source of income for the urban poor. Migrants play a critical role in the informal economy, yet the importance of their role is often overlooked. Two new studies supported by IDRC seek to address this gap.

Compelling evidence from one project showed that key Southern African economies are missing out by failing to include migrant entrepreneurs in their growth strategy. The project, implemented by a network of Canadian and Africa partners, provided a detailed analysis of businesses owned by cross-border traders in a number of cities, including Cape Town, Johannesburg, Maputo, and Harare. Researchers assessed informal trade dimensions according to gender, perceptions, and challenges of cross-border traders, and their indirect contributions to economies.

In Zimbabwe, migrant traders are seen as an undesirable feature of the city’s landscape. The research, however, demonstrated the contrary: cross-border business generates significant value in terms of employment creation. In February 2015, a major outbreak of violence against immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs in Southern Africa prompted researchers to address the prevailing myths about immigrants in South Africa on television, radio, and newspapers. Findings from the research will be featured on a book titled, Mean Streets - Migration,Xenophobia and Informality in South Africa that will be available later in the year.

In West Africa, young people often migrate from drought-prone rural regions to irrigated areas and cities in search of better livelihoods. Another IDRC-supported project analyzed rural labour markets in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, to understand the activities migrants typically engage in after moving to cities.

The results show that young migrants are better off. Young men tend to be the first to migrate, with parents sending them to bigger cities to find work that will help the family. Young women, meanwhile, often migrate due to marriage. While men benefit from an improved job market and increased economic activity, the market relegates women to less rewarding opportunities both in urban and in rural areas, the study found. 

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