Pervading Issues Associated with Informality in African Cities - Associate Professor Taibat Lawanson

Interview: “Pervading Issues Associated with Informality in African Cities”

In this Interview, Dr Lawanson provides fresh perceptive on the issues surrounding informal communities in African cities.



My name is Taibat Lawanson, I am Associate Professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos Nigeria, and I lead the Pro-poor development working group and research cluster at the Centre of Excellence in Urbanization and Habitable Cities at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

Current research in this area

My work is focused on urban poverty and informality, sustainable livelihood of the urban poor, environmental justice but particularly in learning from the poor; understanding the agency that the poor brings to urban life and looking for ways formal and informal processes can be linked together for more inclusive, more impactful and sustainable development.

What is the nature of informality in African cities?

“ Once the toga of illegality is removed, we can tap into the opportunities”

Essentially, informality in Africa is the reality of our urban; our cities, our urbanization largely does not correspond to the terminology of “urbanization with industrialization”, people move to the cities to seek a better life. Incidentally informality in most African cities is also a legacy gained from colonialism, in that, in the colonial days there was a dual urban structure where we have the colonial quarters that became government reservation areas and  native quarters (informal, unplanned) which have not been integrated for most part as cities grow. Development planning, physical planning is usually focused on these planned areas while the native quarters were left to develop on their own. Given the aspiration for development of world class cities or the ‘shiny façade’ of urbanization as projected by the neo-liberalism, it has reflected in policy programs and even our understanding of the term ‘Informality’. What makes a settlement informal and what makes another formal? What determines where people live? Who judges?

Many local communities are termed informal but they are just that; local communities.  For example, a place like Makoko was a local fishing village that got exposed because the Third Mainland Bridge was constructed and by virtue of the bridge being constructed, the people became visible and vulnerable, the same thing for Otodo-Gbame community. We give them a toga of informality because they do not align with our western notions of what the urban should be and that’s exactly where the problem is; the fact that we do not recognise the different manifestations of the urban, if we recognise that there are different manifestations of urban, then we are able to provide contextual solutions to the challenges these different manifestations pose. I think that is the challenge for urban researchers to actually seek to understand the wide spectrum of urbanization that we have to deal with and then respond appropriately to each of them.

What are the problems associated with informality?

Informality is not a problem and we need to recognise that it is a different manifestation of the city. We have to understand that people re-create the city to suit their needs and if the public institutions do not respond quickly or recognise the needs and aspirations of these people at that level, they will re-create the city to meet those needs and that is exactly what happens: the scale of urbanization, the scale of local processes, the scale of responses are some of the challenges we face. For example; accessing water for many of those who live in the planned area is relatively easy but for people who live in those informal communities, they access water in variety of ways, some sustainable, others not. But I think there are lessons to be learnt. Cape Town, for example is going through a water crisis, informal methods of accessing water are dominant now, so there are things to be learnt on how local communities live.

What has been the response of governments to addressing informality? Have they worked?

“In Africa, informality is a reality of our urban system”

The issue is government not recognizing that informality is part of the urban system, if our planning rules recognise formal settlements as a norm, then informal settlements are essentially contravening planning regulations and so, planning is able to use the instrument of the law to oppress those living in informality. Evictions are wrong, forced evictions are wrong, it impinges on the human rights of the people; whereas they have the right to housing, they have the right to be where they are. However, developing a city is right, redevelopment is good but the only thing is that the methodologies of achieving that needs to be looked at a little closer. It is important that inclusivity be entrenched in government practices and that the consequences of actions are weighed beforehand. By forceful eviction of a community, you render people homeless, children are impacted, you disrupt their everyday life, their livelihoods and social connections. 

“ Socio-economic status (of a person) is not an indicator of citizenship”

The price of those decisions must be weighed before hand, socio-economic status is not an indicator of citizenship, poverty also is not a crime; if decisions are weighed with these notions in mind then better decisions will be made, if a community is in need of redevelopment, it is important that it is done in a way that people’s right and privileges, and their essential assets are not destroyed and it is important for our laws to reflect the rights of the citizens to be in the urban space. In that space, we need to tweak our planning laws a bit and we need to open up the planning legislation, the planning curriculum to recognise that our cities are not western cities, they are African and we must understand the contextual need of  the cities and respond to them.

Evictions are not good, development is essential, there are a lot of places that needs intervention but those interventions must be done in a professional, ethical and just manner. If people must be displaced, appropriate palliatives and resettlement plans must be in place.

Are there viable substantial economic potential in informal settlings?

For me, the informal community has a lot of potentials; people with so little are able to make do in the city and they are able to develop and provide for themselves. Interestingly, there are a lot of things we can learn from them because due to lack they have been able to recreate the city and provide for their needs in a way that we can learn from. For example, in the provision of urban infrastructure, urban basic services and social networks which are often lacking in our books but this social network is an African thing that can be built upon. Small communities are able to device innovative but small solutions, I know of churches that are converted to schools during the week and that is an effective use of space. Rather than chasing the street vendors out of the way; why not set up street vending zones where the local government can regulate, organize and get some revenue out of their activities. The informal economy is not as unregulated as we think it is but if we give them a form of recognition and control how they operate, we kill two birds with one stone; we provide for them a dignified means of livelihood, we set parameters for them to engage and the local government will be able to get revenue. Even big companies have recognised the potentials in informal community and that is why they have products in small sachets because they recognise the consuming public that has a smaller income still has some purchasing power. For urban researchers, it is important to understand what happens at that scale and see what can be scaled up or what can be integrated with the formal. While the government is doing things at a macro scale, the work of the community at a micro scale is not inconsequential.

Is it necessary to explore alternative ideas in addressing issues relating to informality in African countries? If yes, what alternatives?

I think the way forward is to recognise the agency of the poor and then to understand that the poor have rights and responsibilities in the city. In recognizing the role of the poor in the city and engaging with them in this context, we can have a city that leaves no one behind.

Citation: Lawanson, T. (2018, March 5). Personal Interview, available at

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of the respondent and do not necessarily represent the position of the Centre of Housing Studies.


Interview conducted by Dr. Basirat Oyalowo and Oluwayemisi Soneye



Post Reply