African initiative and enterprise meet on a busy street corner
JOHANNESBURG - It’s a busy day at the “office” for Ghanaian brothers Michael and Samuel Amponsah.
The “office” overheads are cheap and the furniture basic. The two brothers have set up an informal business repairing shoes, belts and other miscellaneous items, as well as sewing and altering garments on a street corner near a busy Randburg intersection in Gauteng, where they work from Monday to Friday.
Today the brothers, who are from Sunyani in Ghana’s Brong-Ahafo Region and have been in South Africa since 1999, are a neighbourhood fixture and make a modest living with life looking promising.
The informal economy is one of the key economic drivers, not just South Africa, but the entire continent, keeping a huge segment of the population engaged, productive and able to support themselves and their families.
They are respected by the locals, with one household nearby providing the brothers with free electricity and another neighbour in the wealthy neighbourhood allowing the brothers to sit under the shade of his trees.
Michael, 44, has a family and three children back in Ghana. His work in South Africa has enabled him to put his two sons through school and they now earn good livings.
“I think I will stay in South Africa for another two years until my daughter has finished school and then I will return home to Ghana because I miss my family so much,” Michael told the African News Agency (ANA).
Ghanaian Michael Amponsah started an informal business in South Africa to support his family back home in Ghana. Mel Frykberg/ANA
But the road to where the Amponsah brothers now are has been hard and full of challenges.
The move to South Africa followed Michael fleeing West Africa and applying for political asylum here.
“I’m a Christian but was expected to take over my uncle’s Sangoma business when he died - under the threat of force. But this clashed with my beliefs which created big problems in the family so I fled,” he explained. .
After arriving in South Africa, Michael Amponsah applied, unsuccessfully, for political asylum over a two-year period. This lack of documentation meant he hasn’t been back to Ghana since 2004 and is only able to speak to his family every Sunday on the phone.
In the interim, as he awaited asylum he was broke and needed to put a roof over his head and food in his mouth so he started using the skills he gained from school back home to earn a living. However, he was robbed within two weeks of arriving in South Africa, with all his meagre belongings taken.
And while the sun is pleasantly warm now and Michael and his younger brother Samuel, 44, save on rent, they are at the mercy of the elements with pouring rain, cold or the beating sun sometimes making working conditions less than ideal.
The brothers are also at the mercy of the local Metro Police who have targeted them regularly over the years for bribes, initially confiscating the goods of their customers if the two brothers refused to pay.
“Now they only ask for us to pay for cooldrinks and then leave us alone,” said Amponsah, as he explained that a truce has been reached.
The Ghanaians have also been subjected to the xenophobia that has sporadically erupted in South Africa over the last few years, with incidents of abuse shouted at them telling them to go home.
But despite their hardships, the Amponsahs are an example of African enterprise in the informal sector, providing hope despite chronic unemployment levels.
A recently released report from the World Resources Institute said informal workers represented 50 to 80 percent of urban employment in the global south, from street vendors and waste pickers to workers manufacturing goods at home – and generate up to half of the GDP outside of agriculture.
The latest working paper in the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” called “Including the Excluded,” revealed how cities in the global south can create policies, legislation and practices that support informal workers while promoting economic productivity and environmental sustainability.
The percentage of informal workers in the urban workforce in Africa is 76 percent and they need to be encouraged and supported, said the report.