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“If you were to take them away the economies would collapse”: A discussion on informal public transport in Sub-Saharan Africa

Public transport is often seen as a formal system of timetables, regulated networks, and centrally planned infrastructure. However, in many cities across Sub-Saharan Africa, most mass transit needs, including for many of the poorest and most marginalised is provided by what is known as “informal public transport”.

This includes minibuses, motorbikes, sedans, and other vehicles including flat-bed lorries, which are often self-organised and operate outside the official constraints of the local government. Despite being the dominant way populations move around many cities, there is often a lack of knowledge, policy attention and research dedicated to these networks.

The TRANSitions research programme is looking at the nature and scope of the informal public transport across cities in 5 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa – South Africa, Mozambique, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

The HVT programme spoke with members of the research team (Timothy Durant, Vectos; Roger Behrens, University of Cape Town; and Joseph Macarthy and Braima Koroma, Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre) about their project, the nature and importance of informal public transport in Sub-Saharan Africa, and what they have learned so far, with a particular focus on Sierra Leone.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity

HVT: What makes the informal public transport sector so important in these cities? Why do they spring up?

Roger Behrens: I think the short answer is that the passenger modal shares, that tell us how people are travelling, reveal that these informal public transport modes are the dominant way of moving around the city.

So, if you were to take them away, the economies of most Sub-Saharan African cities would collapse. They are absolutely essential to how the economies function, because very often they are able to access areas that other modes can’t.

HVT: What caused you to undertake this specific research? Why these cities?

Roger Behrens: Essentially, the public transport policy discourse in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades has been dominated by Latin American successes in bus rapid transit, particularly the Bogota model (TransMilenio) that was implemented in 2000. Associated with these successes in Latin America was a lobby that began to argue that these types of schemes could be replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa, a concept that has dominated the policy discussion. .

Part of that model was to take the existing informal public operators and essentially bring them into formalised operating companies to the point that they (informal public transport) would be replaced.

Because of this focus, very little policy attention and resources and research was directed towards trying to understand the nature of these informal public transport operations. The policy was suggesting that longer term needs are going to cease to exist, so what is the point of really getting to grips with how they operate now? As a result of that we know relatively little about how big the sector is.

If you were to ask us, how many vehicles are there that are in operation in most cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, we would really struggle to answer that.

It is certainly not a homogenous sector, the more we understand across more contexts, the stronger we will be in terms of formulating robust policy responses.

Timothy Durant: Within the project we are looking at how we can support the sector in order to improve the service levels it provides rather than seeking to replace it. In this way, we acknowledge that there are problems with the sector in terms of the employment conditions that people work under, the safety records, the emissions that come from older and poorly maintained vehicles.

We acknowledge that there are difficulties, but what we are trying to look at is how do we change attitudes and perhaps the policy perspective towards these forms of transport in order that there is investment in improving the services and providing safe and affordable and clean transport overall.

flat bed truck driving on road
Flat-bed trucks are often used as means of transportation

HVT: Looking at Freetown specifically, what opportunities could this research present?

Joseph Macarthy: Informal transport is a major means of mobility in Freetown. It is also an important means of employment, especially for most people that are outside of public sector employment opportunities, and it is a major means of connecting and providing access, especially to low-income groups.

This sector has evolved over time, and it is continuing to evolve and expand, especially because of its flexibility to connect different parts of the city. It has a number of operators and this has broadened over time from merely involving minibuses and taxis, to now include tricycles, otherwise known as Keke’s, and two-wheeler motorbikes which are also known as Okada’s here.

The very essence of our research and why we have engaged in it, is to find the existing knowledge, identify the knowledge gaps and understand how we feed into this to help ensure that informal public transport works effectively for the city of Freetown.

Braima Koroma: Basically, in Freetown there has been very limited data, especially where Informal transport is concerned.

For this project we are looking at producing some baseline data that describes the typical informal transport operations. This we understand to be crucial in understanding how the sector operates and to be able to also contribute to some of the key policy and engagement discussions currently being undertaken with the national and municipal governments. In the case of Freetown, the topography has been an important determining factor for the development of the transport network, so in this constrained environment, finding ways to promote efficient operations is of heightened importance.

HVT: What has stood out to you in your research so far?

Roger Behrens: One of the interesting things for us was that when we searched the literature and when we reviewed it, we had no time limits. We were looking for everything that we could find that had been written and I think our earliest publications dated to the 1970s and the 1980s. What we found was that more than half the publications had been produced in the last five years. So, this is a field that is attracting considerable attention at the present time. I think that policy makers and policy analysts have realised that these informal public transport systems are here to stay, and that they are not going to be easily eradicated.

A second notable finding for us was the unevenness (in the published research); we did some heat mapping of where we were finding prior research and there were some contexts, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, where a considerable amount of prior research has been undertaken. But there were other countries were we literally found nothing. That does show us that certainly the basis for making policy and formulating policy and strategy in certain contexts is being made based on weak existing information.

A third finding was that we found evidence of intense innovation, particularly around the introduction of digital platforms in this space. We are seeing lots of ride-sourcing and cashless fare collection systems and pilots not only bringing some of the international platforms like Uber and Bolt and so on into the local space, but also local entrepreneurs and local developers beginning to develop their own solutions.

HVT: And what comes next for the TRANSITIONS project?

Timothy Durant: Following the completion of the literature review, which led to the publication of the Compendium Report on informal public transport in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the project is now moving in to a second phase involving fieldwork across the five cities of Cape Town, Maputo, Accra, Kumasi and Freetown.

Working with local partners in each city, research will involve: firstly, fuel consumption surveys, to collect the evidence and inform business cases for improved maintenance and new vehicles to help reduce air pollution; secondly, passenger opinion surveys, to understand what existing users value most about the services and which aspects should change; and finally engagement with government and informal public transport industry stakeholders to discuss positive directions and mechanisms for delivering low carbon, affordable and safe mass transit services.

Learn more about Transitions or explore our other projects on our projects database.