Reimagining the Race to Zero in the Global South: Exploring the role of Informal Transport in Africa’s transition towards inclusive, sustainable and decarbonised transport

Informal transport (also commonly known as paratransit) dominates the urban mobility systems of the rapidly growing metropolitan regions of the Global South. In Africa, informal transport modes are known by many names depending on the country or region – boda bodas, motos, okadas, trotros, matatus, kamunys, etc. – but overall, up to 90% of all motorised trips are carried out using informal transport.

Rather than seeing this as a problem, in this monthly blog series we aim to look at informal transport as an asset and an opportunity for an inclusive Race to Zero in the Global South. This blog series will provide examples of how we can rethink business models, governance, regulation and organisation structures, to develop accessible, integrated, inclusive, innovative, bottom-up, and decarbonised mobility solutions for Africa and other countries in the Global South. 

This blog series is a collaboration between the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation and the SLOCAT Partnership with the support of the Agence Française de Développement (AFD).

What would happen if instead of viewing informal transport as a problem, we were to consider it as an asset to accelerate the decarbonisation transition while leaving no one behind? 

Africa is the most rapidly urbanising region in the world. The increasing urban population and expansion moves at a pace that makes it hard for public infrastructure and services to catch up. In the absence of adequate public services, citizens are forced to make do, developing bottom-up solutions to their needs, and the transport sector is no exception to this. Okadas, boda bodas, bajajis, gbakas, kamunys, danfos, matatus, dala dalas. Mini buses, motorcycle taxis, tuk tuks and trucks. These are the mobility solutions that dominate African cities, making the informal transport sector what Daniel Agbiboa calls “a site of indigenous entrepreneurship and creative adaptation”.

The important role of informal transport services in the African economy, society and urban context is undeniable. Different studies have identified that between 80-90% of the region’s motorised trips are carried out via informal transport. These services are demand-driven, privately provided transport modes that emerge to meet the demand for cheap, flexible mobility, especially in cities and towns underserved by public transport options. They move millions, employ hundreds of thousands, and support the region’s overall economy. 

However, there has been a historical tendency to ignore, or more often, to ban and eliminate informal transport. This is a missed opportunity. Instead of eradicating this type of transport, we can leverage its advantages – e.g flexibility, accessibility, rapid adaptability, etc – to develop short and mid-term integrated, decarbonised, inclusive and innovative mobility solutions for Africa and other countries in the Global South. 

The transport sector in Africa has numerous challenges. The great majority of the region’s poorest households have no access to a private vehicle and therefore mainly walk or depend on informal transport for their daily commutes. Additionally, the region has the highest road traffic fatality rate in the world. Greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector continue to rise. Even though most of the motorised trips are made via informal transport, this sector is not contemplated in countries’ NDCs, nor is there detailed data or knowledge regarding the emissions associated with the sector. We have no clear sense of its potential for emissions reductions that could contribute to national and global climate goals. Finally, it has been clear that large scale public transport infrastructure efforts being made in the region, such as Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRTs), have been partially successful at best. These systems cannot adequately substitute informal transport. They are unable to provide unlimited access or solve all users’ mobility needs, particularly those who are the most vulnerable and live in underserved, impoverished communities. 

Target 11.2 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 on cities and human settlements states that by 2030, we should “provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons”. 

Considering the reality of African cities, their high levels of complexity and informality, rather than seeing a problem, we see an opportunity to rethink how SDG 11 can be achieved in a Global South context. Rather than attempting to substitute or eliminate informal transport, what would happen if we could re-imagine what the expansion of the public transport network could look like in African cities, through multi-modality and innovative business models that integrate and work together with informal transport? 

In this blog series, the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation and the SLOCAT Partnership come together to feature new and leading voices who are thinking about how we can recruit, work with, and reimagine the informal transport sector and informal transport services to address the climate crisis in African cities, shedding light on innovative and inclusive ways of reimagining the climate-transport transition and the role informal transport can play in it

We will invite different actors from the transport, urban, sustainability and climate sectors to participate in our blog series, writing about topics such as: policy innovation and good practices for integrating and complementing informal transport to other transport modes and systems; opportunities for informal transport in climate action; improving gender inclusion and equality in the sector, and how tech or business model innovations can make informal transport safer, more agile, and easier to access for users.

We are eager to share these findings with you and hope to catch you on our next posts, which will be published monthly between May and August 2022! 

Interested in participating in the blog series? Please fill out this form before April 22 and we will get back to you with further details. We are pleased to offer a modest writers fee. 

About the Author – Andrea San Gil León is an Environmental Engineer specializing on sustainability policy, urban sustainability and sustainable transport. She is the Founder of the Center for Urban Sustainability in Costa Rica, and Co-Founder of Agile City Partners and the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation. She is passionate about making cities better places not only for people, but also for nature and climate. In her free time she loves to cycle, make music, read, do yoga and take walks in the park with her dog, Lechu.