Earlier this year, the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation and the SLOCAT Partnership took on the challenge of creating a space for 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 the Global South, particularly in African cities.
In this exercise, we wanted authors to ask themselves, what would happen if we were to consider informal transport an asset (rather than a problem) to accelerate the decarbonisation transition while leaving no one behind? Based on this question we hoped to be able to explore and highlight the role of informal transport in Africa’s transition towards inclusive, sustainable and decarbonised transport.
After a careful selection process, we invited actors from the transport, urban, sustainability and climate sectors to participate in our blog series, which included the following topics:
- Towards Clean, Green Popular Transport by Dr. Jacqueline M. Klopp
- Engaging Informal Transport Operators Key to Accelerating Decarbonisation by Geofrey Ndhogezi (aka Lubyanza)
- The Role of Data in Electrifying Informal Transport by Louise Ribet
- Exploring the Role of Informal Transport in Africa’s Transition Towards Inclusive, Sustainable and Decarbonised Transport by Joseph Ndiritu
- Enhancing the Utility and Sustainability of Popular Transport by Wilma Nchito
- The Potential of Informal Transport to Provide Flexible, Low Carbon Logistics in the Global South by Omolola Madoh Gegeleso
In case you haven’t had time to read them all, in this final blog, we’ll go over the key messages and insights our authors shared with us on how to reimagine the race to zero in Africa. If you missed our introductory blog, we’d like to offer a quick reminder of what informal transport is:
Informal transport (also called paratransit, popular transport, artisanal transport, neighbourhood mobility, amongst other names), describes transport services that are demand-driven, and privately provided. The increasing urban population and expansion in the Global South makes it difficult for public infrastructure and services to keep 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. Informal transport services emerge to meet the demand for cheap, flexible mobility, especially in cities and towns that are often underserved by public transport options. Informal transport services move millions, employ hundreds of thousands, and support the overall economy of cities and countries in the Global South.
So what did we learn from our authors regarding the challenges and opportunities of integrating the informal transport sector into the decarbonization efforts in Africa? What did they agree (and disagree) on? And what innovative perspectives did they offer? Here’s a brief summary:
- Popular transport is not a problem: it’s an asset and the basis for a sustainable mobility transition in African cities
The importance of informal transport services in the African economy, society and urban context is undeniable. Different sources have identified that informal services are an “offspring” of colonial design of cities and transport services in the African region, and that in many African cities, up to 90% of trips are carried out via informal transport. In her blog, Louise Ribet mentions for example, the region of Gauteng, South Africa where 82% of the public transport network is made up of informal minibus taxi routes.
Geofrey Ndhogezi argues that although this sector has been usually sidelined by regulations and handled with coercion by governments, it has long been responsible for providing an essential service, and promises to continue to do so. Jacqueline Klopp suggests that popular transport modes allow cities to generate critical access and employment for a large number of workers. Klopp also reminds us that these services fill gaps created by inadequate investments in public transport, and that informalities that emerge in relation to these systems (e.g. creating ad hoc bus routes, paying bribes to police are not intrinsic characteristics of these systems but produced by state and planning failures in the transport sector.
Louise Ribet mentions that because informal transport makes up the lion’s share of lower-income countries’ urban transport networks, approaches to decarbonization in these economies must be different from strategies in the Global North. Considering the low adoption of electric vehicles in the African region (the share of EV cars across the vehicle market registered less than 0.1% of sales), Wilma Nchito suggests that making improvements to existing buses might be more feasible than manufacturing new electric buses due to budgetary constraints in African countries. Further, Omolola Gegeleso reminds us of opportunities to integrate existing assets in informal freight transport, such as motorcycles and three wheelers, which reduce GHG emissions by approximately 90% compared to conventional freight vehicles.
2. When thinking about decarbonisation of informal transport, a detailed understanding of data-based decision making in the sector is essential
There are numerous avenues to decarbonise informal transport. But how can decision makers know where to begin and what information they should have at hand to develop their strategies?
“If public transport networks in developing cities are to be effectively decarbonised, the question of informal transport electrification should therefore take centre stage” says Louise Ribet regarding the role of data in electrifying informal transport. Although electrification will be essential to this transition, Ribet and Joseph Ndiritu agree that decarbonization is not only about a technology shift. It requires a systemic approach to tackle the complexities of the context in which informal transport operates. Ndiritu argues that decarbonising the informal transport sector in Kenya requires a full understanding of the sector, its limitations, and the needs of workers, operators, and other actors involved in the broader transport ecosystem.
Ribet mentions that unfortunately, in many emerging economies, electrification strategies are being kick-started without a clear view of the transport system as a whole, thus excluding informal transport operations from planning considerations. She suggests that planners and decision makers should be asking themselves at least these questions before even starting to develop strategies and plans for decarbonizing the sector:
- How many informal transport operators currently run a route?
- Which corridors have an oversupply of informal routes?
- How do formal and informal routes overlap?
- Which parts of the network could the formal public transport system be reaching where demand is high but unmet?
- How do fares of informal transport systems compete with formal systems?
- What effect is this having on public transport demand?
It is clear from the different voices in our blog series that solutions for decarbonising the transport sector in the Global South are definitely not “one size fits all”, and that solutions from the Global North won’t necessarily translate into African contexts. Gathering data to provide insights on interactions between formal and informal transport modes will therefore be essential to design appropriate and context-responsive strategies that will adequately address the needs of different stakeholders in each transport ecosystem.
A final insight from Omolola Gegeleso reminds us that an inherent advantage of the informal transport sector is that the vehicles used to provide these services are often operated by their owners, who could contribute data to inform strategies to reduce GHG emissions – if they are involved in planning and monitoring processes.
3. “Nothing about us without us”: a just transition in the transport sector must reflect both users’ and operators’ needs
The existence of informal transport is deeply connected to inequality in the Global South. Rapid urbanisation and population growth, lack of adequate planning, segregated land use, lack of employment options, and lack of road and public transport infrastructure are some of the challenges that directly or indirectly impact informal transport in emerging economies.
It is essential to understand that when we talk about informal transport, we’re talking about livelihoods, workers rights, safety, and access to opportunities. There is an enormous social and economic component that should be considered to ensure no one is left behind when developing transport decarbonisation strategies. This includes not only users of these services, but also the drivers, operators and other parties that depend on the sector and might be affected by policies or strategies if they’re not taken into consideration.
Wilma Nchito emphasises that most people who rely on informal transport live in areas that have limited mobility options. Omolola Gegeleso reminds us that informal transport systems have enhanced the standard of living for millions of people, and improved the rights of individual workers, while Joseph Ndiritu argues that there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure living wages and create better livelihoods for workers, while providing passengers with more affordable (and fairer and more predictable) fares and safer rides.
Geofrey Ndhogezi argues that the majority of informal transport operators are not prepared to face the challenges that come with the transition to electric vehicles, and that many users resist using services that have shifted towards electric mobility. Louise Ribet summed it up by saying “electrifying minibus taxis is not synonymous with more reliable, affordable and convenient public transport,” a reminder that a systemic approach to decarbonising the sector must consider the needs of those who use the system and of those who provide its services.
4. Regulation, governance and policy are critical to accelerating the transition of the informal transport sector towards inclusive sustainable mobility
If anything characterises the informal transport sector, it is the fact that it doesn’t wait for the government to start providing services, developing solutions to challenges, adjusting routes, and adopting new vehicles. Jackie Klopp provides examples of how actors working in informal transport are taking up clean energy innovations from electrification to leveraging technologies to improve operations and service. Geofrey Ndhogezi mentions that innovative mechanisms (such as lease-to-own models and battery swapping operations) have allowed for a significant transition towards electric motorcycles, as exemplified by the Zembo electric boda bodas in Uganda. However, there are still enormous challenges to ensure adequate infrastructure for this transition, in addition to financial, operational and legal security to accelerate it.
Joseph Ndiritu argues that informal transport services are stifled by policies and regulations that do not support the industry’s growth, and that there is a lack of clarity regarding the applicability of government regulations. A lack of clarity regarding government responsibilities directly and indirectly results in a lack of accountability regarding environmental, health or safety impacts that might derive from it. That lack of accountability continues a narrative of problematizing the sector and the operators that provide these essential public services.
Wilma Nchito argues that any regulatory efforts for informal transport should improve levels of service and improve efficiency to reduce negative impacts. Omolola Gegeleso advocates for policymakers to consider promoting the use of informal transport for freight and logistics by issuing regulations for the use of motorcycles and three-wheelers, setting stricter emission standards, and increasing awareness of logistics providers on the optimal use of these modes.
5. Remember the sustainable development benefits of air quality, health and well-being in African cities
Decarbonisation discussions often focus on assessing the emissions reduction potential of different policies. However, in cities in the Global South, where regulations on vehicle use and maintenance are often non-existent, there are a number of sustainable development benefits with transformative potential for the health and wellbeing of users and operators.
Jacqueline Klopp reminds us about the millions of deaths that can be attributed to fine particulate matter from vehicle exhaust and tires. A recent UNICEF study notes that children are at particular risk to air pollution. Joseph Ndiritu recognises that matatu drivers sometimes use adulterated fuel to reduce operation costs, thus increasing air pollution and impacting the health of passengers, transport workers, and people who live near major road networks.
Beyond measuring decarbonisation, highlighting other positive impacts derived from improving fuel quality, vehicle efficiency or electrification is essential to involve potential allies from sectors that can help advance an effective and inclusive transformation of the informal transport sector.
Transforming the way we look at informal transport — from problem to asset, from challenge to opportunity — offers enormous possibilities for an inclusive, just and context-appropriate transition towards sustainable mobility. In the context of an African COP27, we hope these valuable lessons — from the voices of those that are working within the informal transport sector — will be useful for decision makers and practitioners to tap into the full potential of informal transport to generate benefits for our cities, their inhabitants, and our planet.