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Protecting Africa’s Essential Marketplace Women – The Continent’s Unsung (S)heroes

Gloria Kuoh

Consultant,World Bank's Women, Business and the Law Project

The Dantokpa market in Cotonou, Benin, on 18 February 2016. © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu for Jeune Afrique.
The Dantokpa market in Cotonou, Benin, on 18 February 2016. © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu for Jeune Afrique.

Women in local markets across Africa were the first group that came to my mind as the global crisis hit. What would their work schedule entail and earnings average amid lockdowns and other restrictive measures? How would they implement social distancing in crowded and poorly planned market centers? And, why did it take a pandemic for some to recognize their work as essential?

In sub-Saharan Africa, informal sector workers represent over 70% of the workforce. With labor and employment laws governing the formal sector, only a minority of women on the continent benefit from protections afforded during the pandemic, including sick and other leave policies, health and unemployment insurance benefits, and flexible work arrangements. Unlike some of their essential worker counterparts, local market sellers lack all forms of labor, health, and social protections. Yet, they have no choice but to attempt to generate earnings for their families and provide food to their local communities.

As the pandemic continues to spread, the world is witnessing an increase in existing gender inequalities, especially in the women-dominated formal and informal sectors. Social distancing measures continue to be difficult to implement in local markets where negotiation and other bargaining strategies foster proximity between buyers and sellers. As such, women sellers expose themselves to greater health risks.

Additionally, limited work hours constrain their livelihoods, including those of individuals at the receiving end of the bargain who fear food insecurity. As many buyers gradually refrained from going to local markets, local market women find themselves taking risks that would not generate substantial earnings. Some local market women decided to be innovative by engaging in mobile marketing and selling through WhatsApp.

Such innovative approaches provide temporary fixes. The pandemic has proven that the essential work local market women provide necessitates a closer look at formalizing such business environments to maintain productivity, economic growth, and competitiveness during crises. In developed countries, grocery stores and food chains mobilized to provide their workers with job security and necessary protections while becoming the pillars of the economy as these businesses remained open. Shifting essential informal workers to the formal sector requires an assessment of how labor, health, and social protections could maintain productivity levels during crises.

With the disruption of supply chains, food security in developing countries emerged as one of the priorities issues. Still, the global pandemic failed short of stopping Africa’s most essential food workers from providing for their families and communities. These women rose to the challenge by demonstrating their resilience and ability to adjust to unprecedented challenges despite the lack of protections.

Our next challenge as a global community is to ensure laws, regulations, and social protection measures apply to local market sellers – relentless breadwinners and food providers. The need to provide these protective measures should however not be a top-down approach, but rather one that takes into account the voices and agencies of the market women themselves. Centering their experiences and recommendations will be key to a successful implementation and roll out of any post-COVID19 policies.


Gloria Kuoh is a Consultant for the World Bank's Women, Business and the Law project, where she researches and analyzes legal restrictions on women's employment and entrepreneurship worldwide. Gloria is also the author of various scholarly commentaries published in Oxford University Press International Law in Domestic Courts (ILDC) database and serves as a Professorial Lecturer in Law at the George Washington University Law School.


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