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WOMEN'S WORK IN THE INFORMAL SECTOR:
A ZAMBIAN CASE STUDY
Department of Sociology
University of California, San Diego
Working Paper #03
Abstract: This article examines women's occupational careers and socioeconomic
adjustment in Lusaka, Zambia, an area marked by high rates of urban migration
and restricted opportunities for formal employment among women. The exclu-
sion of women by virtue of education and opportunity from the urban wage labor
force has resulted in the creation of alternative occupational options in the
informal sector, including self-employment as petty traders, craft producers,
and small entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial activities initiated by unemployed
squatter women in the city are usually intended to fulfill economic needs on
a temporary basis and reflect a. pattern of commercialization of "traditional"
skills. An in-depth analysis of these women's socioeconomic adaptations in
the Zambian case suggests an important conceptual link between urban and rural
development processes and emphasizes the necessity for policy planning that
takes into account the short-term entrepreneurial options that migrant women
generate in the urban context.
About the Author: Bennetta Jules-Rosette is associate professor of sociology
at the University of California, San Diego, with research interests in urban
migration, African religion, African art, cultural change, and women's studies.
She has conducted field research in Zambia, Zaire, and the Ivory Coast spon-
sored by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for Hu-
manities. Her major books include: Symbols of Change, The New Religions of
Africa, A Paradigm for Looking, and African Apostles.
Partial support for the Working Paper series provided by the Ford Foundation
and a Title XII University Strengthening Grant.
Copyright 1982, MSU Board of Trustees
The barriers to women's participation in the Zambian wage labor sector
have resulted in creative occupational alternatives. For many women, these
options entail employment as petty traders, craft producers, and small
entrepreneurs. These employment options must be seen in the context of
rural-urban migration patterns and a holistic perspective on urban women's
career patterns in both settings. As of 1975, Zambian Labor Exchange fig-
ures listed 45 percent of Lusaka's adult female population as unemployed
and seeking formal sector jobs.1 Census figures compiled for Zambian
rural and urban areas as of 1970 show a labor force participation rate of
71.2 percent for African men and 28.8 percent for women of all ethnicities.2
These figures call into question the long-term economic benefits of de-
velopment and modernity for Zambian women, particularly women residing in
urban areas. It may be argued that certain types of technoeconomic devel-
opment actually destroy rather than improve the living conditions of the
masses of African women who have limited access to educational opportun-
ities. Recently, the relative decline of the position of women and their
increasing marginalization as a result of national economic development has
been well documented (Boserup, 1970; Remy, 1975; and Mullings, 1976).
Blumberg (1979:448) cogently asserts that "the combination of macroeconomic
trends and internal development policies seems to have magnified existing
class, regional and or sexual inequalities."
Urban Zambia offers no exception to this trend. By virtue of both edu-
cation and employment restrictions, Zambian women were historically barred
from the wage labor force under colonialism and were legally prevented from
establishing their own stable residences in town. The restriction of
women's physical movements and legal migration was typical of central and
southern Africa generally (cf. Pons, 1956; Minon, 1960). Colonial mining
and industrial concerns required the labor of men, not women, and fostered
patterns of forced migration that converted male villagers into a wage
labor pool from which women were excluded on both the levels of work and of
humanistic concern. Self-employment thus emerged as a means of urban eco-
nomic adjustment and survival among women.
West African data strongly corroborate the Zambian findings (cf. Van
Allen, 1974:60-67). Margaret Peil's (1972:36) study of Ghanaian factory
workers found that although Ghanaian women have a long history of indepen-
dent market trading, many post-independence era factories hired virtually
only a few in basic hand-assembly jobs. In the Zambian case, the employ-
ment patterns established by the early generation of women migrants are now
shared by marginal male migrants in the capital city's periurban areas
where wage employment has become increasingly scarce. Marketing, small
business enterprises, and cottage industries are the principal outlets for
urban marginals. In particular, migrant women have played a significant
role in developing informal employment networks and strategies in Lusaka's
squatter areas. The situation of Zambia's urban women emerges in perspec-
tive within an historical overview of rural-urban migration patterns.
Women's Migration and Employment
Patterns in Zambia
From the mid-1920s to the present, copper production has dominated
Zambia's economy and has accounted for much of the urban migration outside
of Lusaka. The industrial "pull" that characterized urban migration in
Zambia is much more typical of the Copperbelt than it is of Lusaka. It is
difficult to make a clear-cut argument about the psychological motivations
for labor migration. The colonial economy is, nevertheless, an obvious
factor producing a need for cash exchanges in the rural sector. The ear-
liest patterns of labor migration to the Copperbelt involved temporary con-
tract migration (cf. Du Toit and Safa, 1975:50-53). These migrants were
hired by mines and other industrial concerns for periods of up to two
years. They came to the towns and cities alone and lived in dormitory-like
buildings provided by the mining companies.
By the late 1950s, there were an estimated 50,000 African migrants
living in Ndola, one of the major Copperbelt cities (Epstein, 1961:30). At
the time of Epstein's survey, some of these migrants had been residing in
Ndola for fifteen or more years, but most had come to town within the pre-
vious five years on mining concession and other labor contracts. They
included not only Northern Rhodesian nationals, but also migrants from the
neighboring colonies who intended to return to their village homes after
their contracts expired. These permanent squatters and stabilized migrants
were products of the late colonial period.
A preponderance of adult males living in culturally rootless but highly
supervised urban settings is characteristic of the period from World War I
to the 1960s in Zambia, despite the rising migration of entire families and
lone females in the decades preceding independence. Contract migrants
usually sent cash back to their villages and oriented their lives toward
the kin who stayed at home. Meanwhile, the women who remained in the rural
areas assumed full responsibilities for agricultural production and mar-
keting (although the fruits of their labor were often turned over to the
men). Women constituted an important category of potential migrants. In
his classic study of Xhosa migration in South Africa, Philip Mayer (1971:
210-223) asserts that education and attitudes toward external culture con-
tact modified rural displacement patterns.3 Mayer concludes that the
preference for male migration among the more conservative Xhosa or "Reds"
was both culturally and economically motivated. Those "progressive" Xhosa
who could bring their families to town did so. The fact remains, however,
that male migration was the norm in southern Africa (cf. Magubane, 1975:230-
235). It was sustained by both indigenous cultural influences and ex-
ternal economic and industrial forces.
The urban experience for many of Lusaka's men began with employment
elsewhere, particularly in the Copperbelt towns and cities. By the mid-
1950s, two-fifths of the male population of the Copperbelt had at least ten
years of urban living experience, and nearly two-fifths had brought their
wives to the city (Little, 1973:16). These migrant populations had thus
become stabilized in the city and had established a record of urban living
experience. The income of the Zambian urban male was more than twice that
of his rural counterpart in the 1950s and was at least seven times that of
his rural counterpart by 1964 (Heisler, 1971). This situation has led
Kenneth Little (1973:17-28) and other students of urban change in Africa to
conclude that "the men followed the money and the women followed the men."
Although Little's hypothesis appears to be sustained by demographic
movements from village to city in Zambia, it does not take into account the
full range of women's incentives to migrate or the distinctive charac-
teristics of their economic adaptations to the city. In addition to the
women who migrated with spouses,'-many came to town initially as widows and
divorcees who could no longer function well in the village context. They
migrated to the city to earn a living just as the men had. In fact, the
hidden incentives for female migration appear to have had a significant
impact throughout southern Africa after World War I. This pattern is
particularly evident in South Africa where a 500 percent increase in the
(indigenous) African female population was documented for Johannesburg
between 1921 and 1951 (Koornof, 1953:29).
A similar pattern is characteristic of Lusaka where the current popu-
lation is approximately 450,000. Women migrating to the city now outnumber
male migrants. Unlike South Africa's women migrants who swelled the ranks
of domestic service, Zambian women are largely excluded from domestic work
in preference to older men. The official statistics on Zambian male and
female workers suffer from many ambiguities. The most recent data avail-
able are drawn from 1969 and 1970 census materials that desperately need
further updating. Only those individuals employed in enterprises and con-
cerns registered with the Labor Exchange are included with no clear allow-
ances made for informal sector employment. The 1969 Labor Exchange figures
listed 588,597 men in Zambia's urban labor force. This figure was pro-
jected to drop to 534,200 by 1979 (Todd and Shaw, 1979:22), due in part to
the capricious dependence of the Zambian economy on fluctuating export
prices for copper. Labor force projections from Lusaka's Central Sta-
tistical Office (1969-1984) record 20 percent of Zambia's population
working within the informal sector, a total of approximately 135,000 people
(Todd and Shaw, 1979:22). Of these individuals, approximately half are
women.4 Table 1 presents a breakdown by sex of the nationwide population
registered as working and seeking employment through the various Labor
Exchange office in Zambia's major urban areas and provincial capitals.
Table 1. The Zambian Population Working in the Formal Sector
and Seeking Work through the Labor Exchange.
Registered at Found Work at
Total Adult Working (For- Seeking Employment Employment
Population mal) Sector Work College College
Men 1,037,202 588,597 293,509 48,893 19,011
Women 1,121,122 141,297 178,419 2,541 659
Source: Population Census, 1969, Annual Report of Department of Labor,
According to the 1969 Zambian Labor Exchange figures, males placed in
both skilled and unskilled jobs in Lusaka outnumbered females by a ratio of
29:1. Women looking for unskilled and semiskilled jobs were often listed
as "housewives" and thereby were relegated to a secondary position in their
competition for employment. The barriers to married women's employment in
the formal sector stem from both a colonial legacy of limitation and cul-
tural barriers against female job seeking outside of the home in the urban
The increase of younger women in Zambian urban areas does not exclu-
sively reflect the patterns of familial migration described above. It has
been argued that single young women migrate to African cities in search of
the vicarious experience of "bright lights" and a fast paced urban life-
style (Little, 1973:22-25). This assumption is too broad to take into
account the educational and generational differences between single Zambian
women migrating to the city during the pre- and post-independence eras.
Nevertheless, it does suggest that there are at least four categories of
women migrants worthy of consideration in the Zambian context: 1) the
older divorced and widowed women with little formal education; 2) the
younger single women with some primary school training; 3) the women with
mixed training and skills who accompanied their husbands; and 4) the town-
born daughters of first generation migrants. At some point during their
careers in the city, women from each of these categories have needed to
work. They have all, however, been equally cut off from the urban wage
Town-born women who are able to obtain some secondary education and
specialized training hold different employment aspirations. These women
are able to enter formal sector jobs in clerical, secretarial, and lower
level management positions in increasing numbers. As a result, they are
able to develop independent lifestyles and maintain moderately high stand-
ards of living. Yet, these subelite women are still in a relatively pre-
carious socioeconomic situation.
Transitional and Subelite Women
in Urban Zambia
Before examining the option of self-employment for Zambian urban women,
it is necessary to assess the cultural and historical factors that in-
fluence their expectations about city life. The early generations of mi-
grant women learned about modern urban life through rural mission schools,
hospitals, and government centers prior to migration.6 These women had
little schooling, on the average less than three years, and if they did
work, they were pushed into marginal trades in the informal sector. Histor-
ically speaking, it is important to note that young women in this transi-
tional category have continued to migrate to town while a new group of
urban-born women has appeared with higher occupational expectations. Thus,
the "generational" differences between the transitional migrants and the
urban-born women persist synchronically. The data on women in Lusaka are
drawn from observations and interviews with women working in four of
Lusaka's townships: Marrapodi, Mandevu, Chawama, and Mtendele. My re-
search was conducted in 78 households within Marrapodi township. I have
also drawn upon Karen Hansen's 1971 study of 90 working women in Mtendele
township and Catherine Mwanamwabwa's 1977 survey of 30 women in Chawama
township. These women are primarily first-generation migrants to Lusaka.
Although many of the early transitional migrants lacked education, they
perceived the need of modern sector educational advantages for their chil-
dren (Schuster, 1979:30; Jules-Rosette, 1981:64). Nevertheless, there are
important cultural differences between the transitional migrants and the
town-born women. Ilsa Schuster (1979:31) asserts: "(B)y and large, women
of the transitional generation were married at the onset of puberty and
instructed by female elders in the proper role of a traditional African
wife. It was later that they adapted to the new elite or subelite status
of their husbands." In many cases, however, these transitional women, in
particular the women of Lusaka's squatter shantytowns, were locked into
conservative and impoverished lifestyles in the city. They did not acquire
opportunities to become upwardly mobile and were forced to adapt to the
city with a limited set of cultural and economic resources. Women in this
category experienced far less physical mobility and direct exposure to the
organizational and occupational structure of the city than men. Both their
opportunities and aspirations for formal employment remain relatively low;
the degree and quality of their experience with urban life are limited.
In a longitudinal study of subelite women, Schuster (1979:68-70) con-
cludes that even within this priveleged and educated group, obtaining and
keeping a job in the formal sector proves to be difficult. Schuster's in-
depth case histories of 48 women in formal sector jobs demonstrate that
only a small number remain in the positions where they started for more
than two years.7 Many of these women leave their sponsoring companies
within a few weeks after completing training programs to look for more
lucrative opportunities. Often, however, this job switching does not actu-
ally lead to advancement but instead leads to a pattern of lateral employ-
ment transiency that mirrors the employment patterns of unskilled informal
sector workers. Table 2 presents an overview of available data concerning
women's employment in Zambia including the subelite professions.
Table 2. General Occupations Taken up by Women from the Employment
Exchange Services between 1963-1973.*
Occupational Groups 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973
Professional -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 1
Clerical 7 13 13 14 96 168 155 266 -- 408 453
Sales -- 43 39 78 62 74 55 -- 122 128
Services -- 615 658 664 610 430 232 -- 398 466
Agricultural -- -- -- -- -- 20 2
Productional -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 53 78
Total Vacancies Filled
by Women 7 13 671 741 838 840 659 553 -- 1001 1128
Total Women Registered 18 62 1763 1592 1465 2076 2541 2896 -- 3419 3454
*NOTE: Figures for 1971 not available.
Although the uneducated women struggling for urban survival ostensibly
live under quite different conditions than the subelite professionals, the
line between these two categories is quite thin. The informal sector ab-
sorbs both school leavers and jobless graduates of secondary and technical
schools. The transient subelite "drifter" may well at some point in her
occupational career engage in informal sector employment. In a cognitive
sense, her situation is remote from that of the small marketeer, but often
not in real economic terms. Official statistics indicate that Zambian
urban women in all categories are overwhelmingly under-employed. Simi-
larly, ethnographic data suggest that the employment experiences of urban
Zambian women of all strata reflect transiency, instability, and marginal
access to the benefits of urban life.
Women in Lusaka's Informal Sector
For women, petty trading is the major source of informal sector in-
come. Such trading ranges from small-scale vegetable vending and fish-
mongering to more lucrative home brewing and sale of beer and other illic-
itly produced alcoholic beverages. The female migrant with little formal
education has a peculiar form of autonomy. In many ways, the woman who
enters petty trading is unprepared for the complexities of urban life.
Yet, she is not the incumbent of a rigidly fixed social status or a posi-
tion in enterprise. Because she is freed from some of the familial and
kinship expectations of village life, she can experiment with innovative
survival strategies in a restricted economic niche. Moreover, she has an
opportunity to creatively forge new social networks in order to maintain
her economic situation. However, she loses the stability of a rural sub-
Zambian women in the petty trades have difficulty obtaining sales li-
censes. These licenses are limited in number, and, until the late 1970s
when women entered the trade more actively, official preference was given
to male household heads who applied for marketeer's clearance. Although
some vegetable vendors set up mats in front of neighborhood markets, even
in the smaller townships of Lusaka, these market sales are regulated and
require a health check. Consequently, those women who are squeezed out of
the local markets resort to selling goods from their homes. The illegal
and clandestine nature of these sales means that they must be intermit-
tent. This situation limits both the regular clientele of the home traders
and the profits that they can realize from sales. Home stalls are periodi-
cally raided by the police and their owners arrested and fined. Although I
do not have data on arrest rates, the frequency of enforcement is high
enough to discourage women in unauthorized trading from working on a
sustained basis throughout the year. Thus, the situation of the home
traders in Lusaka contrasts markedly with that of the more successful West
African market women (cf. Falade, 1971:217-229; Lewis, 1976:135-156).
Official market sales and fishmongering are far less risky and more
rewarding activities than the home trades.8 Fishmongering requires the
preparation of the commodity through smoking or drying and is more finan-
cially lucrative than vegetable sales. However, as already stated, men
dominate official trading. Women selling goods from their homes use their
minimal profits for the purchase of more vegetables and for their immediate
subsistence needs. Trade expansion is difficult from this niche. It is
culturally acceptable for married women working from their homes to give
profits over to their husbands. This expectation further restricts the
expansion of their enterprises. As a result, with the exception of the
more prosperous beer traders, married women in the home trades frequently
abandon selling after a few months because of the frustration and low
Women selling from home mark up produce prices to make a profit and
are, therefore, commonly accused of overcharging. This situation is gen-
erally typical of township marketeers and grocers. Some women sell produce
from their own kitchen gardens, but this type of production tends to be of
little more than subsistence value. The following case study illustrates
this point (Mwanamwabwa, 1977:26):
Clara Phiri lives in Chawama, a squatter area, and sells
vegetables at the market. To obtain her daily supply,
Clara starts off her journey at about 5 A.M., walking a
ten mile distance to the airport junction on Great East
Road, a delivery point for the growers who come from
adjoining farm areas. There is a stiff competition
between Clara and other buyers for reasonable prices and
a variety of produce. When the appropriate vegetable
produce has been purchased, Clara walks back for another
ten miles to Chawama where she rearranges the product
for retail sale in the market. There is no system of
costing involved except that her experience in the urban
market trade determines the price at which she sells her
produce. In addition, she considers purchase price and
Once at the market, Clara competes with other marketeers
to sell her produce, which is very similar to that of-
fered for sale by others. With limited demand from
consumers in the area due to their income, Clara may end
the day with half of her perishable produce unsold and
without proper storage facilities or means of preser-
vation. There is a great loss in economic and oppor-
tunity costs through inappropriate storage, method, and
total activity time.
Other women who sell vegetables but do not belong to an
organized market system like Clara are classified as
unlicensed street vendors. They also repackage their
produce and sell it at selected strategic points such as
near a shopping area. Some of these street sellers are
firmly established but are still subjected to continuous
police raids which result in frequent confiscation of
their produce. Criticisms of alleged overcharging be-
cause of the unspecified weights of their produce and
also the unhygenic conditions under which some of the
produce is sold are made by the consuming public.
Clara's case emphasizes that even women with official stalls move into
home and street vending to sell their surplus produce. These women con-
tinue to be the victims of police clean-up programs once they are li-
censed. Because some of the goods they sell are left over from their day's
surplus or the surplus of other city vendors, their vegetables are of infe-
rior quality and are sold to squatters at higher prices than are paid by
the more wealthy city dwellers.
Home trade in vegetables is often combined with the sale of other com-
modities such as dried fish and cooking oil. These ingredients are used in
preparing the staple diet of township dwellers, and there is always a need
for purchasing one or more such items after regular marketing hours. It
also is not uncommon to find charcoal and vegetable trading together.
At-home charcoal trading, however, requires a relatively large capital
outlay with the promise of improved profits, but it is seen as a step up
from vegetable vending.
Unlike home vegetable vending, the sale of homemade arts and crafts
including embroidery, stitchery, crocheted articles, and ceramic work is
not subject to strict legal monitoring, despite a recent prohibition
against street vending in Lusaka. The sale of craft items can be con-
ducted on a door-to-door basis with the assistance of middlemen and small
children. Generally, craft sales are used by married women to supplement
household income. Although these crafts may provide an invaluable contri-
bution to the household economy, they hold little potential for increased
economic autonomy among women. Quite to the contrary, home trades reflect
women's increasing dependence on marginally employed men in their efforts
to make household ends meet (cf. Hansen, 1977:16). Moreover, the illicit
nature and subsequent inconsistence of the home trades reinforces the depen-
dence of women upon male breadwinners.
Among other forms of unlicensed commerce for women, beer brewing is the
option with the highest economic profits and the greatest legal risks. The
beer trade and related enterprises require women to have freedom of move-
ment. Therefore, women who engage in this trade do not consider a husband
an immediate advantage. Although some married women are engaged in the
beer trade, most of those whom I interviewed were widowed, divorced, or
temporarily living alone. Their families and the immediate drinking circle
constituted their primary social networks. Many married women do not even
consider brewing as a viable alternative because they fear arrests or fines
and cannot obtain familial support for these activities.
Family structure and obligations influence women's self-employment
careers. Married women with children in Lusaka's squatter areas are tied
to their homes in ways in which their rural counterparts are not. Although
the children that I observed were casually watched by neighbors, community
organization among squatters was such that adults often could not ade-
quately account for the whereabouts of children. While the township house-
wife is liberated from much of the burdensome water fetching, wood chop-
ping, and agricultural work of the countryside, she has the responsibility
for monitoring children and preparing food alone. In the rural milieu,
these responsibilities were shared with an extended family network. The
city situation suggests that further investigation of the relationship be-
tween child morbidity and urban squatting might be pursued in a subsequent
On the other side of the coin, women who are successful in obtaining
the coveted marketeer's license enabling them to work outside of the home
have developed community reputations and have been instrumental in organ-
izing marketeers' unions. Some prosperous home and street traders are
even able to accrue enough expertise and financial backing to move into
large market stalls, tea cart trade, and small restaurants or grocery
stores. This sort of career pattern, however, is more typical of official
market vegetable vendors, fishmongers and home charcoal traders than it is
of women producing and selling crafts.
The increased profits in craft sales come from a combination of ceramic
work with beer brewing. Although such a combination may be economically
beneficial to migrant women, it effectively closes them off from extensive
public trade and confines their activities exclusively to a township audi-
ence. Thus, craftswomen and brewers remain marginal because of their lim-
ited education and their inability to make full use of the trade networks
and employment opportunities in the city. Their recourse to informal trade
networks is also restricted by a variety of legal and social barriers.
Home Trades as Urban Entrepreneurship:
The Case of the Women Brewers
Zambian society unofficially fosters the brewing of home beverages by
placing a positive social valuation on the beer drinking circle or
mikotokoto (cf. Epstein, 1961:36-46). During the colonial period, Zambian
urban migrants were denied access to imported alcoholic beverages. Never-
theless, since the drinking circle was a significant part of village social
life for men, it was readily adapted to the urban industrial centers and
home-brewed beer is culturally esteemed by many recent urban migrants.
Most home brewing, however, is still illegal and punishable by a nine-
month jail sentence or a fine of up to 500 kwacha (U.S. $660). Moreover,
despite the legalization of the controlled brewing of higher grades of
chibuku (local grain beer) for sale in taverns by the Lusaka City Council
in the late 1970s to increase its revenue, the sale of illicit chibuku and
stronger beverages (kachiasu and seven days gin)continues. "Legalized"
chibuku is supposedly made according to specific health regulations and is
marketed at fixed prices.
The association of the home beer trade with prostitution exists among
Zambian law enforcement agencies. A recent survey (Mwanamwabwa, 1977:42)
claims that 70 percent of the home brewed beer produced in Zambia is con-
nected with prostitution. This finding suggests the importance of exam-
ining the legal as well as social barriers to women's participation in the
labor force and requires a broad view of their informal employment strate-
The shebeen queens or women who brew beer for community gatherings and
trade are careful to cultivate good relationships with local officials.
Like the home vegetable vendors, they must be circumspect about their activ-
ities. It is not, however, possible to hide the brewing process, as it en-
tails long hours of outdoor cooking before the beer can be brought inside
to settle. Despite the potential official harassment, the shebeen queens
do not appear to have developed collective resources for their own legal
and economic protection. They cooperate in small brewing groups, but their
produce and marketing are coordinated on a large scale only by the new
middlemen or shebeen kings who have entered the trade.
The local home beer trade originated in Lusaka's squatter townships.
By the late 1970s, women producing legal chibuku could easily engage middle-
men to expand their trade outlets to recognized commercial enterprises.
Reputable women's groups such as the YWCA community organization even moved
into chibuku sales as fund raisers. Most legal brewing interfaces with the
bar trade and has become taxable for government revenues. Nevertheless,
illicit brewing continues to flourish in underground trade networks with
the transport in alcohol controlled by men. While marginal subelite women
are connected with the bar trade as modern sector prostitutes, the shebeen
brewers engage in a "traditional" form of prostitution centered around pro-
viding companionship for members of the local drinking circle.
As sporadic vegetable vending has proved less lucrative, some married
women in the squatter townships have moved into permanent and temporary
beer trading in competition with the established shebeen queens. These
women, however, tend to confine their activities to the production and
brewing of beer. Permanent brewers commissioned to make legal chibuku can
operate openly and plan their business activities on a long-term basis.
Temporary traders strictly engaged in illegal brewing rely on connections
with an underground network and brew on a sporadic basis.
Maria Khosa: A Home Beer Trader
For both personal and legal reasons, Maria chose not to brew the
stronger illicit beverages. Instead, she worked regularly at brewing a
mild South African beer as a daily source of revenue. As her community
reputation grew, she became eligible to enter the legal beer trade. For
the most part, however, she confined her sales to the home base and did not
use middlemen to expand her clientele.
Hansen (1973:130-131) provides a case study profile of Maria's trading
Maria Khosa is a 25 year old Sotho from Botswana. She
grew up in Johannesburg where she married a Zambian
Neenga by civil marriage five years ago. While in
Johannesburg, she worked as a domestic servant. They
came to Lusaka three years ago (in 1970) where the hus-
band, Mr. Elfas Phiri, has worked as a security guard
ever since. Mrs. Khosa has attended school for seven
years, her husband for eight years. She is a member of
the Anglican Church, he of the Dutch Reformed Church.
The couple have no living children; all of the four
children the wife bore have died.
On their first coming to Lusaka, Mrs. Khosa and Mr.
Phiri lived at Mandevu, a squatter settlement where they
rented a house. After two years at Mandevu, they moved
to Mtendele where they are now building a house of their
own, two rooms of which are finished. The house is
planned to have six rooms.
Mr. Phiri earns K50 (U.S. $66.00) a month, all of which
he hands over to his wife. A good deal of the money is
currently being spent on the completion of the house.
Further, they send every month K10 (U.S. $13.20) to the
husband's matrilineal relatives who live near Petauke.
Because of these expenses, Mrs. Khosa started her beer
brewing, which she has done for three months. She brews
ample supplies of beer every week from Thursday until
Sunday. The kind of beer she brews is a South African
beer, which she calls 'Banba.' The beer is consumed in
one of the family's two rooms, which is not yet fur-
nished, except for some odd chairs and tables which
serve to accommodate the clientele. The beer is sold in
metal cups for which 10 ngwee (134) are charged. Mrs.
Khosa reckons to make a profit on her beer sale of K10
($13.20) every week.
Mr. Phiri did not interfere much with his wife's beer
trade. Being a security guard, he was away from the
township at work from four p.m. to twelve p.m. and
returned to Mtendele on his bike at night conveniently
enough to help his wife close down the trade. As the
control of illegal beer brewing was becoming very much
stricter, Mrs. Khosa was considering domestic work
Emilia Chomba: A Sporadic Brewer
Maria's activities contrast with those of her neighbor, Emilia Chomba
(Hansen, 1973:131). Emilia brewed kachiasu, which is strictly prohibited.
Because of the fear of local surveillance, her activities were sporadic.
She made approximately 18 kwacha (U.S. $23.76) per month from brewing to
supplement her husband's income. However, during some months Emilia did
not brew at all. Her sales were marginal and she often considered aban-
doning the alcohol trade altogether. Emilia did not accommodate her clients
at home. Instead, she ran a "cash-and-carry" operation that relied heavily
upon the city-wide underground network for illicit alcohol sales.
Potting and Beer Brewing
as Combined Home Trades
Scholars of African urbanization have emphasized that the most suc-
cessful migrant entrepreneurs pursue several avenues of self-employment at
once (cf. Little, 1973:85-86; Beveridge, 1978). The beer trade emerges in
fuller perspective when we consider the mixed career patterns of many women
brewers. The serial pattern of job shifting described in the literature on
male migration does not explain the situYtion of Zambian women with com-
bined trades in the informal sector." Since the avenues of self-
employment open to these women are limited, combination in this case is a
sign of employment stability rather than employment transiency. Women who
pursue combined trades generally do so on a permanent basis and shift from
an emphasis on one or the other depending upon economic and seasonal varia-
tions. Combining trades requires considerable familiarity with the urban
scene and cross-cutting social networks.
The women potters of Lusaka provide an excellent example of the combi-
nation of the shebeen trade with craft enterprises. As a contemporary
adaptation of traditional skill, potting may be relied upon to bring in a
steady, although small, source of revenue. The shebeen traders make the
pots to be used for their weekly beer parties. Additionally, these pots,
and other ceramic figures, are sold independently as craft articles during
peak tourist seasons; the potter develops some notion of the craft articles
that appeal to an outside audience while continuing to produce a basic set
of pots for home use and the chibuku trade. Generally, the more experi-
enced master potters are able to adapt to the external tourist trade while
the younger women who learn ceramic skills as part of the urban shebeen
activities have difficulty diversifying their products. These limitations
stem chiefly from their lack of knowledge of traditional potting skills.
My case study profiles suggest that differences in expertise create a range
of variations in the ability to diversify and work successfully in combined
trades. This range of adaptation is a key feature of urban potting that
may be characteristic of other women's trades as well.
Mrs. Kave: A Bemba Potter
Mrs. Kave is a 45 year old Bemba widow. She came to Lusaka twelve
years prior to her interview in 1975, shortly after the death of her hus-
band. Some years before her migration, she had moved from her small home
village in northern Zambia to Ndola to accompany her husband who worked in
the mines. Trained as a Bemba ceremonial mistress or nacimbusa, Mrs. Kave
was already skilled in traditional ceramic work when she came to Ndola.
There, she began to experiment with pottery sales in combination with home
When Mrs. Kave moved to Lusaka, she chose to reside near a stream that
cuts across Marrapodi and Chaisa townships. The stream contains natural
clay deposits that facilitated her potting work. She continued beer brew-
ing and was soon joined by several young women apprentices in her neighbor-
hood. Mrs. Kave's already competent potting skills improved as she taught
the members of the "collective" how to make pots for shebeen parties.
Although she monitored her apprentices' brewing and potting activities,
Mrs. Kave did not engage in any form of prostitution and did not coordinate
their beer or craft sales.
With continued residence in Lusaka, Mrs. Kave gained a sense of the
local crafts market. While she did not regard herself as an artist, she
learned marketing skills from the men engaged in the local art trade. Mrs.
Kave modified the traditional ceremonial figurines used in Bemba initiation
rites for commercial sales12. The figurines that she produced were rough
renderings of fish and animals that were portable and cheap enough to
acquire a certain exotic appeal for the tourist consumer audience. The
figurines were sold for 50s a piece in 1975. By 1977, Mrs. Kave had more
than tripled her price as she acquired a more accurate sense of the tourist
All pots have a standardized appearance. One skilled woman's pots can
be distinguished from those of another only by the subtle hatchmarks under
the lip. Standardization is important because it facilitates a rapid pro-
duction process. Even more significant is the fact that pots for beer
storage and drinking are expected to be uniform in appearance. They are
functional rather than decorative art objects. Individualization in ceram-
ic work results from the tourist trade where some variation is sought in
figurine production. Even so, Mrs. Kave and other potters never sign or
mark their work by name. This anonymity is typical of women's crafts pro-
duction as opposed to the individualized commercial arts made and signed by
men in Lusaka .
Most of Mrs. Kave's apprentices were unwilling to experiment with
pottery as a major source of their income. Moreover, they did not explore
marketing strategies such as the systematic use of middlemen and regular
street hawking. Instead, the potters viewed themselves neither as artists
nor exclusively as business entrepreneurs. Lacking a stable entrepreneurial
identification, these women were able to shift income generating strategies
as circumstances dictated.
Ironically, trade combination has resulted in an inadvertent type of
entrepreneurial experimentation. The African entrepreneur generally
exploits a variety of economic strategies to develop urban markets and
supply sources (cf. Beveridge, 1978:2). According to this perspective,
urban potters in combined trades are in an ideal position to become
successful entrepreneurs if they are astute enough to tap the basic needs
of the local community and the external economic demands of tourists and
other outside consumers. Peter Marris (1968:31) has described the small
entrepreneur in Africa as an individual with "an ability to assemble and
reassemble from what is available a new kind of activity, to reinter-
pret the meaning of things and fit them together in new ways." In certain
respects, women in the crafts who adapt traditional skills to work in the
urban informal sector comply with these criteria for entrepreneurship.
Nevertheless, both their marketing skills and the extent of the local market
for their goods are limited. Collective marketing will be essential to
their entrepreneurial expansion.
Current Prospects for Women's Careers
in Lusaka's Informal Sector
Much of the petty trading conducted by women is intermittent, econom-
ically frustrating, and illegal. Married squatter women who work in the
informal sector suffer a stigma of "double" marginality. If their husbands
enter the wage labor sector at all, they do so in the capacity of unskilled
workers in insecure employment positions. The women work to supplement
their husbands' meager incomes and do not develop independent resources or
occupational identities. Without channels of access to education and
training, these women are doomed to further economic loss.
Employment in the formal sector depends upon educational qualifications.
It might be argued that town-born women have increased opportunities for
schooling and formal wage employment. However, the fourth grade (formerly
known as Standard II in Zambia) constitutes the terminal educational level
of many of the urban poor, both males and females. By the time Zambian
school children reach the seventh grade (Standard VI), young women consti-
tute only 37 percent of the population attending school nationwide14. At
this point, students must pass a comprehensive examination to enter Forms I
and II of lower secondary school. The women who have not been excluded at
the lower primary levels usually drop out before Form 115. By the time
of high school education, males outnumber females in the Zambian public
schools by a ratio of almost three to one. Needless to say, migrant women
and many of their first generation daughters are excluded from reaping the
benefits of higher education and the economic opportunities associated with
From the perspective of relative educational opportunities, the
informal sector appears to be a socioeconomic repository for school drop-
outs, the sporadically unemployed, and the under-employed. Accordingly,
those who cannot find work attempt to "make" work. A prevalent argument to
account for the economic adjustment of poor and undereducated urban women
revolves around kinship and ethnicity. It is presumed that ethnic networks
are transplanted from villages and symbolically enlarged with the rural-
urban migration process (cf. Gutkind, 1965:48-60). Using these networks as
resources for self-employment and mutual aid, migrant women facilitate
their socioeconomic adaptation to the city.
Lusaka's townships and squatter areas, however, are characterized by a
high ethnic mix, and a city government policy that prohibits numerical
domination by a single ethnic group. Furthermore, women working in the
informal sector come from a variety of regional and ethnic backgrounds and
live in a broad range of family situations. Ten of the seventy-eight house-
holds that I surveyed in the Marrapodi area were polygynous households. In
the Marrapodi area, approximately twelve different ethnic groups including
migrants from three nations (Zaire, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) were represented
in my household sample. Strategies of familial adaptation to town life cer-
tainly vary based upon ethnicity. Nevertheless, the cooperative associa-
tions and apprenticeship circles established among women marketeers and
craft workers in Zambia are not directly tied to ethnicity.
The potters of Bemba origin train women from other ethnic backgrounds.
The beer circles from which their consumers are drawn are multiethnic in
composition. A similar ethnic plurality is characteristic of the women's
marketeering collectives. In Lusaka, urban life, particularly among
squatters, juxtaposes individuals from a variety of backgrounds. The most
viable community networks are based upon local residence and the exchange
of goods, ideas, and services. Some experienced women traders are able to
exploit these immediate community networks and to move beyond them to
consumer markets that transect social class and regional background.16
Descriptive data suggest that women's collectives and voluntary associations
are far more important than ethnicity as factors in urban adjustment (cf.
Isolated women in illicit home trades, however, seldom operate on a
collective basis, either in terms of production or marketing. They must
retain a low community profile. In their case, extensive kin and ethnic
ties are often an obstacle because they result in added home responsibil-
ities. Many squatter women attempt to maintain anonymity and social dis-
tance from their neighbors by reason of their tenuous legal status,
transient residence in the townships, and conflicts between domestic and
commercial relationships. Even the beer drinking circle is not stable in
its composition and does not offer a constant support network because of
squatter transiency and the legal threats surrounding brewing.
Women from the rural milieu with traditional skills find a combination
of the beer trade and related craft outlets to be a viable urban alterna-
tive. Combined with a steady craft enterprise, both local community and
outside "markets" may be tapped by beer trading. The innovative nature of
shebeen trading coupled with crafts derives from the structure as well as
the substance of this type of trading. Women in the shebeen trades offer a
key example of combined entrepreneurial career patterns in the informal
sector as opposed to sporadic single-item trading. This pattern suggests
the importance of reexamining successful informal sector entrepreneurship
with respect to the combination of trading options employed rather than
merely assessing the viability of a single type of trade (for example,
vegetable sales vs. fishmongering).
Conclusions: Alternative Urban Adaptations
for Migrant Women
As formal education and employment opportunities increase for town-born
women, marketeering and home entrepreneurship may decline in importance as
urban socioeconomic options. The hopes and aspirations of many women in
the transitional generation may be realized as their daughters gain greater
access to formal educational opportunities that allow them to reap the bene-
fits of urban social and economic life. At present, however, descriptive
data from the Zambian case indicate that it is important to develop a model
that links the career patterns of rural and urban women in development. To
this end, the following methodological suggestions emerge as an outgrowth
of the Zambian research data.
1. There is a need to structure an innovative approach to the study
of African women in development that uses criteria both subjec-
tively and objectively relevant to the topic; premature abstrac-
tion about the role of women in development prior to requisite
field inquiries should be avoided.
2. The assembly of an adequate primary data base requires longitu-
dinal case study materials on women's rural and urban career
patterns in combination with quantitative data on migration and
3. In this regard, subject feedback is critical to collecting case
study profiles that fill important information gaps concerning the
life options and career choices of particular strata of urban
women (e.g., informal versus formal sector workers and the urban
poor versus the elite and subelite women).
4. Formal education is not the only solution to women's employment
problems in Zambian urban areas. The type of apprenticeship rela-
tionships developed in men's cottage industries and small enter-
prises should be explored as a means of practical training for
5. Ultimately, the present research serves as a point of departure
for devising a model that integrates data on women of diverse
strata in rural and urban areas as part of a comprehensive over-
view of women in development. Such a model may eventually be used
to facilitate the inclusion of women of rural and urban backgrounds
in overall strategies of national developmentlI.
The women's activities described in the case studies are sexually
segregated and, with the exception of beer brewing, do not involve
cooperative activity. Legal restrictions reinforce the sporadic nature of
informal sector employment. The official support of cooperative efforts
has been largely oriented toward men in the rural areas. When women's
cooperation exists, it has not met with broad based government support.
There is a need for policy planning that takes into account the short-term
entrepreneurial options of urban women through community-based training
operations and more flexible legal options for women in small informal
In Zambia and other nations in technological and economic transition,
the informal sector absorbs the overload of the jobless, the underemployed,
and the economically marginal. Urban women in the informal sector are only
part of a larger cultural and economic picture. The present analysis of
Zambian women in the informal sector is intended as a point of comparison
with similar cases in which a wide gap persists between the technoeconomic
goals of development and women's access to education, formal employment,
and the socioeconomic benefits of change.
1. The data presented in this study were collected in Lusaka, Zambia
from 1975 through 1979 as part of a longitudinal study of two
squatter townships. Individuals from 200 households were inter-
viewed. In 1971-72 Karen Hansen conducted a similar study in the
Mtendele township in which she interviewed 90 married women who were
either unemployed or working in the informal sector. The present
study was funded by the National Science Foundation, grants #Soc.
76-20861 and #Soc. 78-20861. The author is solely responsible for
the conclusions of this study. The census figures cited here are
taken from the Population Census: Annual Report of the Department of
Labor, Lusaka, Zambia, 1969-75.
2. These figures are quoted from the Census of Population and Housing,
First Report, Lusaka, Zambia, 1970:A19.
3. Philip Mayer (1971:210-223) emphasizes that those Xhosa migrants with
some education (the "Schools") brought their wives to town because of
money, land tenure, and kinship considerations. The less educated
migrants followed the lone male pattern characteristic of early 20th
century rural-urban movements across southern Africa.
4. As already indicated, an estimated 20 percent of the urban labor
force now works in the informal sector. About half of the informal
sector workers are women for whom there are few wage labor jobs. The
20 percent figure is based on labor force projections conducted by
the Central Statistical Office in Lusaka. See "Projection of the
Labour Force 1969-84." Population Monograph No. 3, Lusaka, Zambia:
Government Printing Office, 1976.
5. Many Zambian men seeking employment register with the government
Labor Exchange. While women register as well, they have less
incentive to do so, and there is a wide discrepancy between the
actual numbers of men and women who register. As of 1973, 39.9
percent of the men who registered with the Labor Exchange were placed
in a variety of urban occupational positions as opposed to 25.4
percent of the women. In absolute terms, the male placement is
highly disproportionate. As Table 2 indicates, the number of women
entering skilled and semi-skilled occupations is steadily increasing.
These women are primarily town-born and have had access to formal
education. However, many of the transitional women migrants dis-
cussed here never reach the Labor Exchange rosters.
6. Mayer (1971:30-41) describes the socialization of rural Xhosa for
town life with regard to schooling and mission contact. He argues
that this preparation predisposes the more "progressive" Xhosa to
migrate to East London and contributes to their sociocultural
stabilization in the city. However, Mayer does not explore the
economic motivations and consequences of migration in depth.
7. Schuster (1979:68) states that out of 48 women interviewed in clerical
and lower managerial professions in Lusaka: "Almost none remained in
the particular position where they started for more than two or three
years, including time spent training." Although her sample is small,
her data suggest that job switching and "transiency" are characteris-
tic of the careers of subelite women. Obtaining and keeping a job in
the formal sector proves to be both difficult and problematic for
8. Catherine Mwanamwabwa (1977:37-38) notes that the initial capital out-
lay for fish sales exceeds that of vegetable vending. In addition,
the fish must be smoked, cured, or frozen. Given the initial invest-
ment and the problems of storage, it is often difficult for petty
traders in fish to compete with the nationalized Zambia Lakes
Fisheries company and its official outlets. The petty traders often
purchase from the national company and resell their produce at higher
prices in the local townships.
9. Street vending in the downtown area was prohibited in Lusaka by a
1976 city council ordinance. This ordinance had a particularly
devastating effect upon street vegetable and produce sales. It also
curtailed the activities of street curio and tourist art salesmen.
Vegetable hawkers, art and craft producers, and their middlemen all
suffered from this legal prohibition.
10. Todd, Mulenga, and Mupimpila (1978:6-7) found that the majority of
the marketeers in Chaisa settlement, where much of my interview data
was collected, were vegetable vendors. Out of 320 individuals with
official market stalls, 150 sold vegetables and fruits. Only twelve
stall owners were craftsmen. Rather than diversifying, women tend to
sell vegetables when they enter the official market trade. According
to a 1974 Ministry of Rural Development report, nearly all of Zambian
rural and urban women undertake work involving food production, pro-
cessing, and sales.
11. Kenneth Little (1974:32-39) describes urban opportunism as the key to
understanding job seeking patterns among migrants. With only lateral
mobility, it is not uncommon for a single individual to hold over
thirty jobs in the formal and/or informal sector over a five-year
period. Urban opportunism is the product of multiple outlets for
casual labor and semiskilled work in the African city. The com-
bining of informal sector trades among women is a separate pattern
that indicates job stability rather than switching.
12. Audrey Richards (1956:140-152) analyzes the ceramic figurines
traditionally made during the three year long Bemba chisungu ini-
tiation ceremony. Mrs. Kave was originally trained as a nacimbusa or
ceremonial mistress for the chisungu rites.
13. Elsewhere (Jules-Rosette, 1979:116-130 and Jules-Rosette, 1981:103-
127) I describe the commercial carvers, painters, and ceramic workers
in Lusaka. These artists and artisans produce for a mixed local and
tourist audience. Originality and individual creativity are particu-
larly important to the male carvers and painters, who self-
consciously view themselves as artists.
14. These figures are taken from Educational Statistics for 1973, Zambian
Ministry of Education, Lusaka, Zambia, 1975. Official statistics in-
dicate a large number of dropouts after the fourth grade (from 127,390
to 95,530 total students for 1973). The largest percentage of young
women drop out after the sixth grade or do not continue for pre-
15. While the percentage of female students in Grade 7 and Form I remained
the same in 1973, total student enrollment figures dropped from 85,213
for Grade 7 to 17,570 for Form I secondary preparation.
16. Little's (1978:177-185) argument suggests that urban voluntary asso-
ciations are more important than kin and ethnic ties in moving beyond
insulated urban community networks. Through these means, women are
able to mobilize occupational, religious, and cultural groups to
their social and economic advantage.
17. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, women among the urban poor are
doubly marginal (cf. Perlman, 1976:248-251). They are physically and
culturally isolated in many ways, and they tend to be excluded from
both economic development plans and the central political processes.
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