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12 Feb 2015

Learning in Africa's Informal Economies, 1965-2015 By Robert Palmer

By Robert Palmer, NORRAG.

toolkit50 years ago, in 1965, a young doctoral student called Keith Hart arrived in Ghana to begin his fieldwork exploring the informal economic activities of the northern Frafra migrants in a poor area of the capital, Accra. Through his published work in 1973, Hart became acknowledged as “discovering” the informal sector (Hart, 1973), though of course the concept draws on the earlier dual economy work of the 1950s, as well as other studies. Keith Hart’s work not only drew attention to the reality of working in the informal economy, but also to the learning taking place there; he referred to informal apprenticeships and noted the potential to build upon such training.

50 years later, it is still the case that the vast majority of all learning taking place in Africa’s informal economies is on-the-job informal learning; this can be either through an informal apprenticeship, or simply experiential learning through work. And there have been repeated attempts – with varying degrees of success – to formalize such learning, especially the informal apprenticeships, in Africa.

What has significantly changed in the last 50 years is the formal education background of many of those learning and working in Africa’s informal economies. While, traditionally, those working in the informal economy have been regarded as possessing a low skills base and low levels of education, nowadays large numbers of much more educated people are entering Africa’s informal economies. The interaction between formal schooling and on-the-job learning and training that many will subsequently get through apprenticeship or via casual labour can be beneficial (Palmer et al., 2012). But while there are still generally low skill and educational entry requirements to the informal economy, enterprise owners in some trades tend to favour selecting more educated youth to take on as apprentices. For example, auto-mechanic master craftspeople in Ghana tend to show a preference for apprentices with a complete lower-secondary education, whereas entry to a more traditional trade like dressmaking tends to have lower skill requirements (Darvas and Palmer, 2014).

2015 is not just a year to hold a party celebrating the 50th anniversary of Keith Hart’s arrival to Ghana, but by the end of this year, the world will have something much bigger to celebrate: a new set of global development goals; the Sustainable Development Goals. Formal schooling will undoubtedly feature among the education targets, and it is likely that technical and vocational skills will get a mention; but it will be up to policy makers to unpack this in Africa and to ensure that the important topic of informal training and learning in Africa’s informal economies gets due attention.

Robert Palmer is an independent education and skills consultant and one of the authors of the Toolkit on ‘Learning and working in the informal economy’. He also supports the Editor of NORRAG News and runs NORRAG NEWSBite. Email: Tweets @SkillsImpact

Further Reading

To learn more about the informal economy in Africa and its specificities, please read the Toolkit on ‘Learning and working in the informal economy – access, skills development and transition’ that has been developed by the Technical and Vocational Education and Training program on behalf of BMZ by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH. If you would like to receive the Toolkit Informal Economy Newsletter, please email

>> See other NORRAG Blogs on TVSD

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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