The informal as the “city” in urban Africa: Experiences from Kampala

Shuaib Lwasa
Makerere University, Uganda

Cities in developing countries have grappled with spatial planning, infrastructure, housing and, more recently, fragmented and “runaway” development. Spatial plans largely remain at a strategic level and less at the neighborhood scale, where there is a disjuncture between the envisioned urban layout and the actual development (Lwasa, 2013). The coupling of these multiple challenges has rendered planning a failure, resulting in a continued organic development of “informal” cities with diverse infrastructure and services that contrast with centralized systems used as the benchmark for measuring progress of a formal city. In this article, I postulate that the “informal city” is actually the city. From housing, diverse infrastructure, innovative livelihoods, patterns of growth and sprawl, economy, labor market, industrious innovativeness and social differentiation, these “informal” settlements are largest sections in many African cities and offer careers and lifetime experiences to many people in Africa (Ernstson et al., 2010). Often measured by the proportion of people living in slums and infrastructure access, these measures not only give inappropriate description of cities in sub Saharan Africa, but have influenced spatial planning to promote symbolic architecture, infrastructure systems and a formal economy. This article counter-argues that informal is the city. The informal has sustained livelihoods, provided opportunities and challenges that create compelling reasons to rethink the city in Sub-Saharan Africa (Lwasa, 2014).

View of Kampala
A view of Kampala city. Image Credit: Africa Travel Resource

Described as fast-paced, urbanization in Kampala illustrates fragmented patterns of growth with a mixture of modernist and “Traditionalist” forms of housing development, services and infrastructure systems. Traditionalist here is conceptualized as the more localized systems, standards and materials of development contrasted with “modernist” conceptualized as the more international design, standards, and systems that symbolize a modern city (Lawhon et al., 2014; Pieterse and Simone, 2013). The patterns in Kampala contradict the modernist view of urban development and are considered chaotic, problematic, and uncontrolled. But the patterns also reveal deeply localized social structures of development often constrained by the modernist development. For sustainable urban development in Africa, a technological, structural, and economic transformation is needed. But there are contradictions on pathways for leapfrogging as cities innovate at multiple scales for sustainable development. Literature points to a possible “lock-in” of African cities to follow the historical trajectory of modernist cities (Seto et al., 2014). I will use some examples to illustrate how the “informal” is actually the city and promises opportunities for leapfrogging that opens options for transformation at multiple scales.

Figure 2
Figure 1: Image showing growth of Kampala region. Image Credit: GDEST 2010

Urban expansion and growth

Figure 1aUrban expansion in the Kampala region is driven by the coupling of demographic shifts and private sector developments through the land market by opening up of land for development.  The city is described as a “runaway” city. Most parts of the newly developed areas in Kampala region are “informal”, with a historical dimension. As shown in figure 1, the patterns of growth is sprawled out but also characterize a fragmented urban texture within the city region. This makes deconstructing the informal not only difficult but impractical if transformation is to be achieved. By the nature of this growth pattern, the infrastructure, employment, and service needs are daunting enough that centralized systems will not achieve the Urban Sustainable Development Goal targets due to capital and technical requirements.

Figure 1b
Figure 2a and 2b: KCCA Kampala Physical Development Plan, 2012.

Diverse and decentralized infrastructure systems have emerged to service these parts of the city (Lawhon et al., 2014). In the Kampala Physical Development Plan of 2012, the envisaged pattern of growth and development takes on a modernist view, almost completely negating the realities of the informal. As shown in the figures 2a and 2b, the central business district is envisaged with symbolic architectural designs linked to the periphery with centralized transportation infrastructure systems of circular roads, light rail, and water transport. This will be achieved to some extent but the informal still has a place in the central business district as well.

Diversity of Urban Services and Infrastructure

In Kampala, infrastructure, including water supply, transportation, and energy, have been described as inadequate. This is especially true in informal neighborhoods. The infrastructure deficit is also linked to increasing urban risk with claims, despite the lack of evidence, that poor urban settlements are often most affected. But what the analysis fails to highlight is that the urban poor have demonstrated individual and group ingenuity in creating diverse socio-technical infrastructure solutions. Often described as “self-provisioning”, the social structures of providing infrastructure at a scale that increases coverage is downplayed by measures of adequacy that monitor centralized infrastructure systems (Ahmed et al., 2009).  Around these innovations of diverse micro- to mesoscale infrastructures is an alternative system for urban development, which is not yet recognized by mainstream urban development strategies. The persistence of these diverse infrastructures and social systems of managing the infrastructure is perhaps an illustration that the city officially termed “informal” is, in fact, the city. What is less understood is the realization of the potential of the informal and how this potential can be leveraged to leapfrog to sustainability.

Urban Economy and Housing

The urban economy of Kampala is complex, given that the city is also the industrial hub of the country. Complex because it is characterized by a range of economic activities at various scales, from macro to “artisanal” industrial scales using material inputs from the importation sector as well as local materials. This economy is related to the various forms of trading most of which is again “informal” and continuously faces the wrath of municipal regulation of confiscation and eviction (Goodfellow, 2010). It is the lower end of economic activities on both manufacturing economy and trade that offers employment to the majority of low-skilled urban labor in the informal settlements. In addition, most of the businesses are also located within the informal settlements due to lower operational costs (Kareem and Lwasa, 2011). Marketable individual skills have been described as low among the many people but it is also important to note that the formal labor market is expanding at a much slower rate compared to the labor entering the market. In the mix of urban economy of Kampala is the vibrant transportation sector, which absorbs a big proportion of the low-skilled labor as well as the highly trained youth used to transition into the labor market. Housing is also looked at as a source of economic livelihood to many, creating a range of housing types by quality and size and value for different social groups. There is no sector that compares to housing as one which grounds and illustrates the “informality” and its presence in Kampala (Lwasa, 2014; UN-Habitat, 2009). This narrative not only illustrates the presence and grounding of the informal but also underscores its role in the making of the city. The waste economy underscores the innovativeness in the absorption of low-skilled labor into the urban economy. From energy briquettes, compost, inorganic resalable, recycling to commercial urban agriculture at multiple scales, these activities are taking root and expanding quickly, creating opportunities to make entry into the economy through these initiatives (Kareem and Lwasa, 2011).

Micro-business of energy briquette fabrication machine in Kampala. Image Credit: Shuaib Lwasa

Peri-urban is more than a mix of distinct urban or rural

Different interpretations notwithstanding, peri-urban areas of Kampala have undergone tremendous spatial, social, and environmental change due to the expansion of the urban in a pattern described earlier. In Kampala, these areas have characteristics of spontaneous development, with a mix of distinct “rural-based” livelihoods and activated land markets that are converting large areas to urban uses but in a fragmented nature. Through land speculation, land markets have significantly contributed to this change. The key aspect is how the diverse infrastructure systems have emerged to connect the peri-urban areas to the city. These processes in the context of this article are an illustration of informal as the city and that peri-urban is no longer just mix of distinct rural and urban livelihoods. This pattern brings along costs of infrastructure development, a responsibility the city authority appreciates but is limited to engage with. Associated with the peri-urban processes are the social networks that link people across scales from the urban core to the rural hinterlands (Kosinski and Pawlik, 2003). These networks amplify the economies, and the flow of materials and capital, fueling an economy that earlier was described as complex by nature, scale, actors, and businesses. These social networks have become significant for urban residents in the quest to improve their livelihoods.

Opportunities of fragmented urban ecosystem

In Kampala, the fragmentation of urban nature is a significant feature. The reason for fragmentation is that most urban areas are founded on urban development principles like separation of “incompatible” land uses (UN-Habitat, 2009). But this process is broken by spontaneous developments that disregard separated “urban uses” to create a weave of uses, scales of development, and diverse infrastructure. Contemporary planning of cities is slowly embracing the “integrated planning and the nature” principle (Zhou et al., 2010), which is motivated by recent discourse. The allocation of land use, investment in infrastructure, and preservation of open space across a range of scales from micro to city-regional scale in Kampala affects urban space. This implies that urban planning should “weave” built-up imprints into natural landscape for renewal of natural landscapes. The seamless relationship between ecosystems and informality is not only scalable in terms of expanding production, enterprises and actors, but has demonstrated potential for multi-objective urban interventions to ease urban stress, risk, and enhance ecosystem services across city to city-regional scales (Lwasa et al., 2014). A possible key strategic planning action necessary for scaling up these alternative systems in Kampala that urban planning cannot negate in the era of transitioning to urban sustainability.  However there are limitations associated with health risks, scaling up innovations, and acceptance of the informal. The difficulty of moving micro-businesses to meso- or macro-scale in informal settlements has yet to be studied. Whereas the limitations to harness the potential exist, scaling up, businesses development, branding, networking diverse infrastructures are some of the activities needed to transform the city by building on instead of deconstructing.


Kampala’s experiences provide evidence about the speed at which medium-sized cities are growing, the patterns of growth, and the mix of modernist and traditionalist elements. Development is occurring well ahead of formal planning, resulting in informal settlements. Unplanned “informal” settlements are not just poor settlements with deficits but form the larger part of the city providing livelihoods and careers, alternative infrastructures and entry into the urban economy. The convergence of formal and informal development produces a mosaic both spatial and socio-economic with scalable activities. This mosaic has potential around production, coordinated use of local resources and value innovative solutions for sustainability.


Dr. Shuaib Lwasa is Associate Professor of Geography at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  He is also a member of the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project’s Scientific Steering Committee.


2 thoughts on “The informal as the “city” in urban Africa: Experiences from Kampala

  1. Well said! The informal form the larger part of the city and development is ahead of formal planning. There are many challenges facing formal planning in Kampala. I will point out one challenge of Multiple land tenure systems in Kampala and attribute informal development to one- The Mailo(Kabaka’s land). With the biggest percentage of land falling under this category makes formal planning difficult. Lack of coordination between land lords and the City Planning Authority when leasing, buying and selling land under this tenure system has led to what is seen in kampala’s bird-eye-view today. In areas like Kisenyi, Kawala, Mulago, kasokoso, developers do not adhere to formal building standards because they feel protected by the landlord which has created a saying “Kabaka tagoba bantu be” (The kingdom can not evict its subjects). They find cheap building as a way to go, buying smaller than minimum standard plots fitting their incomes after all the seller is willing to transact. Formal planning can not be realized where there is no space or space is too small to apply the standards. City planning Authority finds it hard to impose standards and extend services like electricity, water, roads and so on yet acquisition of land and compensation for better planning is too expensive for the authority. The informal City will continue to expand into even a bigger Informal Metropolitan City Kampala.

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