Skip to content

Why African women and girls are still manual porters

The Washington Post this morning carries a story on a DC couple who went on safari in Tanzania and then decided to start an NGO to donate bicycles to give relief to the vast number of female manual porters they encountered.  Whether their project fits into the well-populated category of poorly informed good intentions I leave to the readers to judge (although the NGO name is the cringe-inducing Pets Providing Pedals, since one of the couple is a professional dog groomer).

Every visitor to Africa is struck by the huge amount of human porterage going on, usually by women and girls. The stereotypical image of an African girl walking long distances with a large load balanced on her head is not just a stereotype.  But the Pets Providing Pedals project raises a different question — why aren’t bicycles already used a lot more already? Or carts drawn by draft animals? Or cars or trucks?

A standard economist’s answer could suffice, although it hardly lessons the tragedy of the women condemned for life to porterage. You substitute capital (trucks, bicycles, carts) for labor (head porterage) when labor is scarce. You substitute labor for capital when capital is scarce and unskilled labor is abundant.  Guess which one applies to most African countries.

A sustainable alternative to women being used as draft animals probably requires something that vastly increases the demand for unskilled labor and makes it more expensive (“sweatshops” look positively attractive by comparison). Of course, there are also these little tiny issues about women’s rights and gender equality — but that too could respond to economic forces that gives women many more viable alternatives.

This entry was posted in Economics principles, In the news, Women and gender and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. geckonomist wrote:

    Why? because they are so poor they can only rely on their own energy. They are so poor because their government rips them off at every opportunity, heavily taxing whatever time-saving tool/engine/fuel that would make their lives more productive, and offers absolutely nothing in return.

    A government that gets your applause for its “export performance” in recent years.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  2. Ted wrote:

    I think it’s fairly clear that greater economic power for women would translate into greater civil and familial power. The thing about sweatshops is that this isn’t forced labor (if it were, I’d obviously be 100% against it). Despite how horrible sweatshop conditions are, they are superior to the alternative – so it’s hard not to embrace them.

    Here is something that confuses me, and perhaps someone could enlighten me. Africa has a lot of low-skilled labor, many of whom are willing to work for much lower wages than similarly skilled labor in Asia. Why is it that companies do not flock to Africa to use this unskilled labor? I suspect it is because of a combination of poor property rights, barriers to entry (by which I mean red tape, taxes etc.), an ineffective and corrupt judicial process, and rent seeking. But, then that naturally leads to the question, from the sense of a corrupt governing elite, wouldn’t it make more sense to increase the strength of business property and contractual rights and cut some of the red tape down to attract more industry – but still leave some of the features in place that allow rent-seeking by politicians? With more industry there, it would seem that even though rents would be lower on a per-firm / per-capita basis, but because of the increased industry overall rents would be larger. Or do they fear extending these rights and giving greater economic power to the lower class, as it may endanger their quasi-oligarchy?

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Mill wrote:

    @ Ted: “Why is it that companies do not flock to Africa to use this unskilled labor?”

    basic rules of international business:
    1. political risk (rule of law and other issues)
    2. transaction risk (foreign exchange fluctuations)
    3. translation risk (more foreign exchange fluctuation)

    These are basic, generalized responses as to why it would be difficult for profit maximizing firm to make a substantial investment in some African countries (particularly the most unstable ones).

    From the governing-country perspective, I’m not sure I have a valid excuse for why they aren’t focused on reducing red tape and other activity. Maybe they lack the capacity or maybe they are preoccupied with more immediate issues? But this is just conjecture.

    I still think before countries can make a good push for pro-business laws they need to stabilize their economic and political climate.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Erin wrote:

    This phenomenon is hardly unique to Africa. Haven’t you ever noticed an American mother schlepping an enormous diaper bag in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other with a baby strapped to her front, while her husband shuffles along with his hands in his pockets?

    I don’t see how bicycles are going to help unless the roads and urban sidewalks in Tanzania are vastly better that one would expect. Most people, even very poor people, have the means to obtain or make some sort of cart. The problem is that most places are easily accessible only by foot. I’m also not sure how one could carry a few gallons of water on a bike, especially if one’s just learning how to ride for the first time as an adult. But at any rate, providing bicycles seems like a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  5. Adam wrote:

    Little available capital unfortunately also means that even if they did have a more efficient means of porterage, such as a village truck, the costs of fueling it, maintaining it in possibly rough conditions where repairs would be frequent, etc., would probably prove too expensive. Even with the bicycle idea, you have to replace tires and tubes fairly regularly, especially on rough roads, and those supplies may not be available, or if they are would be imported and expensive for the women to buy. Opportunities to earn sufficient cash must be available first before more efficient and more capital intensive porterage can be adopted. I’d have to agree with Erin that it seems like a cart before horse situation, and empowerment and earnings must improve first.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Dan Kyba wrote:

    @ Ted & Mill
    Don’t forget to compare the productivity of skilled vs unskilled labour.

    Posted August 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  7. john malpas wrote:

    What of the porters that go up and down Everest?
    The infantry that trudges round Afghanistan?

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  8. John Gibbs wrote:

    I think the conversation has been overly pessimistic with regard to the bicycle proposal. From what I know of Tanzanians, the ladies are going to love those bicycles. Free bicycles aren’t going to get families of poverty, but they are going to make people’s lives happier. Geckonomist’s comment about taxation seems to be off target because the tax threshold in Tanzania is TZS1.2million (around $790), so the poorest people don’t pay it. In my view sweatshops would not work in Africa because they are culturally inappropriate.

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink
  9. Adam Baker wrote:

    I doubt they see it as “women being used as draft animals.” Nice outsider’s perspective there.

    It’s not some specific degradation. More likely than not, this is important social time for the women. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that no one uses the bicycles. (Will they take them? Of course)

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  10. Rebecca Lawlor wrote:

    I’ve actually seen a lot of people using bicycles in Uganda and Tanzania. They put a branch full of bananas on each handlebar and two on the seat, and then they walk it. Most African roads aren’t that great for riding the bicycles, but they do make good carts.
    I have a feeling the reason heads work best for carrying is because we’re the original all-terrain vehicle. In the Congo, I saw a lot of people with wheeled suit cases… which they were carrying on their heads. Seriously.

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  11. It’s ridicule to say that “capital (trucks, bicycles, carts) is substituted for labor” where there is no capital and where there has never been capital.
    Lack of money is the biggest constraint for bicycle use in Africa. What the couple is doing – sponsoring bicycles to Africa – is the most intelligent development-aid. As soon as a family owns a bicycle men overtake transport tasks that are traditionally done by women and children. There are lots of bicycle friendly areas in Africa – see for instance wikipedia ==> bodaboda

    Posted August 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  12. Michael Linke wrote:

    While I agree that bicycles don’t necessarily have an economic impact on the lives of the poor in Africa, and that simply giving them away doesn’t mean they will reach people who can benefit the most, our experience in Namibia has shown that there is a huge demand for bicycles, and that for various reasons existing markets are often failing to deliver an affordable, quality product. We have established 23 bicycle shops here, employing 90 people as mechanics (half of them women), and distributed more than 17,000 bicycles. The fact that so many people have been willing to part with cash to buy bicycles is the surest evidence that bicycles are a valued commodity. Creating a business mechanism for bicycle distribution has proved far more empowering than just giving bikes away.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink
  13. Yohanna wrote:

    Michael Linke’s comment is interesting. Why isn’t the market responding to this need, the way eg people import old cars into Africa? Perhaps the profit margins would not be sufficient on bikes? I’m aware of a Quebec NGO ( sending bikes all over the world, along with spare parts. Because they also train mechanics and turn the shipping containers into repair shops, I always thought their work might have more pros than cons. They claim up to 10 people use a given bike and that it’s a huge empowerment tool for women and girls. Maintenance doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem as some commenters assume. All this being said, I’d still rather see a real business mechanism take hold…

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  14. Muharrem wrote:

    African womenI see this is as the faith of african women.. Being women is not easy in all countries especialy in africa..

    Posted August 4, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, Word Bandit. Word Bandit said: Thank you. RT @bill_easterly Why African women are still treated like draft animals, and what would change this […]

  2. […] Why African women and girls are still manual porters (Aid Watch) […]

  3. By Worth Checkin’ Out « pt in mali on August 4, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    […] in the region. In a seperate post, Easterly explains why it is so common for women and girls to be manual porters in Africa and what, if anything is to be done about it. The comments in response to both posts are worth a […]

  4. […] by William Easterly, AidWatch […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives