This article originated in the study of one Northern Ghanaian group, the Frafras, as migrants to the urban areas of Southern Ghana. It describes the economic activities of the low-income section of the labour force in Accra, the urban sub-proletariat into which the unskilled and illiterate majority of Frafra migrants are drawn.
Price inflation, inadequate wages, and an increasing surplus to the requirements of the urban labour market have led to a high degree of informality in the income-generating activities of the sub-proletariat. Consequently income and expenditure patterns are more complex than is normally allowed for in the economic analysis of poor countries. Government planning and the effective application of economic theory in this sphere has been impeded by the unthinking transfer of western categories to the economic and social structures of African cities. The question to be answered is this: Does the ‘reserve army of urban unemployed and underemployed’ really constitute a passive, exploited majority in cities like Accra, or do their informal economic activities possess some autonomous capacity for generating growth in the incomes of the urban (and rural) poor?
* Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester. An earlier version of this article was presented to the Conference on Urban Unemployment in Africa held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, in September 1971. The anthropological fieldwork was undertaken during 1965–8, and the ethnographic present, whenever used, refers to this period.