Home > Uncategorized > Mainstreaming the Significance of the Informal Economy through Tertiary Education

Written by Tasmi Quazi, Photographs by Tasmi Quazi & Phumzile Xulu

Since its inception, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) has engaged the interest of various tertiary institutions in learning about inclusive urban design and development with the informal economy. This interest however has deepened and intensified from 2013.  Five different educational institutions, local and international, have bought their students through the Markets of Warwick, and are basing components of their academic curricula on the local informal economy.

3rd year UKZN Architecture Students get a briefing at AeT's Project Office

3rd year UKZN Architecture Students get a briefing at AeT’s Project Office

Some of the institutions include Workers College (College for Trade Unionists and Activists), University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Architecture Department, the School of International Training (SIT), the US-based Goucher College  and VEGA (School of Brand Leadership). Furthermore, local and international students are expected in a few months because of a design competition that is based on a site in Warwick Junction, attached to the Union of International Architects (UIA) World Congress that will be hosted by Durban in 2014.

Why all this interest in AeT and Warwick Junction’s informal economy? This is as a result of the global context where cities and towns are challenged with the issue of developing a consistent approach to the informal economy, reflected by the minimal examples of inclusive approaches. Emerging research has emphasised that the real challenge lies in shifting perceptions towards creative and alternative urban configurations that are inclusive of urban informal workers.

VEGA students in a community briefing session with informal recyclers

VEGA students in a community briefing session with informal recyclers

The new wave of energy which AeT brings, is to address the deficit of creative and alternative approaches to the developmental challenge.  This is founded on the progressive experience, particularly of the co-founders of AeT and their earlier involvement in Durban’s Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project.  This local government Project is locally and internationally recognized as a distinguished practice of an integrated programme for the inclusion of informal workers into the urban environment. It stands as the most significant local government example of infrastructure provision for informal workers; in terms of scale, level of capital investment and length of time which this was sustained.

Workers College students listen attentively about the Bead Market in Warwick Junction

Workers College students listen attentively about the Bead Market in Warwick Junction

Therefore the growing interest in the informal economy of Warwick Junction where AeT is based, is in line with the organisation’s purpose of inspiring alternative thinking around the creative and participatory inclusion of informal workers into the urban fabric.  Above all, it is contributing to mainstreaming the reality that informality is fast becoming the normative way of being in the world, its significance and responsible ways of reacting to it.

From AeT’s perspective, the attribute the students bring is fresh thinking which can test the boundaries and assumptions of the past. However, this field of study does not come without its challenges. It comprises a complex matrix of stakeholders and vested interests of relevant line-department officials from local government, politicians, informal workers, surrounding formal businesses, enforcement agencies, public transport dynamics and grass-root organisations which intersect in the public space realm. It is AeT’s belief that even for students, engaging with this complexity means delving into this reality and a process of negotiation.

Goucher College Students with the Hardware Seller that they worked with for a day

Goucher College Students with the Hardware Seller that they worked with for a day

Furthermore, as a result of the history of intervention work in Warwick Junction, there is subsequently a high level of agency amongst the informal working community. Over the past few years however, the City’s developmental approach, in Warwick Junction in particular, has not been consistent and structured. This has consequently disheartened members of the community and made them sceptical of engaging City processes. Therefore, the introduction of the students and their respective study interests has been critical in highlighting their role as being distinctly different from the City’s. In that, the work of the design students from UKZN and VEGA for instance, is purely aspirational. However, where the students work stands to benefit the community is that it serves as an exercise in participatory brainstorming of potential interventions that the community can themselves present to the City in the future.

UKZN Architecture Students in a community briefing session with Bead Sellers

UKZN Architecture Students in a community briefing session with Bead Sellers

Nevertheless, through AeT’s involvement in shaping student briefs and data gathering phases, maximum effort has been made to ensure that the community’s organic structuring and working dynamics are respected and undisrupted. Lastly, it is undeniable that the presence of the students has served to bring wider exposure and strengthen the informal working community’s position as a model for inclusive development.

Over time, the various design and research projects emerging from the various institutions will be published on AeT’s blog-site.

SIT students share a light moment with two locals thrilled to see them eating traditional bovine head meat

SIT students share a light moment with two locals thrilled to see them eating traditional bovine head meat

 

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