Selling on the road between Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. (Photo/ Flickr/ Carsten ten Brink)

The Town And The Highway In Africa: How A Road Tells You A Lot About Jobs

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THE way you can roughly tell the age of an East African city – and this might apply further afield in Africa – is by the location of the town centre/downtown in relation to the nearest major highway.

Older towns, such as Thika and Nakuru in Kenya, or Masaka in Uganda, are oriented in such a way that the bustling town centre is separated from the main highway. You have to get off the main highway to get into the town centre.

If the highway bisects the town – in the way that Uhuru Highway is Nairobi’s nerve centre – the built up area of the central business district is only on one side of the town. The other side was most likely designed to be open land.

It is not an accident that  recreational Uhuru park is just across the busy highway from the bustling skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi.


If a large town has come up in the past thirty or so years, however, it is more likely to be clustered on both sides of the highway – in some cases, even the road reserves have been grabbed and built on.

Having the whole town buzzing along the main road itself seems normal now, but that makes roads dangerous for both cars and pedestrians.

Pedestrians have to cross back and forth as they legitimately have business on both sides of the road. Along the way they have to dodge trucks carrying heavy commercial traffic, passenger buses, and all manner of vehicles whose drivers expect a highway to move quickly.

The crossings force cars to slow down, and with that the risk of traffic tailbacks and accidents.

Of course, the people not complaining are those who make a living from slow, passing traffic, primarily hawkers/ vendors. What is striking is just how much local retail trade in Africa is in the form of informal, one-person, roadside vending.

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Data from Nielsen shows the majority of Africans do their shopping in small, local, informal outlets – these account for 70% of purchases in Kenya, 96% in Ghana, and 98% in Nigeria and Cameroon, data from Nielsen shows.


The most common shopping channel of all is the simple table-top: a stand set up on the side of the road or in a local market to capture passing traffic.

A good 80% of consumers in the five African countries surveyed shop from these table-tops, of which there are no less than 200,000 in Nigeria alone.

Most African consumers don’t have a way to carry a lot of shopping home – anything more than a load on a bicycle or motorcycle taxi is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

It means that they have to do their shopping in little instalments every day, taking home only what their hands can carry.

That means that a seller who is small and mobile will have an edge here. The data by Nielsen shows that most shoppers prefer to shop from table-top/ pushcarts because of their location, because they happen to be in the area.

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In other words, if people had a better way to move around, there would be less of a reason for the “shop” to come to you.

But it also hints to some other kind of change. The jobs that would exist in a city that was designed to be off the highway have shrunk considerably.

These are mostly formal sector jobs that need organised, regulated building zoning, planned city spaces and predictable transport networks to thrive.

Today, if you build a town off the main highway, you are basically condemning it to death.

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