After the Kantamanto Market fire, an opportunity for participatory planning emerges

in Public Life/Public Space/Urban (In)formality/Urbanism from Ghana by
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Kantamanto Market, Accra, Ghana. (Photo Credit: Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net)

Two weeks ago, fire destroyed the immense Kantamanto Market, the huge open-air market linked to Makola in Old Accra, comprised of hundreds of stalls and kiosks where vendors traded secondhand and firsthand goods. The fire, which started in the early hours of Sunday morning, lasted several hours before the Fire Service managed to put out the blaze. By then, the thousands of vendors’ stalls, kiosks, containers and their millions of cedis of investments (in the form of clothes, shoes, furnishings, etc., much bought on credit), were extinguished. What wasn’t destroyed by fire, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) reduced to rubble in the clean-up exercise that followed.

Almost immediately, while some vendors have tried relocating to Odawna Market near Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a number of vendors have simply returned. Where else would they go, responds Ifeoma, a vendor, when I asked her: This is where her customers know to find her. She came to Accra from Enugu (a city in Eastern Nigeria), years ago and has been selling in the market ever since. Stationed under brightly colored umbrellas and small tents erected to give shade from the morning sun, Ifeoma and the other vendors now heap their goods on top of mats, plastic wrapping, hang their best clothes up on makeshift display cases, showcase them on benches. At first, entering the market from the bustling entrance at Merchant Bank, it seems the disaster can’t stop these vendors, and many of them attempt to reprise their selling spaces. But as you enter deeper into the market, navigate through the piles and umbrellas as one would have navigated the maze of makeshift wooden stalls before, bustling activity gives way to the gaping spaces that now are populated with only rubble and remains.

In this now open space, I see a middle-aged vendor. He bends down, approximates where his old stall used to be, and spreads out plastic sheets before he lays out his jeans. A few meters away, another vendor sets up shop, selling jeans, but on a bench. As I look at them, I think of the few, if any land rights these traders have; their constant tug-of-war with government as their economic contributions are welcomed, but not their physical encroachments; and I think of how they will continue to exist here, or elsewhere, with the changing economic and spatial landscape of a city. And at the core of it all are vendors like these, who due to circumstances outside their control, struggle to sell jeans to make a living.

Whose land is it, anyway?

On the heels of the destruction, the AMA and the Ministry of Transport’s Ghana Railway Authority have been quick to leverage the disaster as an opportunity to transform the space: The AMA has its eyes set on transforming the space into a “modern market,” while the Railway Authority is set on a central railway terminal. Already, the AMA says it would like to start construction as soon as July, and finish it by December of this year. The Railway Authority would use the space to expand the station into a full-fledged transportation hub, to include lower-scale commercial activity. Without property rights and enforceable contracts, these traders have little say and find themselves at the mercy of government authorities, private sector interests and their development controls.

Presently, the informal vendors like Ifeoma risk eviction. The Kantamanto vendors say they would like the opportunity to rebuild the market; they see it as the only way to ensure the future land use will continue to serve their commercial and economic interests. More precisely, it would be their best chance of guaranteeing their future there. They have even produced documents demonstrating their 50-year lease agreement for the land signed by the Ghana Railway Authority. Simultaneously, the traditional authority, the Gbese Mantse Nii Ayi Bonte II, claims legal ownership of the land that supersedes both the AMA and the Ghana Railway Authority. He also states that the 99-year lease provided to the Railway in 1909 by the then-traditional authority expired in 2008; if true, the Railway Authority would have no legal basis on which it could claim the land, including sub-leasing it to the vendors at Kantamanto. In addition, it appears that the 99-year was granted in 1909 on the basis of the government developing a railway business only, not a commercial market.

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(Photo Credit: Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net)

A changing Old Accra, and what that means for Kantamanto’s traders

The local and informal economies are the economic magnet attracting traffic and business to Old Accra: Each weekday, the area, home to Makola and Kantamanto markets, government ministries offices and national headquarters offices, attracts immense vehicular and human traffic, and it is here that people spend thousands of cedis each day, providing a boon to the economy. As illustrated in the World Bank’s Consultative Report Card for Accra, Ghana (2010), public markets, like Kantamanto, are vital centers of commerce despite their weaknesses (uncleanliness, crowdedness, organization and ad hoc layout), and some 67 percent of households in the city reportedly shop at markets at least once a week, and half of those visit markets several times each week.

The tensions — between the street vendors on the one side and the AMA and Ghana Railway Authority on the other — are based on competing visions for the city, as Informal City Dialogues writer Sharon Benzoni describes. What’s happening at Kantamanto is emblematic of dramatic changes taking place throughout the city: Export-led and private sector development have fueled high-end and high-price property development, but at the expense of the local and informal sector that undergirds it. This story isn’t new; the economic-turned-spatial inequalities in Accra are actually as old as the city itself.

And so while the AMA and private sector developers dream of a “modern” (read: foreign-oriented) downtown, replete with five-star hotels and multistory shopping malls for the city’s rising expat and affluent local class, they ignore the existing economic dynamic and contribution of this sector.

What doesn’t go ignored are the sector’s more unpalatable (and tangible) spatial aspects: The vendors appropriate public spaces — sidewalks (pedestrian walkways), street spaces and storefronts that they use in order for selling space, the low-cost business infrastructure (kiosks to containers) that they erect as shops and selling stalls, the key locations in the city where they congregate. While these vendors’ themselves bear the brunt of their economic vulnerability, admittedly, their space dynamics impacts everyone. From its actions, the government’s continued stance is that these traders’ activities are marginal at best, illegal at worst.

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(Photo Credit: Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net)

What could an inclusive future for “Old Accra” look like?

If the AMA, the Ministry of Transport, Town and Country Planning, as well as the Kantamanto unions and other stakeholders could come together, it would go a long way in achieving the necessary inputs to develop a cohesive and inclusive vision for a new “Old Accra” (read: idealistic urban planner here). Now would be a perfect opportunity to develop a design solution that formally integrates market vendors’ and their activities into the overall economy, as well as rental/tenure agreements; to work with those trading at markets like Kantamanto, rather than working against them.

Here are the kind of design processes and solutions an idealistic urban planner like me would have in mind:

  • Facilitating a community visioning workshop for people to air out their ideas, both positive and negative. Not everyone wants the same thing, and not everyone holds the same ideas about what is best for the city and this space. But creating an opportunity for  the AMA, the Ministry of Transport, the local authorities, the business owners, the customers, the Kantamanto vendors to talk to one another, rather than at each other via various media platforms could at least get at shared understandings. In addition, it could air out the unrealistic ideas, and provide the space for negotiation, cooperation, finding a middle ground that balances these disparate stakeholders’ desires.
  • Collect user data on the various transportation modes, and map out the data to visualize the real transport trends that bring people to and around the Old Accra area. Because the changes that would affect so many people should be based on real data, not on intuitions, or politics, or whims.
  • Measure informal vendors’ real contributions to the economy. An economic activity survey would not only document these individuals’ activities, it would also provide evidence-based support for their important contributions (data is power).
  • Developing a central transportation hub, that includes the existing railway, is key. It would facilitate trade and transportation between Tema (where goods arrive at port) to Accra (where goods are sold; also a central distribution point). It could also ease vehicular road traffic leading to this area. But in order to achieve that, the railway must be linked up with existing transportation services, particularly the tro-tros, and Tema Station is a major terminal station for tro-tros throughout the city. Tudu station is a major terminal for intracity international transport via tro-tro, and the area is also home to the larger commercial MMT and Intercity STC buses terminals. At this point, because they seem to have planned and developed themselves ad hoc and informally, their operations are disjointed and uncoordinated. For example, imagine someone arriving from out of town via MMT bus that wants to meet up with a friend in Tema, and would like to use public transport. Or a businessman who comes from East Legon to the area everyday for work at the Ministries. How could we make their commuting experiences easier, more accessible? How could we bring these transport modes together?
  • Envision a multistory market structure with sufficient space to accommodate the bulk of Kantamanto traders, and ensured affordable rents and space. The continued single-story development leads to sprawling activities; a multistory structure would economize space and allow available land for other planning needs.
  • Ensure truly affordable commercial spaces for rent, with tenure and renting agreements guaranteed by the AMA.
  • Evelyn

    I am so amazed by the resilience of the vendors. This is such an unfortunate circumstance, it seems like a prime opportunity to improve upon the infrastructure of the market and the vendors’ livelihood. This reminds me somewhat of Katrina. The devastation brought a renewed sense of building New Orleans to be an even better city than it was the first time. It takes time, but there is hope. Also, I love your pictures!!!

  • Evelyn, that’s such a good connection that you make between this and Hurricane Katrina. Similar in how it completely wiped out individual’s homes and businesses, and forced them to start anew. It also highlights a lot of concerns that otherwise went ignored, in terms of how do we prevent these kinds of catastrophes in the future? Thanks so much for your comment!

  • It is perharps worth reminding that many markets in Europe’s XIXth century were in fact not that different from what you describe in Kantamanto until someone had the idea to have a decent paving and a light steel structure over that space, even if today they are marketed in a quite posh manner. Even if we sometimes have more affluent societies, small shopkeepers are also in danger when such markets are hit by problems, so there is some sort of parallel.
    Just congratulations, you provide us with good posts that remind, from a perspective quite different from our everyday lifes, the real basis for a good planning.

  • Thanks for point out this cross-cultural similarity and reminding us the history of how these urban landscapes develop! As you rightly point out, it’s can often be a contentious relationship between stakeholders who seek to use and manage these spaces. In this case, it’s the vendors vs. the government vs. the railway operators/authorities, but it’s similar challenges all over the world. Thanks again!