Beyond Informality – Young Call Box Workers and Smartphone Traders in Abidjan and Their Making of Livelihoods.

Monday, 16 July 2018: 15:50
Oral Presentation
Hannah SCHILLING, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany
Mobile phones are devices of crucial importance to young dwellers in urban Africa (Matlon 2014; Archambault 2012), and are interesting starting points from which to study relations of debt and credit in the making of urban livelihoods - and are constitutive part in new urban work arrangements that the digital transformation give rise to worldwide. This paper looks at ways in which young men in Abidjan utilize mobile phones to make a living in the city, on the basis of participant observations and in-depth interviews with young call box workers and smart phone traders in two popular neighborhoods in Abidjan. The sale of airtime and mobile phones constitutes for young Abidjanese men a way to navigate core social spaces of urban life – such as households, the street, and the nightlife. In the fabrication of their relationships to other dwellers, these earnings gain different meanings, depending on the politics of value at stake, and the moral economies in play (Guyer 2004; 2012). At the same time, the young men’s practices represent important nodes in an infrastructure of communication that constitutes the backbone of a growing global market (Cheneau-Loquay 2012).

The study of mobile phone economies reveals thus dynamics in cities in which consumption emerges as a privileged site for the fabrication of self and society and the role of labour gets more and more labile (Comaroff/Comaroff 2000). ‘Dealing with credit’, then, becomes a daily condition for making urban livelihoods - a condition captured by social policies and urban development programs, with social costs that need to be assessed carefully (i.e.Ferguson 2015). These new forms of income generation also urge us to rethink African urban labor markets beyond the divide in informal and formal work.