In the city of Cotonou, most drivers of the numerous motorbike taxis known as “zémidjans” in the local language have a strange accessory to their uniforms: they wear sleeping masks (the kind one gets on planes) over their mouths. Cotonou is the economic capital of the small West African country of Benin, in between Togo and Nigeria, and one of the most polluted cities on earth. With these masks, the drivers try to protect themselves from the harmful exhaust emissions they are exposed to in their daily work.
Cotonou’s remodeled eye masks do not simply tell a story about Cotonou’s principal means of transport, which is a catastrophe for an environmentally sustainable city. The masks also reveal a deeper story: addressing environmental issues means tackling social inequality.
In Benin, the triumph of the “zems” started in the 1980s when an economic crisis hit the country. People were unemployed and moved to the big cities in masses. The formal transportation provided by the state no longer functioned. As a consequence, people took matters into their own hands. Many men turned to the zem business and began to offer their two-wheeled services. An informal transportation system was born and has since flourished, with numerous related businesses growing as well. For instance, many mechanics do good business with repair services. The zems’ lifeblood—fuel—is illegally imported from Benin’s neighbor Nigeria and sold by hard-working street vendors on every corner, who refill the vehicles from reusable bottles.
Loopholes in legislation favored the development of the zem business, the International Transport Worker Federation points out. Nigerian researcher Geoffrey Nwaka says, “The informal sector thrives because of its informality.”
For most “kekenos,” as the zem drivers are called in the local language, the business is a safety net that catches those who, for some reason, cannot find conventional work. Their hope is that being a kekeno is an intermediate step that eventually will lead to a better life. Beninese researcher Moussa Gibigaye gives a face to the thousands of drivers in Cotonou, saying, “They are unemployed graduates, people who have been made redundant, students, and increasingly civil servants still in post, but especially peasants who have just arrived from rural areas or artisans who have just finished their apprenticeship and do not have the resources to set up in business.”
While on the one hand the zems play an important role in Beninese society in various ways, they also are not welcome there. A few years ago, Gibigaye says, the government pursued a strategy “to eradicate this sector.”
The zem business is a major contributor to pollution, which limits the city’s quality of life and presents a great health risk for both the drivers and the local population. “Addressing the problems of informal transport workers is crucial in the wider context of reducing emissions in the fast-growing mega-cities of the global south, which is one of the key drivers of climate change,” says Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a network that promotes the empowerment of the working poor globally.
However, the zem business is not just an environmental problem. Initiatives like that by the French Development Agency to replace the highly polluting two-stroke motorbikes with less polluting four-stroke motorbikes tackles only the environmental symptoms of a social problem. According to the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), nine out of ten African workers do not figure in any statistics on official jobs. As workers in the so-called “informal sector,” they work behind a curtain. The most vulnerable groups in society are especially affected: women, youths, and the poor. While this unofficial work allows many people to make a reasonable income, these laborers have to work in very insecure circumstances: no secure income, no employment benefits, and no social protections, as the AfDB notes.
Researcher Nwaka emphasizes the social causes of the zems’ environmental challenge to the city, saying, “The path to urban peace and sustainability in Africa lies in building a more inclusive and equitable society.” This has implications for policies and laws. “There is a need to change policies and attitudes from neglect and repression to recognition and support, and to promote complementary links with the formal sector,” Nwaka says.
This strategy would create a society that accommodates all its members. And then the sleeping masks will be used as such.