This paper is a gentle probe into the world of street children in Africa. It is an attempt to scratch the surface of an issue that has varying causes and effects; and to reecho the alarm for policy recommendations and actions, as has been provided by many authors in the past. The paper introduces a new layer of Street Children; The Street Business Child – and it discusses not only the immediate survival gains that propel the lives of street children and their families, but some of the neglected long-term implications are posed. There is limited in-depth research on the causes and effects of the Street Children phenomenon, and very few authors have written on the nature of street children in the context of the future development of the African continent. So, this paper is an overture for further research.

The character of street children is explored in three West African countries – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – and a cursory review of the similarities in their causes and effects is conducted. The countries in this article share geographic borders, and certain customs and traditions are similar amongst them; further, they have commonalities of issues with respect to socioeconomic and national development. The selection of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was made effortless by their ranking among the world’s 30 poorest nations by Business Insider (2017); and being listed among the world’s least developed countries by the United Nations.

In 2014, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were gravely impacted by the Ebola Pandemic which killed more than 28,600 people. In addition, the countries share closed interests through the Economic Community of West African States. There are significant numbers of street children in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that are linked to their shared socioeconomic values. Although this paper is more concerned with the social, rather than political solutions to the problem of street children; embracing the findings and recommendations, and implementing any future recommendations coming out of further studies will require political will.

Street Children in Africa

The increasing number of Street Children in Africa is destined to become one of the continent’s major inhibiting factors for future developments, specifically because the phenomenon can have an undesirable impact on the pipeline of human capital. While it is unlawful for children to roam the streets in many nations, the street children crisis and its related social and economic undercurrents are slowly becoming the norm for many African countries. Despite the societal ills that accompany unsupervised children in the streets, for the Street Children and family, street peddling is not only a survival trait; it is a way of life.

Street children are young people under the age of 18, that use the streets for shelter and livelihood. Currently, there are more than 120 million street children in the world (Humanium, 2018); and approximately 30 million of those street children are in Africa. A street child, as defined by UNICEF is comprised of three categories of children: First, the “Child of the Streets” are children who live in streets with no family support. This group includes runaway children, orphans and children separated from their parents as the result of war and conflicts. The Child of the Streets tends to move from place to place within the city, often looking for food and shelter. They may congregate at large events, open marketplaces and public activities in search of opportunities to beg for money or food. The Child of the Street might find shelter in abandoned buildings, open sporting arenas, abandoned vehicles, and under bridges and overpass. In Africa, the most common reason for children street peddling has been associated with the “collapse of the family” due to socio-economic problems, national or regional instability resulting from the breakdown of national systems and economies, and as the result of war and conflicts. Children of the Street are seldomly enrolled in school, thereby making it difficult for them to fully recover and participate meaningfully in their nation’s economy as adults.

The second category of street children is the “Child on the Street”. These are children who leave home for the streets in the morning and return home at night. Because of poverty, and associated difficulties the Child on the Street spends most of his day on the streets to help support the home. In least developed nations such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Child on the Street tends to live with physically handicapped or visually impaired adults, often, family members. Their street roles may include accompanying blind adults or frail parents to the streets to carryout begging activities. While this category of street children lives at home, because their family is impoverished or may be disabled, the child is burdened with sourcing money and food for the family. So, the child’s street activities take higher priority over education and play. The Child on the Street may be enrolled in school, but his responsibilities tend to prevent him from carrying out any type of meaningful school activities.

The third group of Street Children is the “Child of a Street Family”. These are children who live on the streets along with their parents, and seek daily survival through street activities, including working or begging for food and money on the streets. Much of this group is comprised of displaced children and parents due to poverty, wars, conflict, unemployment, or natural disasters. Child of Street Families are forced to live a roaming life, carrying all their possessions with them from place to place. Children in this group roam the streets with other members of their families, establish extended street families, and very rarely attend school. They seldomly acquire short term housing but are back in the streets in few months.

Africa’s Urbanization Dynamics

Africa’s fast urbanizing population is expected to reach 900 million in 35 years, according to Mo Ibrahim Foundation; and in Sub-Sahara Africa, 32% of the population will reside in Cities. According to the United Nations, by the year 2025, there will be 37 megacities in the world – cities with at least 10 million population. Also, by 2025, Africa will have three megacities: Cairo, Egypt with a population of 11.2 million; Lagos, Nigeria with 11.2 million; and Kinshasa, DRC will have a population of 14.5 million. As the African Continent’s population grows, its urban population increases as well; and the youth population grows correspondingly. According to the World Economic Forum, all 10 countries with the world’s youngest population are in Africa. A recent World Bank estimate established that Africa’s demographic dividend could generate 11-15% GDP growth in 20 years. The population of the Continent grew at a rate of 2.6% annually between 1950 and 2014, compared to the UN’s annual global estimated rate of 1.7%. The report also revealed that Africa’s growth in population was aided by a reduction in mortality rate, and an increase in fertility rate. Economists believe that increase in the young population can result to an increase in the working-age group; and that is good economic incentives for the African continent.

In the wake of Africa’s booming youthful population, high poverty and unemployment, a fourth group of Street Children has emerged, the “Street Business Child”. This segment of Street Children has the potential of adding to the reduction in anticipated dividends of Africa’s burgeoning youthful population, unless deliberate efforts are made to reverse the trend, including a focus on educate and training. In a study by African Economic Outlook, the working-age population in Africa grew 2.6% annually between 2000 and 2007. That increase added 96 million working age to the population of Africa, but only 63 million jobs were created on the continent during the same period.

Another issue that affects the African continent is the growing shifts in migration favoring the cities. Africa is the second fastest urbanizing continent, second to Asia; the population growth and changing population dynamics, primarily from rural to urban has contributed immensely to an increase in the population of Street Children in the cities. According to the World Bank (2015), the rapid growth in Africa’s population is in part due to the slow decline in fertility on the continent. The report estimates that by 2060 there will be about 10 billion people in the world; and 2.8 billion of the world’s population will reside in Africa. While population growth can serve as economic dividend, the report noted that it will require the right combination of government policies and actions to increase the probability of taking advantage of the full potential of social and economic benefits from Africa’s population growth. At the top of a list of positive policy recommendations for Africa, according to the Report are “healthcare and education”.

While Africa is currently the least developed continent, its annual urbanization rate of 3.5% is one of the highest in the world. African cities have grown from 28% of population in 1980 to an enormous 40% of population living in the cities in 2017, according to Population Connection. Rapid urbanization has expanded social and economic problems on the continent, including lack to adequate healthcare, schools, roads, and education; and these problems have inhibited governments from developing and implementing policies fast enough to meet social and economic demands. The combination of challenges aforementioned, and African governments inability to respond quickly has resulted to more families who migrate to cities to live in slums, seek work in the informal sectors, and survive on poor or no healthcare services.

African counties are suffering from the rise in slum dwelling as a byproduct of urbanization; and because slum communities are on the rise in most African cities, there are inadequate social services for residents. Much of Africa’s annual population migration comes from small towns and villages direct to the cities, and they tend to reside in slum communities because slump dwelling is cheaper and readily available. The World Health Organization reports that Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban slum population will double by the year 2020 to 400 million habitants. The result will be an increase in declining sanitary conditions, a rise in the lack of safe drinking water, and more city residents without proper healthcare services. In much of Africa, the preponderance of street children come from city slums where the average dweller is unemployed. In Sub-Sahara Africa, where approximately 33% of the population resides in cities, 55% of urban residents that are rural to urban migrants, and tend to live in slums (World Bank, 2014). 

The Street Business Child

Street Business Child is an emergent fourth phenomenon of street children; it is a trend described as “street child merchants” that work for parents, guardians, relative or retailer. The Street Business Child spends his entire day selling on city streets, between vehicles in traffic, at public events, and in open marketplaces. Street Business Children are not homeless, they do not reside in the streets, but their life activities and friends are of the streets. The Street Business Child is a street vendor, a child under the age of 18 years, who lives with friends, relatives, parents or guardians; but the adult’s interest in the child is only economic.

The sensation of street children in Africa is complicated by various factors; combined with not only the lack of care for children in the streets; but the phenomenon is a product of economics, social, cultural and political problems. Street Children has been trending in Africa for more than 50 decades, and now beginning to show loss of human capital values to the economic development of African nations. Street children are confronted with several evolving evils that can restrict their development, including the lack of favorable shelter, limited or no access to balanced nutritious meals, and the lack of proper healthcare, and limited access to education. The Street Child tends to stop schooling as soon as he is introduced to the streets. Although the Street Child hopes for a safe home and caring community, the primary goal for any street child is daily survival, nothing more. Addressing the problem of street children will help ensure the adequacy of a trained workforce for the continent’s future development.

Efforts to end Street Child vending is complicated by the fact that street selling provides immediate economic release for children and families living in poverty. Moreover, the simplicity of street selling also makes it easy as a line of business for children petty-traders, thereby its obvious attraction to the Street Business Child and their parents. Street selling policies exist in most African countries, including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; however, it is difficult to enforce those policies because of “social sensitivity” surrounding the nature of poverty and survival. Also, because citizens of poor countries already struggle to provide for their families; removing street vendors or seizing their merchandise can be seen as inhumane to the poor street seller. Street vending provides the ease of entry into business for the seller, it requires limited resources, and the sourcing of products is simple. Street selling required no overheads nor employees; and street vending is not labor intensive, it requires no special skills.

Increases in the number of Street Business Children can be attributed to certain African traditions and customs. As a matter of tradition, many Africans have been made to believe that labor is not harmful to children; that requiring children to work is like nurturing, and that work increases the maturity of the child. Other African traditions suggest that informal skills can be gained by the child as the result of work activities at an early age, thereby creating a direct benefit to the child. This is particularly true for children working in auto repair shops, where a child may be put to work all day. Yet still, some cultures in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone believe that because children cannot contribute financially to the family household income, their labor should serve as contribution to the household. In small family run businesses such as carpentry shops, cook shops, tailor shops, bakeries, and convenience stores that require apprenticeship help and hands-on assistance; children are put to work from sunup to sundown; often with little or no food, and limited access to schooling nor play time.

Other African customs permit the practice of “informal” adoption of a child, which allows children from small towns and villages to be unofficially adopted by affluent individuals and families from the city; usually, under the premise of providing the child with educational opportunities in the city. However, such children are recruited to serve as domestic workers or street vendors with limited opportunities for schooling. When a street child gathers enough courage to escape their abuser, rather than returning to the village, they tend to remain in the city to live with fiends or associates, and eventually returning to the streets.


Street Children in Guinea

Guinea is bordered by Liberia and Sierra Leone, and by the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The country has been experiencing strong population growth in the past 10 years as the result of declining mortality rates and sustained increase in fertility, according to the World Fact Book (2017). The fertility rate for Guinea stands at 4.7 children per woman; and as a tradition, there is a preference for larger families. Guinea is challenged by poverty and the lack of educational attainment, especially among women. Primary education in Guinea is mandatory and tuition-free, but many families cannot afford the administrative fees to register their children for school. Approximately 50% of Guinean children attend school; but the youth literacy rate is 45.2%, according to UNICEF (2012).

The population of Guinea is 12.4 million (May 2018), and highly youthful. Approximately 42% of the country’s population is under the age of 14 years, and 20% of Guinea’s population is between the ages of 15 and 24. The dependency ratio of Guinea, according to the World Fact Book is 84.5. Guinea is 86.2% Muslim and 9.7% Christian. According to Humanium, Guinean children are often victims of trans-border trafficking; where they are taken to Mali, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire to be put to work or subjected to other forms of exploitation. Some children are employed as domestic help or forced to work on farms; while others are forced to sell on city streets.

Child labor is prevalence in Guinea, it is estimated that 73% of Guinean children have some type of work, including those that have not reached the minimum age of 16 for employment. Guinean law provides exceptions for children to work as young as age 12 as apprentices. Among the working children, nearly 61 % are domestic staff. The World Facts Book reports that each year, thousands of girls are forced to work as domestic helpers, with working conditions that are like modern-day slavery. More besides, children living with guardians, who work as domestic helpers in Guinea do not receive any pay, because their labor is in exchange for being provided shelter and food.

Child abuse and early marriage are also common in Guinea; despite the legal marriage age being 21 for men, and 17 for women; girls between ages 11 and 15 are victims of early marriage. Child marriage in Guinea has been linked to lack of education and poverty. The African tradition of arranged marriage by parents is also commonness. Due to the abuse of children working as domestic staff, children often escape from their care providers to live on the streets of Conakry (the Capital of Guinea), without parental care and protection.



Street Children in Liberia

Liberia is situated on the west coast of Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. The nation was a settlement for freed slaves from the United States of America in 1822; and gained independence in 1847 as a republic. Liberia’s population is 4.7 million (July 2017), with 44% of the population under the age of 14; and 20% between the ages of 15 and 24. Liberia has a dependency rate of 83.2, and a fertility rate of 5 children per woman. The labor force of Liberia is 1.6 million, with 70% in the agriculture sector according to the World Facts Book. The literacy rate of Liberia (2015) is 47.6%; and the literacy rate for men is higher (62.4%)than the national average.

Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia suffered from forced migration during and after the 14 years civil war of 1989-1996 and 1999-2003. As a result, the population of Monrovia has grown steadily during the war, and in the 15 years preceding the civil war. Monrovia’s population growth is driven by an upsurge of rural-to-urban migration supported by the lack of job opportunities and adequate schools in some rural districts. Monrovia as a destination for migration is also triggered by a national economy that is heavily centralized in the Capital City. So, as citizens fled the rural towns and villages and moved to Monrovia in search of safety during the civil war, they never returned when the war ended in 2003. Much of the new waves of city dwellers are undereducated and underprepared for skilled-work in the city; many of the city migrants are with less than primary education, joining a city that is already over populated.

A recent study by Street Child of Liberia stated that there are an estimated 14,000 children on the streets of Monrovia; and this paper estimated as much as 10,000 more street children in all other cities in the country. Two of the contributing factors for street children in Liberia are poverty and teenage pregnancy. Recent estimates by the World Health Organization reveal that 1.3 million Liberians live in extreme poverty; and Liberians also suffer from high teenage pregnancy crisis. Nearly 33% of girls between ages 15-19 in Liberia has had a child, according to IRIN (2017), thereby giving Liberia one of West Africa’s highest teenage pregnancy rates. According to Save the Children (2010) an average of 3 in 10 Liberian girls are pregnant before the age of 18; the rate of pregnancy among adolescent girls ages 15-19 in rural areas is 42%, and in urban areas, the teenage pregnancy rate is 24%. Contributing to the probability of an adolescent girls is the tradition belief of “Sande Bush”; also known as “sexual rite of passage” for girls. Sande Bush is a practice by which young girls are initiated to becoming sexually active; where they are taught sexual health and well-being. The ritual performed in rural bush schools also teaches traditional beliefs of marriage and motherhood are also practiced in Liberia. Historically, bush schools are an obstacle to formal classroom education for Liberian girls, because young girls are transitioned into early marriage following the completion of Bush Schooling. Early marriage as a tradition also contributes to the high illiteracy rate of Liberia. Although the legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and boys in Liberia; child marriage is high in the nation, with 36% of girls in Liberia married before the age of 18.

While the Labor Law of Liberia prohibits children from working during school hours, child labor is widespread in the country. Children in Liberia are required to attend school only up to age 15, according to the education law; and children are not legally permitted to work until age 16, also according to the Labor Law. According to the US Department of Labor, child labor in Liberia is in nearly every sector of the Liberian society. In large cities, children work as street sellers, while in rural areas, while there are street children, the practice the Street Business Child is minimal, however, children tend to work in the agricultural and mining sectors. In some suburban communities near Monrovia, children are engaged in hazard labor activities for their parents and guardian, such as rock crushing. Yet still, in Monrovia, some children are hired as commercial truck loaders, sand and rock baggers, fish sellers, kitchen aids, and domestic workers.

Street Children in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is located on the west course of Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leone has a population of 6.1 million according to the World Fact Book (2017); with a very youthful population. In 2017, nearly 42% of the population of Sierra Leone was less than 14 years old; and 19% between the ages of 15 and 24; which puts approximately 60% of the country’s population under age 25. The country has a dependency ratio of 82.8. The fertility rate of Sierra Leone is 5 children per woman. Nonetheless, the country’s population growth in the past 10 years has been reduced due to high mortality rates, limited access to proper healthcare services, and poor nutrition. The adult literacy rate of Sierra Leone is 48.4 %, according to Knoema (2015). The nation has a youth unemployment rate of 60%, which is credited to the high illiteracy rate and unskilled labor force.

In 2012, “Street Child of Sierra Leone” produced a comprehensive headcount of street children in the nation. The study shows that abject poverty remains pervasive in the country. According to the study, Sierra Leoneans continue to live in poverty at a rate of 77% of the population, while 62.79% of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. The Street Child NGO study also revealed that in 2012, there were more than 49,000 children on the streets of Sierra Leone; and nearly 50% of them were found to live on the streets of Freetown. Street children in Sierra Leone serve as small size business workers, material movers, sellers, and causal workers. The number of boys Street Children in Sierra Leone is slightly higher than girls (54%) and 46% girls.

Culture, customs, and traditional norms are major influencers of family decisions in Sierra Leone. For example, a survey conducted by UNICEF and WHO found that tradition controls the number of children a woman can have, and the frequency of births she can experience. According to tradition, these are decision to be made by the husbands. Sierra Leone is also rooted in the practice of traditional Poro Secret society values. The Poro is the men’s version of Secret Society; also practiced in Liberia and Guinea. The traditional secret practice was introduced by the Mande tribe in the region. A female counterpart to the Poro Society is the Sande society. Membership to secret societies in West Africa often serves as prerequisite for manhood and womanhood and comes with high social prestige in the local socio-political structure. Both secrecy and power are predicated on the relationship.


The increasing number of Street Business Children in Sub-Sahara Africa can be linked to several socioeconomic factors, with illiteracy and abject poverty being at the top of the list. Illiteracy and poverty can create a sequence of reciprocal causes and effects with the street children, thereby producing additional issues that aggravate each other. For instance, some cultures and traditions can harvest illiteracy by insisting on traditional practices; resulting to limited schooling of children; where the lack of education creates a cycle of poverty.  Similarly, war and civil conflicts in the West African region have contributed immensely to the near collapse of the economies in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea; and produced high unemployment and a rise in the poverty rate. Addressing the street children phenomena will require governments to prioritize education, and to develop strategies that will divert the street child away from the streets.

The phenomenon of the Street Business Child needs to be further examined for full understanding of how this group of street children persists, how their street vending activities can be reversed, and how they might be reconnected to formal schooling. Finally, this paper recommends, for further research, the following eight suspected causes of the street child phenomenon, to help establish the direct relationships between each suspected cause and the Street Business Child:

Illiteracy as a major source of poverty should be studied in the context of the street child. According to the African Library Project, the youth literacy rate (15-24) in Sub-Sahara Africa, even with increases over the past 20 years, was 70% in 2011. The average youth literacy rate for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is 46.7%, far below the continent’s average.

Poverty has a direct effect on the human capacity and sustainable development of any nation. Poverty produces powerlessness for people to harness resources; it stalls economic activities and creates shrinking dividends for the economy. Several factors that cause poverty in Africa are corruption, poor governance, limited education opportunities, poor infrastructure, poor resource management, and wars and conflicts.

Unemployment is one of the most daunting issues facing African countries today; as youth unemployment remains a key socioeconomic challenge on the continent, despite some recent gains in performance. The key sources of unemployment in Sub-Sahara Africa are lack of job opportunities, lack of education, low skilled workforce, untapped value chain of natural resources, lack of adequate seasonal jobs such as farming. Because of limited skilled workforce and a narrowed availability of skilled employment opportunities, citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone tend to seek opportunities in the informal sector for daily sustenance.

Although Culture has a role in the increased number of street children in Africa, the accounts for the phenomenon in a culture is difficult to determine. However, the countries in this paper have overlapping cultures, therefore, the issue of culture should be treated as an important variable in any future study of the Street Business Child phenomenon. For instance, in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; children are, by culture, expected to contribute to the household economics by carrying out certain domestic work, selling, or working in family owned business.

Customs are important to human life; in Africa, however, it is revealed that certain customs are known to contribute to the reasons why some children do not attend school. Each group of people has a custom that is unique to them. However, one overlapping custom among Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is that the family is the most important unit, and activities in the family must reflect the values of the tribe. Customs set expectations for children and guide the activities of children within ethnic groups. For example, should successful completion of secret society rituals be somewhat equivalent to achieving a diploma in formal education?

Traditions on the other hand are important practices that are general to a country or a region; it they are often adopted by residents of that area, and not necessarily considered customs. For instance, the way Africans celebrate national holidays varies by country, and adopted by residents of each nation. The custom in an ethnic group might be that children are crucial to the survival of the family; therefore, they must help maintain household economy through their cheap labor. When such custom is practiced elsewhere in a larger more developed city, it might be viewed as child labor or child abuse.

Teenage Pregnancy contributes to the rise in street children, especially when the parents of the teenager already live in poverty. According to Plan International, around the world, each year, 7.8 million girls become pregnant before turning age 18. While here are other contributing factors for teenage pregnancy, key among them are poverty, lack of education, customs, traditions, among others.

War and Civil Conflict are provoking components for increasing the number of street children. According to UNICEF (2015), one in ten children worldwide lived in a country or region that was defined by armed conflict; and 230 million children in the world grow up in the middle of conflicts. Child soldiers made up of at least 25% of the total fighting forces during the Liberian Civil War, according to UN estimates.

War exposes children to violence; it poses physical harm to children, and creates the environment for the exploitation of children. When children are forced to grow up in a violent environment, they lose trust and confidence in adults, and tend to build protective shells; it then becomes difficult for them to rebuild positive relationships with their peers, families and the wider communities.




  1. Ngambouk Vitalis Pemunta, Tabi Chama-James Tabenyang & James Summers (2017) Cultural power, ritual symbolism and human rights violations in Sierra Leone, Cogent Social Sciences, 3:1, DOI: 1080/23311886.2017.1295549
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