Linking Recognition to Resilience: Cognitive Justice and the Informal Economy

By | April 17, 2022

Soon enough, at some point this year, I’ll have to take a decision about whether to situate my vegetable vendors and informal traders as ‘livelihood’ actors, ekeing out a living by the side of the road, or continue bypassing the literature of poverty as I strive to reinforce their status and role as professional traders and intrepid actors who keep fresh vegetables flowing into the informal settlements of Nairobi for low socio-economic food security needs. Recognition matters you see. And the IPCC (2022) has gone as far as to describe recognition as one of the three pillars of climate justice.

Source: IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers

Falling back on the plethora of extant literature would be the easiest thing in the world. By undermining all the hard work and effort I’ve seen among the informal sector over the years as mere livelihoods would open doors easily to discussions of livelihood resilience (see Speranza, Wiesmann, & Rist, 2014) in the context of the massive global socio-environmental changes occurring with increasing frequency and unpredictability. I make note here that I’ve only seen the word ‘livelihoods’ when referring to people’s employment or revenue generating activities in the context of the global South. It has become laden with implications of low-skilled, low-productivity work, and imbued with all the degradation of poverty, vulnerability, and marginalization. In Finland, livelihoods is used in general parlance for all occupations, but that is an exception that proves the rule.

What do “low skill, low productivity” even mean in an essential sector such as facilitating flows of perishable fresh vegetables in a timely manner, against all odds during a pandemic and its socio-environmental impacts? This, in my opinion, is the outcome of cognitive injustice. Throughout the disruptions and delays caused by pandemic management restrictions, curfews, lockdowns, and blockades, fresh vegetables kept reaching the lowest socioeconomic segments of Nairobi’s population (NIPFN, 2021). This could not possibly have happened without highly skilled and experienced traders, such as those who operate in Nairobi’s wholesale produce markets, leveraging their extensive networks and connections to ensure the last mile of the farm to fork value chain is kept functioning. Our data with 4 groups of 5 wholesalers each, operating in the value chain for tomatoes, bananas, green leafy vegetables, and onions, shows the increased risk burden borne by these linchpins who connect rural producers to urban customers.

However, I may have found a way out of my dilemma, underscoring my own well-documented call for recognizing these essential occupations as more than mere livelihoods. Cognitive injustice is closely related to the principle of recognition, as cognitive justice implies the recognition of skills and capacities that may not fall into conventional categories of higher education or vocational training et al. And, so I’ve begun exploring the literature of cognitive justice, and its implications for mama mbogas – women who vend vegetables like the lady in the photograph above.

The best example of the definition and application of the concept of cognitive justice that I’ve found is from Brendan Coolsaet (2016) who extends an idea that emerged as decolonial thought to the context of European peasant farmers in France. Such a reversal of the flow of concepts, imo, increases the robustness of the concept, therefore I will introduce his conceptualization in snippets below:

The… struggle for recognition, hence, is one for cognitive justice. Cognitive justice is a notion originating in decolonial thought. It encompasses not only the right of different practices to co-exist, but entails an active engagement across their knowledge-systems (Visvanathan, 2005; Santos, 2007). [Coolsaet, 2016]

And, his paper provides an inspiration pathway towards developing my own theoretical contributions, viz.,

The paper begins by introducing the reader to the concepts of (justice as) recognition and cognitive justice, drawing on critical theory and decolonial thought. It then considers the relevance of these concepts for the European context, showing how European peasants are culturally and cognitively misrecognized. [Coolsaet, 2016]

My reasons have to do with my data analysis of the extensive qualitative datasets from the remote resilience project completed for my dissertation work in 2020-2021. There is a persistence of personal impact of recognition that comes through the multi-temporal sampling of the longitudinal study. In the context of this blog, I’ll simply share a screencap of a video interview with a participating vegetable vendor from one of Nairobi’s slums who, when asked to reflect on the impact of her experience of the social design intervention, after more than a year, sat back and said this (translated captioning and video interview by Tazama Africa team of innovation facilitators).

Not only is the principle of recognition a part of the concept of justice (IPCC, 2022) but one can see the relationship between such recognition (and thus respect) and socio-economic resilience as an outcome of the resulting motivation for growth and business development. Seen below is a quote translated by a facilitator and documented during the closing session of the intervention.

These two statements are from different participants from different localities in Nairobi and were each said more than a year apart. Recognition itself seems to be a resilient principle, and its impact is long lasting, with implications for facilitating sustainable social change. This is all I’ll say for now, as writing any further words requires more thoughtful review and analysis.


Coolsaet, B. (2016). Towards an agroecology of knowledges: Recognition, cognitive justice and farmers’ autonomy in France. Journal of Rural Studies, 47, 165-171.

Speranza, C. I., Wiesmann, U., & Rist, S. (2014). An indicator framework for assessing livelihood resilience in the context of social–ecological dynamics. Global Environmental Change, 28, 109-119.

IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . Cambridge University Press.

NIPFN Kenya, November 2021, National Information Platform for Food Security and Nutrition, Food Security Situation during COVID-19 Pandemic, Source

de Sousa Santos, B., Nunes, J. A., & Meneses, M. P. (2007). Opening up the canon of knowledge and recognition of difference. In de Sousa Santos, B.(Ed) Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies.

Visvanathan, S., 2005. Knowledge, justice and democracy. In: Leach, M., Scoones, I.,Wynne, B. (Eds.), Science and Citizens: Globalization and the Challenge of Engagement. Zed Books, London; New York (p. viii, 295 p.)

Webb, J. W., Tihanyi, L., Ireland, R. D., & Sirmon, D. G. (2009). You say illegal, I say legitimate: Entrepreneurship in the informal economy. Academy of management review, 34(3), 492-510.

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