Formal employment opportunities have been on a steady decline. Over the past two years, a number of institutions in Kenya have laid off staff as a cost cutting measure. This coupled with a constantly increasing level of unemployment, especially among the youth, has resulted in the mushrooming of small businesses that enable those that are caught up in such circumstances to make a living in the tough economic times. Most have opted to start-up small businesses which are predominantly informal in their mode of operation that enable them to provide for their families.
Despite the fact that a vast majority of informal businesses are perceived in a negative light due to reasons such as a good number of them not paying taxes, inadequate social security structures as well as poor internal financial infrastructures, there are lessons that one can learn from their operations.
Unity of purpose is one of the ways in which informal businesses have managed to grow and stay afloat. Given the scarcity of resources that they have to contend with, be it financial or technical, majority of them pool resources so as to achieve their goals. A good example can be found in instances where such businesses come together to form associations through which they tackle problems that they face. These range from interacting with government authorities and financial institutions to sharing skills and equipment. Interacting with government authorities and financial institutions in this manner puts them in a stronger bargaining position when it comes to negotiating for better terms of engagement.
Also, informal businesses are often pioneers when it comes to innovation. The growth in the rate of unemployment is one factor that has led to the growth of the informal sector. This, coupled with increasing poverty levels has pushed the informal economy to become the top employment segment in sub Saharan Africa. In Kenya, it accounts for 81% of the total employment demographic. In a bid to remain relevant and competitive, those that are engaged in informal businesses develop products and services that enable them to stay in business. Given that a majority of those engaged in informal businesses tend to be the youth, they contribute new and innovative ideas and technologies to industries that have for long remained traditionally rigid.
Another aspect that can be learnt from informal businesses is their resilience. This can be seen in their widespread presence. In Nairobi for example, if you need to have your car fixed quickly, there is always a garage around the corner. Supermarkets and grocery stores have been overtaken by the numerous “Mama Mboga” shops. In the beauty and cosmetics industry, informal salons are currently available in every neighborhood. This factor has contributed to the exponential growth of this sector.
With all this said and done, the informal economy is still largely characterised by the presence of poor quality employment opportunities. Efforts should be made to support businesses in this sector of the economy as it will be a huge step in the right direction in easing the burden of poverty.
Informal Economy Analyst