Improving Informal Business

The past decade has been characterised by the gradual growth of informal businesses in the sub Saharan region. A global research-policy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), states that regional estimates of the size of the informal sector provide a useful overview, but they hide the diversity that exists within a region.

In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, informal employment tends to account for a smaller share of non-agricultural employment in southern Africa (33 per cent in South Africa and 44 per cent in Namibia) relative to countries in other sub-regions (82 per cent in Mali and 76 per cent in Tanzania). Some of the factors that have accelerated this growth include the rapid rate of urbanisation, a decrease in the number of formal employment opportunities as well as increased rates of poverty.


While it may be argued that informal businesses provide a source of living for many families that would have otherwise been struggling to get by, the jobs that exist therein are poor quality ones. This is due to the fact that jobs in this sector of the economy do not offer any health or terminal benefits, as most operate on a wage-based model. Also, the conditions under which most operate are not conducive for the generation of business opportunities that may enable them to scale. For those that are involved in manual labour, a vast majority are exposed to highly risky environments as they do not have the requisite protective gear that would help them avoid work related injuries. Another common factor of businesses in the sector is their low level of productivity.

Policy makers have suggested various interventions for the sector that would see the improvement of informal businesses in a way that increases their incomes and offers some sort of decency to the lives of those engaged in businesses in the sector. One of the proposals that has been put forward is that of formalising informal businesses. It is often seen as a positive intervention from the perspective that it would not only make these enterprises more profitable, but also increase the tax base of a government, given the expansive nature of the sector.

One of the reasons that discourage informal businesses from formalising is the cost that comes with formalisation. Once they are formal, businesses are required to obtain certain licences as well as adhere to health and safety standards, all of which have a higher price tag than the cess fees that they are accustomed to paying. This aspect would naturally require such businesses to factor in these costs to their goods and services. An increase in pricing generally means that they would lose out on a certain percentage of their clientele who were accustomed to the lower prices.

Furthermore, given that the clientele of these enterprises mainly consists of low income households, the reality of a reduction in their base support system due to an increase in pricing makes the formalisation narrative a hard sell. A conundrum exists in the sense that on one hand, these businesses would like to grow to become more profitable entities while at the same time wanting to maintain their existing customer base. On the other hand, most of them would prefer to remain under the radar of the authorities in a way that minimises the taxes that they would have to pay and extra costs that accompany formalisation.

As it stands, most informal businesses are yet to be convinced that they will benefit from formalizing. When selling the formalisation narrative, policy makers and authorities need to better articulate the benefits that come with formalisation for informal businesses. This should be accompanied with interventions that enhance their business management capabilities, skills upgrading as well as increased access to finance as a precursor to formalization.

Informal Economy Analyst.


The Significance of Investing in the Young Population

The Kenya Economic Report 2015 whose theme is ‘Empowering Youth through Decent and Productive Employment’ released by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) is timely as it provides an indepth look at youth empowerment with a major focus on employment. The youth account for about 6o% of the labour force in the country, which is estimated to be growing at a rate of 2.9% per annum. According to the report, Kenya’s median age is estimated at 19 years and the proportion of the population that is below 15 years is estimated at 43%. Further, 78% of the population is aged below 35 years.


A big challenge facing most youth is the lack of decent and quality jobs; almost three out of every four youth are engaged in the informal economy, traditional agriculture and pastoralist activities. The share of employment in the informal sector in total employment, excluding traditional agriculture and pastoralist activities, increased from about 17.1% in 1983-1987 to 82.7% in 2013/14. This significant increase in the informalization of employment can be attributed to a shrink in formal employment opportunities over the years. As is the case in most parts of sub Saharan Africa, most entrepreneurs opt to venture into informal business as a last resort for it is often the only way they can earn a living.

With Kenya’s median population age being below 20 years of age, in order to arrest the rapidly growing rates of unemployment that have seen a spike in the growth of entrepreneurial informality, the report calls for the development and implementation of employment creation policies and strategies to that will engage this demographic group. Some of the suggestions include investment in productivity enhancement skills, and quality job creation in fast growing and labour-intensive sectors such as services, agriculture and industry, while promoting the manufacture of export goods for the regional and international markets.

Given that about 88 per cent of manufacturing sector employment is in the informal sector, potential interventions in the sector would be a good place to begin. As is the norm, jobs in the informal sector are characterized by low wages and a general lack of social security benefits. In this sense, the quality of jobs provided by the sector are of poor quality. Also, due to the reason that informality is driven by incentives to minimize tax and compliance costs as well as other external factors such as challenges to access of credit, the report suggests that in order to create quality jobs, policy making should mitigate some of the constraints limiting their transformation to formal enterprises.

It is interesting to note that the report also indicates that Kenyan micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) in manufacturing represent over 60% of establishments and account for 29% of those employed in manufacturing. The breakdown of MSMEs involved in manufacturing according to the 2016 MSME Report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is 95% as micro, 3.8% as small and 1.2% as medium sized enterprises. The sector was ranked as the highest contributor accounting for 24.3% of MSMEs gross value added. At publication of this report, this figure stood at 11.7% of gross value added. This represents a 12.6% increase over a two-year period. The significance of ingraining a value addition angle into the manufacturing processes of MSMEs cannot be overstated as it will ensure that manufacturers in this sector of the economy not only reap the benefits of fetching higher market prices for their products, but also enhance the growth of robust value chains that are essential to the successful implementation of national industrialization plans. As is the case with most informal enterprises, firms grapple with issues that include limited access to technology as well as limited research and development activity.

It is clear that tackling the challenges posed by informality is a key to providing a sustainable solution to youth unemployment in the country. Focusing on aspects that improve their productivity such as upskilling, increased access to technology as well as investing in research and development processes will enable those that are engaged in manufacturing to venture into value addition for their products. The trickle-down benefits of implementing policies that are centred around overcoming the aforementioned challenges will be an investment in this country’s future.

Informal Economy Analyst.


Facilitating Access to Credit for Small Business  

Last week, the World Bank released the Kenya Economic Update in which they look into ways in which credit to the private sector can be revived in a bid to accelerate growth in the economy. The Kenyan economy is projected to rebound and reach 5.8% of GDP in 2019. In order for this trajectory to be attained, one of the risks that have to be addressed is the need to jumpstart the recovery of credit growth to the private sector; particularly to Micro, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSMEs) and households. During the launch of the report, the Central Bank of Kenya Governor, Patrick Njoroge noted that the resilience of the Kenyan economy is largely attributed to its strong and vibrant private sector, whose backbone is MSMEs.


The document points out the fact that although the interest rate cap was meant to reduce the cost of credit, thereby making credit accessible to a wider range of borrowers, after a year of implementation the decline in credit growth to the private sector has continued with a couple of unintended negative consequences. One of these is that banks have shifted lending to corporate clients and government at the expense of small and medium sized enterprises and personal household loans. While the interest rate cap policy was an attempt to make credit less costly and therefore more accessible to borrowers, this policy objective has not been achieved. There has been a significant credit rationing to small and medium enterprises and for unsecured personal loans, while lending to the government and lower risk large corporates has increased.

It is interesting to note that the shift in the targeting of bank loan clients away from smaller and riskier borrowers is particularly impactful in Kenya, where riskier SME and micro borrowers make up roughly 80% of all borrowers. Smaller banks, who do not have a large corporate client base, are forced to maintain their portfolios in SME and consumer lending, but have stopped lending to new and unknown customers. The introduction of the rate cap has thus led to a situation whereby there has been a significant decrease in the disbursement of consumer and unsecured loans.

One of the recommendations that are presented in as far as dealing with the shrinking level of loan disbursement is that of recalibrating the current credit reporting system through which banks will be in a better position when it comes to making decisions on loans to risky borrowers, as opposed to the blanket one-size-fits-all approach that is currently being used. They will thus be able to offer financing that is priced per the risk of the borrower. To this end, in order to strengthen credit reporting in Kenya, the CBK is already working with commercial banks on increasing the quality of their consumer data and to include credit reporting data in lending decisions.

Another measure that can be taken to this effect is improving on the overall credit reference bureau data and products. Further, other lenders should be supported to also participate in the credit reporting system, such as SACCOs and microfinance institutions. The implementation of such reforms, coupled with a well-functioning credit bureau, will significantly improve pricing transparency among banks and broadly lower interest rates.

The document states that the goal of accommodating credit worthy borrowers with a higher risk profile, including personal unsecured loans and loans to SMEs calls for a more flexible pricing regime that allows banks to competitively determine loan prices. In order for this to be achieved there needs to be improvements in the institutional environment to prohibit predatory lending, through stronger consumer protections. For example, establishing a consumer protection bureau, could equip borrowers with greater bargaining power with banks and other lenders, promote more transparent pricing practices and increase financial literacy as well as allow for more effective dispute mechanisms.

Informal Economy Analyst.



The Kenyan Government’s Priorities for the Informal Sector

It is a welcome development to see that the prolonged electioneering period has come to an end, for it was characterised by the slow down and even stagnation of certain businesses that has had a negative effect to the economy. As the new administration comes into office, it is interesting to note that it has prioritised aspects of the informal sector in its agenda. These are articulated in their campaign manifesto, some of which were prioritised by the president during his inauguration speech.


In their manifesto, the current administration aimed to create and fully implement a robust Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SME) development and support programme which would formalise the large number of informal businesses and support their growth from micro to small to medium sized enterprises, and eventually into large firms. By doing so, they aim at catalysing the creation of at least one million jobs and consequently contributing to tax revenues.

The two main demographic groups that characterise the informal sector are women and youth. Between 2013 and 2016, 12,000 Micro, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSMEs) have received training in entrepreneurship and management. The manifesto states that a total of Ksh25bn has been transferred to MSMEs through Youth, Uwezo and Women enterprise funds providing support to close to 15 million people who have been enabled to set up businesses. The plan to establish the Biashara Bank by merging the Micro and Small Enterprises Authority, the Youth Enterprises Development Fund, the Women Enterprises Fund and the Uwezo Fund as a means to coordinating the delivery of affordable financing and support for business development is a move that will enhance the focus on the lack of capital as an impediment to the establishment, growth and development of informal businesses. Notably, through the Women Enterprise Fund, women have demonstrated that they are a highly bankable and reliable borrower with a repayment rate of 92%.

Further, providing low interests loans to youth owned enterprises to enable them to grow their businesses has seen an increase from Ksh4.9bn accessed by 407,793 young people in 2006, to Ksh11.8bn disbursed to 893,438 young people in 2013 under the Youth Enterprise Development Fund. As alluded to above, coordinated efforts towards targeting the relevant demographic groups will fine tune the government’s focus. This should include policies and systems that track the growth and performance of businesses that receive funding with a view of informing the direction to be taken during capacity building initiatives.

The manifesto points out the fact that about 80% of the Kenyan population relies on agriculture for employment and livelihood, and that the sector contributes approximately 27% to GDP, about 40% of government revenue and more than 60% of the total export revenue for the country. The plan to establish the Food Acquisition Programme (FAP) that is aimed at creating market demand and stabilising prices for products from small-scale farmers. Under this programme, the government will buy 50% of it’s food requirements from small holder farmers. The fact that Kenya is a major agricultural exporter and that only 16% of all exported agricultural output is processed, the move by the President to target the creation of 1,000 Small and Medium sized Enterprises in agro-processing is a welcome move.

Efforts to construct the Kenya Leather Park in Machakos for over 7,000 SMEs, the setting up of the Leather Cluster Common Manufacturing Facility in Kariokor as well as increasing the number of Export Processing Zones (EPZs) during their previous term is a step in the right direction. However, to ensure sustained growth of these industries will require that Kenya fine tunes its approach towards agriculture as a base requirement for the setting up of light manufacturing. Key to this is setting up collection points for hides at abattoirs, making beef farmers and pastoralists aware of the right cows to breed for higher quality hides, increasing the productivity per acre for agricultural produce as well as setting up sufficient storage facilities that minimise post-harvest wastage.

Informal Economy Analyst.



Formalising the Informal Sector

The informal sector consists of businesses whose operation falls outside of official government parameters for a number of reasons. This puts these entities at a disadvantage as they are often excluded from the benefits that come with formalisation. In this sense, they do not have access to vital support systems that cushion them from the shocks encountered while running a business. Efforts geared towards tackling informality have often been focused on looking for ways through which these businesses can be formalised. There are issues that have to be considered for this to be effectively achieved. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto is of the view that many people join the informal economy because the red tape alongside the bribes that go with it, virtually make it impossible for them to operate legally.


One disadvantage of having a large informal sector is that it deprives governments of crucial revenue for most businesses in this portion of the economy do not pay taxes. Anzetse Were, a Kenyan development economist, is of the view that there are a couple of barriers that hinder the transition into formality which fall into two categories. The first is the expense of transition whereby business registration and licencing processes are laborious processes. The other is the fact that formality is linked to expensive compliance requirements such as complying to inspection standards, paying high wages and taxation. A clear case has yet to be made to informal businesses to convince them of the benefits they would accrue from formalising and entering the tax net.

In the quest to formalise informal businesses, there are factors that should be taken into consideration as well as a process that can be followed that will ensure sustainable business entities are developed. Some of the systems that need to be put in place revolve around strengthening operational capacity, productivity and profitability, legal support and lastly financing and mentoring.

In as far as strengthening the operational capacity of informal businesses goes, interventions should focus on training that is aimed at streamlining internal operations such as maintaining and updating business records, upgrading of skills and developing strategic business plans that demonstrate clear expansion strategies. Proper business records place these businesses in a better negotiation space when approaching financial institutions for collateral to expand their operations. Skills upgrading will enable informal enterprises to enhance the quality of their products and services by ensuring that products are uniform and standardised while the services are up to date and conform to industry expectations.

Working on improving the productivity and profitability component entails looking at factors such as access to skilled labour as well as a focus on marketing. Informal enterprises find it hard to attract and maintain high skilled labour due to their financial position, which negatively impacts their productivity. This is not the case for larger formal enterprises for they are better financially placed to attract this resource and can hence fully exploit economies of scale, thus enhancing their profitability.

The issues around legal support involve matters to do with conformity to labour laws and taxation rules in accordance with the law. Informal businesses need professional support when configuring their internal operational systems. They require guidance in this area so as to ensure that they fully understand labour law and taxation requirements. This will equip them with the information they need when interacting with the authorities that implement these laws, thus reducing incidences where they are extorted due to ignorance.

Last but not least is the component of financing and mentoring. Most informal businesses find it challenging to access funds to upscale their operations. Most financial institutions turn them away due to their high-risk nature. The most suitable approach to be used when thinking of financing these businesses should consider offering affordable and patient finance models. This can be in the form of interest free loans, concessional loans and grants. It is key to couple such interventions with mentoring programs with formal businesses in a process that equips the informal enterprises with the necessary experience and expertise.

It is vital to ensure that the aforementioned basic components are taken into consideration by policy makers when they consider employing interventions that are aimed at supporting informal businesses in a way that enables them to formalise. There is much more that can be done to ease this process which includes offering incentives to encourage formalisation such as offering introductory or subsidised tax rates for newly registered businesses. These will however need to be thoroughly thought through to minimise loopholes that can be taken advantage of by scrupulous businesses.

Informal Economy Analyst  

Comparative Analysis of Informal Economy in Nigeria and Kenya

The Informal Sector in Nigeria and its Impact on Development is a book by Stephanie Itimi which is based on research on the informal sector in Nigeria. It focuses on three key areas namely employment, gender equality and tax evasion. Employment is looked at from the angle of the effect that the informal sector has on job creation. Gender equality merges with employment and is looked into by examining the role that the latter plays in empowering women financially. The author also provides an analysis of the complex relationship between the informal sector and the principle of tax evasion. This article aims at providing a comparative analysis of the informal sector in Nigeria and Kenya, based on the findings of the book, as well as those from research conducted on the Kenyan informal sector.


In Nigeria, the informal sector accounts an estimate of 70% of the total industrial employment. The country has the largest informal sector on the continent, which is enhanced by its population size as well as high levels of poverty. The Federal Office of Statistics (FOS) states that the informal sector creates 25,000 to 35,000 jobs each year. However, although this is highlights the job creation role of the informal sector, the author argues that with a country of 153.9 million people, the impact of the informal sector on unemployment is quite insignificant.

The Kenya Economic Survey 2017 indicates that the total number of new jobs created in the economy was 832.9 thousand. Of these, 85.6 thousand were in the formal sector while 747.3 thousand were created in the informal sector. The share of new jobs created in the informal economy represents a 5.9% growth from 83% recorded the previous year to 89.7%, or 13.3 million people. Nigeria outweighs Kenya’s working population by 66.33 million, however the significant gap is not reflected in the differences in the number of people in the informal sector between Nigeria and Kenya. This is due to Kenya having 89.7% of its working population in the informal sector, while Nigeria has only 34.6% of its working population in the informal sector.

In her book, Stephanie points out that the percentage of women in the informal sector of any economy is high, especially in developing and transition economies by referencing an ILO report which found that 46% of the informal sector in urban Nigeria was dominated by women. She states that the informal sector is seen as a major source of employment for women due to its suitability to their needs. The Micro Small and Medium Sized Enterprises Report 2016, released by the Kenya national Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), indicates that 32.2% of licenced establishments were owned by women, while 60.7% of unlicenced establishments were also owned by women. According to Bitange Ndemo, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, these statistics mirror a global trend whereby women are over represented in the informal economy; a factor that is largely driven by survival, rather than the exploitation of an entrepreneurial opportunity. In terms of financing informal business, he argues that the problem faced is more of the cost of finance rather than it’s access.

On tax evasion as regards informality in Nigeria, the author notes that research has shown that there is a positive correlation between a rise in taxation and a rise in tax evasion, concluding it as a motivational factor for people migrating from the formal to the informal sector. However, factors such as an increase in tax evasion punishments such as heavy fines and prison sentences reduced the likelihood of people participating in the informal sector. Informal Sector and Taxation in Kenya is a publication by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) that stresses the significance role that the informal sector can play in the quest to expand the tax base, noting that the intention of bringing the informal sector into the tax net is to facilitate the transition of these businesses to the formal sector and reduce barriers for all businesses. The paper shows that by extending the tax net to the informal sector, for example in the year 2008, the Kenyan government could have increased the tax base by approximately 7.66 percentage points, translating to revenue worth Kshs.79.3 billion.

In conclusion, as is the case in as far as data on the informal sector is concerned, the author indicates that one of the biggest impediments encountered during her research is its limitation which involved the omission of data in some years and unavailability of up to date research. To this end, she proposes that primary research should be conducted in to have a more up to date and realistic perspective on the topic. The part the informal sector plays in enhancing gender equality is restricted on just income, as female participants are able to easily obtain employment in the informal sector and adapt their job rule to their social and culture gender obligations. Also, government agencies should move from harsh approaches such as destroying informal market areas and increasing tax evasion punishments to more liberal approaches that empowers the activities of the informal sector through the provision of a conducive environment and inclusive policies which enhances productivity within the sector and enables taxation.

Informal Economy Analyst

Informality – Africa and Latin America

In the last article, I gave an overview of the informal sector in both Latin America and Africa while looking at the general features that characterise them. In this piece, I will delve into the similarities and differences in their operation while putting into perspective the opportunities and challenges that they face in line with the environment in which they operate. It is interesting to note that data on this sector of the economy is scanty and shallow in most cases. This signals to the side-lining of this area of the economy despite the magnitude of its existence. The fact is that there needs to be more investment into ventures that will provide a strong foundation for urgently needed interventions in the sector.

In as far as opportunities are concerned, the informal sector provides employment for the millions who miss out on formal employment opportunities. In Kenya, it contributes 90% of the employment demographic outside agriculture. In this sense, it acts as a social safety net by providing a source of income to a majority of households. The sector also presents a crucial access to market for large formal firms due to its proximity to a wider population network in both rural and urban markets.

One of the biggest challenges that arise from informality is the low levels of productivity in firms that operate in the sector. An analysis conducted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that on average, the productivity of informal firms is only one fifth to one quarter that of formal firms in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some common factors that conceive this phenomenon include difficulty in accessing finance, as well as the use of manual techniques in their operations. The latter presents a challenge in the form of producing non-standardised goods and reducing the amount of output while the former makes it difficult for them to scale their operations. Other challenges range from poor access to markets, insufficient entrepreneurial to regulatory barriers.

It is interesting to note that the IMF analysis puts the average size of the informal economy in Sub Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2014 at 38 % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), only surpassed by Latin America’s, which stands at 40% of GDP. Between 1991 and 1999, the average size of the same was 45% for Sub Saharan Africa and 43% for Latin America. The fact that there has been a reduction in the size of informal economies in the two regions may indicate that there have been some efforts by policy makers to pay attention to the some of the challenges that informal businesses have to contend with. This can be seen by the increasing number of initiatives that target this sector of the economy by successive governments.

One of the demographic groups that form a large part of informal sector dynamics is the youth. It is with this in mind that the Latin American Economic Outlook 2017 focuses on youth, skills and entrepreneurship. The report stresses the importance of skills and entrepreneurship from the perspective of these being used as tools to empower the youth in the region to develop and engage in knowledge based economic activities in a way that boosts the region’s productivity. SMEs in the region account for 80% of employment and more than 90% of firms. However, formal firms contribute 70% of GDP in the region, which highlights the issue of productivity in the informal sector, a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the region.


One of the key recommendations that the report proposes to policy makers is that it asks them to go a step further by providing the necessary support tools to implement theoretic policies that revolve around financing, services and capacity building, market creation, regulatory framework and the diffusion of an entrepreneurial culture. It notably articulates the importance of the private sector in supporting start-ups by stressing the importance of strengthening the link of young entrepreneurs with business networks by supporting mentoring programs.

What comes out clearly is that the challenges that businesses in the informal sector are similar in these two regions of the world, given the environment in which they operate. Considering the magnitude of the sector in these two regions, interventions that are aimed at harnessing its potential should be embraced and seen through the lenses of it being a viable driver of economic growth.

Informal Economy Analyst