The Role of Informality in Urbanization and Industrialization

The Economic Report on Africa 2017 was released by The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa(UNECA). This year’s report looked into ways in which the continent can harness industrialization to better structure the fast pace at which urbanization is taking place. Given that Africa is the fastest urbanization region after Asia, the report puts emphasis on the fact that only under the right policy frameworks can this momentum be leveraged so as to accelerate industrialization.

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Some of the proposed measures point to ways in which informal businesses can be made a part of this process. One such measure was to bank on the links between informal and formal sectors, for these are mutually beneficial and dependent. Those involved in industrial land use planning should consider the needs of informal enterprises, given their importance for job absorption and the challenges they often face in finding adequate premises for work.

One option is to try to meet industrial firms’ location-specific needs through Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and industrial zones. These will bring the most benefits if they are well connected to the urban economy, including the informal sector firms that can provide low cost inputs and use linkages as a path to growth and formalization. SEZs present opportunities for co-investment by formal firms and the public sector in infrastructure and technical and vocational education and training, which can broaden participation in economic growth and provide avenues for inclusion of critical workforce groups such as women and youth. These links to markets and skilled labour are critical.

The report further states that studies suggest that informal operators benefit from clustering through the various sectors in which they operate, and that they generally have a positive impact on their formal sector counterparts. It is with this in mind that agglomeration economies should be considered in the context of locational policies related to the informal sector and a path to formalization. Agglomeration economies can benefit the informal sector particularly through proximity to suppliers and purchasers.

Also, low-tech, labour-intensive infrastructure projects accessible to SMEs are a major opportunity for urban job creation. Lower-skilled labour-intensive technologies have high potential in some public investment sectors, including roads. A good example is that of Ethiopia whereby between 2005 and 2008 through a cobblestone roads and pavement programme, more than 90,000 jobs for young people were created. This led to the establishment of 2,000 small and medium enterprises. The project included backward linkages to domestic inputs—cobblestones—and labour-intensive skills in quarrying, chiselling, transporting and paving. The programme, implemented in 140 towns and villages, built around 350 km of road.

In terms of access to finance, Sudan has taken steps to improve this for industrial firms, including SMEs. Policy efforts in 2013 simplified the regulatory framework for financial access and new bank branches, and the central bank made preparations for mobile banking. These reforms targeted small enterprises, which make up 93 per cent of manufacturing firms, by requiring that commercial banks set aside 12 per cent of resources for microfinance. It is with this spirit that African countries must leverage the force of urbanization to drive and enable industrial development for a prosperous and equitable future.

Informal Economy Analyst


How to develop partnerships between Formal and Informal Business

While exploring into some of the ways in which business linkages can be developed between formal and informal firms in a previous article, I looked into how both sides of the divide can take advantage of the opportunities within their realms to build symbiotic relationships. In this piece, I will highlight some of the approaches which formal firms should consider when trying to initiate and foster positive networks with the informal sector.


The first and foremost aspect that formal firms should look into is that of the business structure that is present in the informal business that they intend to partner with. The importance of ensuring that they establish this aspect is, among other factors to assist them in better understanding the client profiles of the clients serviced by the informal firm.  This will help them come up with tailor made marketing structures around which they can sell their products and services.

The other aspect that is of importance in as far as fostering beneficial relationships relates to the different levels of capacity present in the informal firms. These include, but are not limited to technical and financial skills. Most informal firms primarily under perform due the low levels of the above mentioned. Formal firms can work to improve the level of these skill sets which will go a long way in improving the quality of goods and services that they produce. Mentoring informal firms in this way will enhance their capability to deliver goods and services that are of a higher quality as well as enhance their systems of operation. This will further improve and strengthen the various aspects that are related to the operational systems of formal firms such as their chains of distribution.

Further, the longevity of an informal business should be a point of consideration when looking into partnership opportunities. One of the weaknesses that informal businesses have is that of shutting down after short periods of operation. The Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survey 2016 indicates that 46.3 per cent of the establishments were closed within the first year of operation. The trend in closing rate slowed down with the age of the business which points to the fact that informal businesses stabilized with time. On average, it was observed that the age of establishments at closure was 3.8 years.

Another area that would be worth exploring for formal firms as they seek to establish formidable links with informal businesses is that of targeting businesses that are part of an association. Micro, small and medium sized businesses that are members of associations within their realms of operation tend to be more focused and better organized. This is due to the fact that they draw valuable lessons from each other on best industry practices. These sort of associations provide a pillar of stability for informal businesses for it is through them that they can better interact with government bodies in cases of conflict resolution. Associations also give them financial security for it is through these that they can access loans to grow their businesses.

By looking into the above factors, formal firms can have a better understanding of informal businesses when trying to create partnership opportunities that grow their businesses. Working with the associations that informal businesses are a part of will enhance the capability of formal firms to choose credible businesses through which they can further harness their growth agenda.

Informal Economy Analyst