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