Tapping into the informal economy

Experience gathered while working as a salesperson shed light on the mode of operation of businesses that are classified as informal. Interactions with these entities were often riddled with out of the norm characteristics, an aspect that was key to their survival. Due to the fact that the ability to sustain businesses of such a nature is highly dependent on a mode of operation that infringes on the principles of formal business, it did not come as a surprise when I was exposed to business practices that would be otherwise not fall under the scope of formal business operation, but which were a determination of how well they performed.

(Image source: https://coinpedia.org)

A common mode of operation that I was exposed to revolved around distribution businesses which only had one registered business for the purpose of legal conformity but had at least five other branches that operated informally, in that they were outlets that were drop off and collection points for their clients. In these predominantly rural markets, the subsidiary outlets were preferred due to the discounted rates that they offered that were mainly enabled by the volume of products that they pushed out into their wide market reach.

Ideally, the amount of revenue that could be collected from these by the respective county governments vis a vis the payments that they make to the county authorities pale in comparison. Which begs the question, why do businesses that generate so much revenue choose to remain under the radar in this sense? Beyond sealing such loopholes that rob county governments of crucial revenue, it is of the essence for a business environment to exist whereby levies and taxes charged match service delivery by governments to businesses.

When referring to service delivery, key issues that constantly came up included the physical business environment revolving around matters that deal with sanitation and security, repetitional levies charged across different counties as well as market infrastructure challenges such as proper road networks that enhance market access. These are crucial to building links with an informal sector that is highly undervalued and under rated, considering that as per statistics from the Kenyan Economic Survey 2018 released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the sector accounts for 83% of employed Kenyans.

There are key systemic issues that need to be addressed, as they are in the most part responsible for businesses being considered too risky for financial institutions, while at the same time being a reason as to why they thrive. The lack of a financial track record hugely facilitates their being off the radar of government authorities. Also, the issue of collateral is a stumbling block for small businesses that are run by women, due to a discriminant property rights and inheritance system.

In a bid to improve livelihoods and reduce poverty rates in the country, tapping into the positive aspects of the ecosystem that is the informal sector will go a long way in achieving this goal. Issues that deal with business practices that enhance their viability for access to finance such as proper bookkeeping, ancient legal rights as well as the availability and access to health insurance options are vital for strategic growth of the sector.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.

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Value Chain Development in the Informal Sector

A value chain is defined as the full range of activities that are required to bring a product or service from conception, through the intermediary phases of production and eventual delivery to final consumers. Value chains can be local, national or global, linking rural producers with traders and consumers worldwide. Their role in determining the quality and cost of a product and service cannot be overlooked for it is through them that effective competitiveness can be achieved.

(Source: https://images.theconversation.com)

It is hence important to understand the role value chains play in the route to market trajectory of any service or product. Thus, a value chain analysis at both firm and sector level is key to developing strategies aimed at improving the competitiveness of a product or service. At the firm level, this sort of analysis would be important for formal businesses to understand how much informality is in their value chain, as this will help them pin point areas through which they can fine tune the process in a bid to achieve quality standards in a cost-effective manner. At a sectoral level, it would provide information as to where informality sits in each sector and thus give a better understanding of which sectors have the densest or least levels of informality in their value chains, with the view to increasing their overall efficiency and competitiveness.

Considering that sustained poverty coupled with subpar economic growth has continued to inhibit the growth in the demand of locally manufactured goods, relatively cheaper internationally manufactured goods continue to gain the local market share. In this sense, locally manufactured goods are limited in their competitiveness. For example, value addition strategies that target micro and small businesses would greatly improve the quality of locally produced goods. In its strategy on decent work in the informal economy, the International Labor Organization (ILO) proposes that one way of improving the sustainability of informal enterprises may be to link them in cooperatives where jointly owned input supply, credit and marketing services can be organised without compromising the autonomy of the individual entrepreneur.

In markets that are dominated by very powerful players, small producers tend to be highly disadvantaged by being arm twisted into accepting lower income for their produce. A good example is in the agricultural sector where small-scale farmers have little control of market dynamics, hence cannot reap the full financial benefits due to issues such as the lack of proper storage facilities, market information and access to inputs. This leads to post-harvest wastage and losses brought about by hurriedly selling their produce at lower prices than if they had stored it for sale when demand is higher. It is with such issues in mind that the ILO stresses the importance of the improvement of value chain competitiveness, as it is seen as a powerful approach for generating growth and reducing poverty in developing countries, where roughly 75 percent of the population live in rural areas.

In a quest to integrate micro and small-scale enterprises into formal value chains, understanding their level of involvement in these is key to formulating policies and implementing strategies that contribute to the overall efficiency and competitiveness of locally manufactured products. This sort of analysis will benefit all the players along the value chain.

litualex@gmail.com

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.

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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.

(Source: http://www.latameconomy.org)

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.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst

 

Impact Investing in Informal Enterprises

Impact investments are investments made into companies, organizations and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. The Global Impact Investment Network (GIIN) states that this sort of investment provides capital to address the world’s pressing challenges in sectors such as microfinance, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, conservation and affordable and accessible basic services such as housing, healthcare and education. The aspect of this form of investment that makes it stand out from other vehicles of investment is the fact that it is aimed at generating positive impact beyond financial return. In this sense, it is a viable solution to the sustainable growth and development of micro, small and medium sized enterprises. It is a tool that can be used to provide patient capital to entrepreneurs, more so if it is blended with grants.

(Source: http://www.blog.kpmgafrica.com)

A study that was conducted in West Africa by Dalberg found that impact investments are primarily made by private equity and venture capital funds, Development Finance Institutions (DFIs), Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs), foundations and institutional investors. “Impact investing in West Africa” noted that the needs of individual enterprises varied depending on factors such as their business model, size and maturity stage as well as human resource capacity. Beyond financing needs, many enterprises require business development services in a way that enables them to develop their ideas and create well managed, financially sustainable operations.

Some of the challenges that stand in the way of achieving the goal of developing sustainable business ventures in as far as engagement with impact investing is concerned include a lack of education, skills and difficulty in accessing information among the entrepreneurs that are required to turn their ideas into bankable projects. Also, the lack of awareness of the actual implications of engaging impact investors prevents many businesses from accepting this type of capital. This is due to the fact that owners of small and medium sized enterprises fear losing control of their businesses. Further, the study noted that the lack of incentives to convert from informal to formal business structures was a hindrance for impact investors in as far as engaging the informal sector in West Africa goes. The high costs that are linked to business formalization which include licences, taxes and other operating costs discourage most informal businesses from making the transition to formality.

The report put forward some ways in which the above challenges can be mitigated for an enhanced and more proactive engagement with impact investment. These include the need for a broader range of flexible products to address the gap for businesses with smaller financing needs. This is particularly necessary for new enterprises where the entrepreneurs’ funding needs are too small for traditional debt or equity financing. In this sense, they propose angel financing or royalty-based debt with manageable levels of interest as well as supporting business development services.

The other solution highlights the need for investors to adapt their investment practices to the local climate. By being more flexible in this manner, they will be in a better position to change their investment criteria, thus opening up their business to a large number of potentially profitable deals. This will also place local entrepreneurs in a position where they can access much needed capital to enhance their business ventures. This sort of engagement will support the growth of informal businesses to formal businesses and further assist them to transition into larger private equity and traditional commercial bank investments.

Last but not least is the proposal to build networks and awareness beyond impact investors to encompass business support organisations, relevant government bodies and development partners with the intention of increasing awareness of existing definitions of impact investing. Other goals of these networks should be to increase the awareness of the benefits of venture philanthropy among grant-making organizations, increase the understanding of equity investments among business owners and focus outreach efforts towards high net worth individuals and highly-educated Africans in the diaspora.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst

 

The African Retail Market

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African retail market is characterised by approximately 90% of transactions occurring through informal channels. This points to the existence of an opportunity for the increased establishment of formal retail presence to capture larger portions of this market share. Tapping into markets that are dominated by the informal economy presents formal retailers with a key to unlocking the potential of the African market in as far as leveraging the customer base presented by the population therein. However, hurdles such as the diverse consumer mix, low levels of established distribution networks, infrastructure constraints and political and economic uncertainties are some of the challenges that big formal retail chains have to contend with when setting up in-country operations.

(Source: https://thisisafrica.me)

The “African Powers Of Retailing Report 2015” published by Deloitte tracks the progress of the top African retail performers on the continent. While the top 25 retailers have a limited operational presence in Africa, operating in 21 out of 54 countries on the continent, other countries, such as Algeria, Sudan and Ethiopia, are among the top 10 countries by retail market size but have no listed African Retailer present. Nigeria is the largest retail market in Africa with a retail size of US$122.9 billion as of 2013. However, East Africa – particularly Kenya – is still being identified as the next market for major South African players. Apart from Kenya’s attractive GDP of US$56.1 billion at the time this report was published, it has 25-30% formal retail compared to 60% in South Africa.

It is worthy to note that Nigeria’s retail market is largely fragmented, with the top 6 retailers accounting for barely 2% of sales and 98% of Nigerians shopping in small, local and informal outlets. The importance of the informal economy in Africa cannot be overlooked considering the fact that small, local and informal retail transactions account for 96% in Ghana and 98% in Nigeria and Cameroon. Even in Kenya, the vast consumer base in rural areas still shops at informal outlets, which accounts for approximately 70% of retail shopping. Zimbabwe also has a fragmented retail market and is seeing a recent upsurge in small “tuck shops”.

It further states that as the African economy continues to improve and expand, it is likely that groceries will be a key driver of industry growth across the continent’s retailing industry. The approach that retail multinationals in search of developing their presence in Africa have used in a quest to set up operations in the African retail market is that of acquisitions of local companies or directly establishing their retail stores in-country. How increased access to the informal sector will play out as retailers compete for share of wallet beyond the main urban centres remains to be seen.

Given the above statistics, an avenue which would be worth considering for formal retail multinationals is that of incorporating an informal market operational strategy into their business models. Developing deliberate linkages with this sector of the economy will be a huge game changer and bolster business for both sides of the equation.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst

 

An Overview of the Informal Sector

The informal economy is characterised as micro and small businesses whose main reason for being established is that they offer an escape route from the tough economic conditions under which the entrepreneurs live. During the past decade, the sector’s growth has mainly been propelled by the shrinking availability of formal employment opportunities. This limited access to formal employment causes most of them to venture into alternative forms of self-employment as a means to making ends meet. As a result, there has been a change in the way people perceive the informal as being traditionally one that was the preserve of those who had attained a basic level of education. There has been a gradual shift in its perception whereby it was fondly referred to as the ‘Jua Kali’ sector, towards one which presents itself as an option for those locked out of formal employment opportunities.

(Source: https://cdn.mg.co.za/crop/content/images)

The Micro Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSME) Survey 2016, a report released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics established that there were about 1.56 million licensed MSMEs and 5.85 million unlicensed businesses. The findings of the survey also show that total number of persons engaged in the sector was approximately 14.9 million Kenyans. Further, the Kenya Economic Survey 2017 indicates that the 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 in the informal sector. The share of jobs in the informal sector represents a 5.9 percent growth from 83 percent in the previous year to 89.7 percent, or 13.3 million people. The problem is that employment in the informal sector is characterised by numerous low quality jobs.

Some of the challenges that informal businesses face include low capacity in as far as financial and technical skills are concerned. This makes it difficult for them to access financial collateral from financing institutions and produce materials that are not standardised. Poor and substandard physical working environments as well as inadequate protective gear means that they are less advantaged when it comes to attracting customers to their establishments and are exposed to health hazards. Limited access to market opportunities is another hurdle that those engaged in informal businesses have to contend with.

The Rockerfeller Foundation puts the number of informal workers who live in extreme poverty around the world at 700 million people, contributing to their vulnerability to poor health. Most informal workers have few resources, which makes accessing health care a challenge as it requires leaving work, which reduces their income and adds to health care expenses. As alluded to above, some of the common problems that Informal workers face include poor working conditions which puts them at a high risk of getting injuries. Most employees in informal establishments have no sick time which accentuates their job insecurity, and a majority of them do not have health or social protection.

Another important element of the informal economy is small scale farming. There needs to be a more proactive approach geared towards making it a formidable employer as opportunities for growth in this area are immense. Making farming inputs competitively cheaper, as well as capacity development through the provision of access to technical services as is in the case of agricultural extension officers will go a long way in ensuring that small scale farmers attain higher quality yields. Another area that would be worth considering is that of supporting small holder out-grower enterprises that are in a dependent, managed relationship with an exporter. These include farmers who do not own or control the land they farm or the commodity they produce as they produce relatively small volumes on relatively small plots of land. A good example in this case is that of French beans farmers who sell their produce to horticultural export companies. This move will go a long way in improving product quality that will enhance the competitiveness of Kenyan produce in the export markets thus ensuring a sustainable and equitable growth in that sector.

 

An angle that clearly presents itself as far as the rapid growth of the informal economy is concerned is that of a focus on making the sector a formidable employer by raising the quality of its employment. This can be achieved by changing the societal stereotypes whereby students who pursue vocational training are seen to do so as a second option after failing to secure university admission. The role that tertiary institutions such as polytechnics play requires a keener rethinking in as far as their significance to the provision of a strategically skilled workforce for our budding industries in the informal economy goes. Also, training in financial skills is another key factor in building up these businesses in a way that they will be well equipped to manage their growth. By developing a culture of documenting financial dealings, informal businesses will be better placed to access loans and grants from financial institutions. Further, more can be done to make it easier for informal workers to access affordable healthcare.

There is increased recognition that much of the informal economy today is linked to the formal economy and contributes to the overall economy; and that supporting the working poor in the informal economy is a key pathway to reducing poverty and inequality. To maintain sustainable growth in this sector, there needs to be flexibility in the way government operates so as to accommodate and support a hugely untapped taxable avenue. Key issues that would have to be looked into revolve around the formalization and recognition of their business operations. That being said, given the proper support and plan, the informal sector in our economy will provide an avenue to the growth and development of indigenous industries.

 

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.

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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(Source: http://www.uneca.org)

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.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst