The relationship between poverty and the informal economy

The number of people who are engaged in informal employment has been on a steady rise over the past decade, a phenomenon that is increasingly prevalent in developing and third world countries. A deeper delve into this issue reveals an intricate relationship between the level of informality in various regions of the world and the link to social inequality. That being said, it is interesting to note that regions with large informal economies also have a big percentage of the population living in poverty. This is not to say that all of those that are engaged in informal businesses are poor, but that poverty is a cardinal driver that accentuates informality.

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Given the diminishing opportunities of formal employment opportunities in these parts of the world, populations have been forced to look for alternative creative means to fend for themselves. This scenario has largely led to the growth of informality whereby businesses are haphazardly set up without prior planning or experience. Often, the jobs in this sector of an economy are of poor quality, meaning that they do not offer any social protection or terminal benefits. Business that are established this way often have internal operational systems that are a hindrance to their growth in the long-term. It is this sort of enterprises that have difficulty accessing potential financial investors due to the perceived high-risk nature of their operations.

The World Employment and Social Outlook 2018 is a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that focuses on the trends in job quality, paying particular attention to working poverty and vulnerable employment. A point that comes out strongly is the fact that in 2018 and 2019, unemployment in developing countries is expected to rise by half a million people per year. As alluded to earlier, the report points out the fact that the main challenges that developing countries continue to face include persistent poor-quality employment and working poverty. Two demographic groups that continue to be adversely affected by labour market inequalities are women and the youth.

According to the report, the outlook is particularly challenging for women as they are more likely to be in vulnerable employment and over-represented in informal non-agricultural employment. Further, this demographic group is often less eligible for social protection coverage due to their lower rates of labour force participation, higher levels of unemployment and greater likelihood of being in vulnerable forms of employment. These factors, coupled with the fact that women usually receive lower levels of remuneration, raise their risk of poverty. An interesting statistic that came across concerning youth aged 25 years and under is that their global unemployment rate of 13 percent is three times higher than the adult unemployment rate. The Northern Africa region recorded the highest rate with close to 30 percent of young people in the labour market being jobless.

Such numbers are a strong indicator as to why the informal economy continues to consistently grow. The downside to having a large informal economy is that those that are involved in micro businesses are excluded from the benefits that come with gainful employment. It would be prudent for policy and decision makers to look into and implement strategies that grow the capacity of informal businesses to enable them to become profitable entities. This will reduce the high levels of poverty by providing sustainable incomes to a vast majority of households.

Informal Economy Analyst


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.


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.

Informal Economy Analyst

Jobless Growth in Africa

Despite the fact that East Africa remains the fastest-growing sub-region in Africa with an estimated growth of 5.6 percent in 2017, up from 4.9 percent in 2016, it still grapples with low job growth rates. The African Economic Outlook 2018 by the African Development Bank Group (AFDB) further notes that it is imperative for sustained economic growth to create jobs which positively impact poverty reduction and lead to more inclusive growth.


According to the report, the combination of high economic growth and low job creation has given rise to the claim that Africa is experiencing jobless growth. The findings of the document point to the fact that in the last decade, faster-growing countries in Africa actually generated fewer jobs than countries that grew more slowly. The slow job growth has mainly affected two demographic groups; women and youth aged between 15 to 24 years. Estimates of African population data indicate that it had 226 million youth in 2015, a figure projected to increase 42 percent, to 321 million by 2030. Its labour force is also projected to rise from 620 million in 2013 to nearly 2 billion in 2063.

In an effort to sustainably reduce poverty, economies must create more productive jobs, which are better remunerated and better-quality jobs. For this to happen, AFDB recommends that countries engage in structural transformation, which is a process whereby capital and labour is shifted away from low-productivity sectors toward higher-productivity sectors.

Structural transformation has encountered slow implementation due to a couple of reasons. First, the agricultural sector remains the dominant source of jobs in Africa, accounting for about 51 percent of employment in these countries, most of it in subsistence agriculture. The document highlights that almost 84 percent of Africa’s poverty is a result of employment in agriculture and services sectors. Second, the shift to manufacturing has been focused toward a comparatively small sector, which has the third-lowest relative productivity level after agriculture and services. Also, the labour resources that left agriculture have shifted toward wholesale and retail trade, much of which is characterized by low-productive informal activities.

As per findings of the report, the informal sector remains a key source of employment in most African countries, accounting for approximately 70 percent of jobs in Sub Saharan Africa and 62 percent in North Africa, with 93 percent of all job growth in Africa in the 1990s being accredited to the informal sector. The last factor that has slowed down the implementation of structural transformation is the fact that the public sector has generally been the main source of higher-paying formal sector jobs in many African countries. Fiscal constraints and demographic change have combined to limit the future scope of the public sector as a driver of formal sector employment growth.

One key policy recommendation that was proposed on the way forward as a priority for African governments is to encourage and embrace a shift toward labour-absorbing growth paths. In this sense, they should put in place programs and policies aimed at modernizing the agricultural sector, which employs most of the population and is typically the main step toward industrialization. A second priority is to invest in human capital, particularly in the entrepreneurial skills of youth, in an effort to facilitate the transition to higher-productivity modern sectors.

In as far as reversing the fortunes of the manufacturing sector, it is proposed that emphasis should be placed on light manufacturing, which is typically considered key to job creation in Africa. Doing so requires developing export capacity, given the continents small domestic markets. The interrelated nature of agriculture and manufacturing is crucial to achieving job creation as both are labour intensive. In the highly heterogeneous service sector, the way forward is to develop modern services while improving the productivity of informal activities.

Seeing as informality is a key component of African labour markets in that it accounts for an estimated 50–80 percent of GDP, 60–80 percent of employment, and up to 90 percent of new jobs on a continent where more than 60 percent of the population performs low-paid informal jobs, policy makers should avoid burying their heads in the sand and recognize the diversity and importance of the sector as a profitable activity that may contribute to economic development and growth.

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


How Global Capital Incentivises Informality

The distinction between the formal and informal sector is a concept that is sometimes difficult to differentiate due to the fluid nature of their interactions. The multiple definitions of the informal sector have often not been precise, especially whenever it is looked at in relation to the formal economy, and not as a distinct entity. It is with this in mind that the authors of the research paper “Informal Sector Dynamics and its Role in the Capital Accumulation Process” interestingly point out that the central meaning and relevance of this phenomenon of informality as a sector or workforce become clear only when considered in the light of the global capital accumulation process.

A significant part of the informal sector in the contemporary world is essentially an outgrowth of the formal economy in more ways than one. The activities in the informal sector are directly linked to and often constitute an essential part of the processes of production, exchange and accumulation in the capitalist economy both at the national and, increasingly, at global levels. In certain cases, the sector consists of industries that originated from basic units of production that are cemented in simple manufacturing processes and have evolved into factory forms with informal production and labour processes. It is common knowledge that in today’s world, this sector is an essential part of the global commodity chains.


What is at the core in the interaction and dynamics between the two sectors is a range of flexibilities that can be ascribed to the informal sector or processes. In the current production and distribution networks, there is an array of operations that can be observed. These informal processes are visibly notable in global commodity chains whereby important stages of production and supply are located in third world countries. Factors that are common in informal circles such as the lack of a regulatory environment, the flexibility or absence of labour contracts and the ability to stretch hours of operation at ease are adopted by formal firms when they subcontract informal firms to perform some of their production and distribution jobs. It is this flexibility and managing to keep transaction and labour costs to the minimum, which is at the core of the dynamics of small enterprises that allows them to survive and provides them the competitive edge. This advantage is made use of by large multinationals in their pursuit of global profits.

As per the document, another way in which formal firms create informality is through their restructuring processes. This is done in whereby the formal firm downsizes its labour force and thus forcing people into the informal sector as a means of survival and source of livelihood. There are two distinct processes in which informalisation of employment takes place in formal sector firms. One is to employ labour without any permanent wage or employment contract or provide any employment benefit. The other is to contract out operations that were earlier performed by employees of the firm to smaller or ‘specialised’ enterprises. A particular form of this is to contract out operations to labour contractors or suppliers, where even if particular employees are regularly working in the principal firm, they are not considered the employees of the principal firm and are therefore denied any rights, which they would have otherwise got. The suppliers of such workers are often informal sector enterprises.

It is vital for policy makers and parties that are involved in drafting strategy to have a clear understanding of the definition of the informality as a means to getting to its root causes in a way that will enhance their engagement processes with the sector. This will assist them in moving away from instances where they rely on traditional definitions of the sector that have since evolved and thus be more specific in their goals for it.

Informal Economy Analyst.