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.

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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.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst  

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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

 

Lessons from China’s Economic Policy

Over the years, China has managed to turn around its economy by instituting certain reforms which have seen the country’s economy grow exponentially during the last 60 years into a global economic powerhouse. Most of these were done by recalibrating how they interacted with the informal sector in their country. The reforms first took shape in the agriculture sector with the household responsibility system (HRS) replacing the people’s commune system. Under this system, individual households were instituted as the basic unit of farm operation, as opposed to a collective team of 20 to 30 households in the past. The HRS gave individual households autonomy over production and farmers were given incentives to increase output.

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A study carried out by the Lancaster University Management School indicates that Between 1978 and 1984, China’s average annual growth rate of agriculture was 7.7%, after the introduction of the household responsibility system. The significant improvement in agriculture helped the country to release labour from land to industry and service sectors. This labour reallocation process was necessary as China’s agriculture was characterised by an egalitarian system of distribution of cultivated land with more than 200 million rural households, each cultivating less than 0.55 hectares. With the improvement in productivity in the agricultural sector, there was no need for a large number of people to stay on land. Agricultural employment as a share of labour force fell from more than 70% in 1978 to 60% in 1990 and 35% in 2011. The release of such a large number of economically active population from land hugely helped China’s development of the labour-intensive, low-skilled manufacturing sector.

In addition to the introduction of the HRS, China successfully re-introduced marketization. In implementing agricultural reforms, China first tried a dual-track approach. Under this approach, farmers were required to deliver a portion of their output to the state and allowed to sell the rest of the output on the free-market. With the newly earned profits, farmers set up or pulled resources into town and village owned enterprises (TVEs). These are communal organizations managed by managers on a contractual basis.

Town and village owned enterprise operate outside of the Chinese government’s apparatus and were highly market-oriented. Even though they did not enjoy preferential government treatment, they were also not subject to widespread state regulation. The study further notes that between 1979 and 1991, TVEs grew at an average rate of 25.3% in comparison to that of state owned enterprises which grew at 8.4%. Though TVEs were not private firms, since they were often owned by local governments or local communes rather than solely by private owners, they cultivated an internal culture of competition in the Chinese economy which helped stimulate efficiency of the state‐owned enterprises. It is worthy to note that TVEs were the major export drivers of China’s impressive export growth. For example, in 1999, the value of TVE exports of US$94 billion accounted for 48% of China’s total exports. Much of these were labour‐intensive products involving simple production techniques.

Another aspect that accelerated China’s growth and economic success can be attributed to privatisation. The study notes that the ownership structure of private firms was not properly defined until 1988. Private firms only became an integral part of the Chinese economy in 1997 and had their legal status established in 1998. The rapid growth of the private sector began with the introduction of the policy whereby the government not only lowered entry barriers in most sectors, but also pursued a policy of “grasping the big, and letting go of the small”. This meant that State Owned Enterprises were to only be kept in “strategic sectors” whereas small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) were either privatised or their ownership transferred from the central government to local governments.

Lastly, the study shows that China’s development in manufacturing has also benefited from inward foreign direct investment (FDI) whereby the early years of China’s history of inward FDI was particularly dominated by the Chinese diaspora. Chinese diaspora-invested firms cooperated with TVEs and other indigenous Chinese firms and introduced them to international markets as well as freed them from domestic market constraints. In this sense, the diaspora-invested firms also helped indigenous Chinese firms to exploit the country’s comparative advantage in cheap labour and to translate its comparative advantage into international competitiveness.

Kenya is a country whereby about 75% of the population rely on agriculture for employment and livelihood. Outside agriculture, a vast majority of its citizens are employed in the informal economy, accounting for 90% of the employment demographic. The route taken by China is one which the country can borrow a leaf from when looking towards ways in which it can transform and grow its economy through agriculture and manufacturing.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.

 

 

 

Leveraging Informal Business

Considering the fact that sustained poverty coupled with subpar economic growth has continued to inhibit growth in the demand of locally manufactured goods, effective demand continues to shift more in favour of relatively cheaper imported manufactured items. In addition, the high cost of inputs informed by poor infrastructure which leads to high transport costs has led to high prices of locally manufactured products thereby limiting their competitiveness in the local and regional markets. With the view of looking towards ways in which this trend can be turned around to benefit locally manufactured products, certain aspects need to be taken into consideration.

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Working through the informal sector is one of the avenues that presents a huge opportunity when it comes to penetrating the local and regional markets. The sector has market networks that are vastly untapped. Formal firms need to venture further into fostering links with informal firms in a way that is mutually beneficial. In this sense, there are different ways in which this can be achieved.

The first and foremost aspect that formal firms should look into in order to get the right partners to work with in the informal sector 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 informal firms.  Informal businesses have an access to clients that would not be readily available to formal businesses. Customers to their businesses often purchase goods and services that are at a lower price point. Tapping into the economies of scale from this angle will be a huge plus for any formal business that can avail their products and services that meet the needs of these customers. Unpacking this dynamic will assist in coming up with tailor made marketing structures around which they can upscale the production of their products and services.

Another thing to consider 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.

An 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, be they in the form of Sacco’s or cooperatives.  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 sorts of associations provide a unity of purpose and act as a pillar of stability for informal businesses for it is through them that they can better interact with other bodies such as government bodies in cases of conflict resolution or even financial institutions whenever they require to access loans. Associations in this sense, offer security to the individual entrepreneurs, for it is through these that they can access loans to grow their businesses as well as better market their products.

Businesses in the manufacturing sector should look into value addition strategies that target the micro and small businesses that they intend to be suppliers of raw materials for their finished products. This is especially important for those that rely on agricultural raw materials. Partnering with small scale farmers for example, with a view of improving the quality of their yields, is a worthwhile investment. Promoting a culture of interacting with these farmers on best practices in crop and animal husbandry is a long-term investment that will ensure a long term consistent availability of good quality raw materials, as well as improve the incomes on both sides of the coin.

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 as well as build the capacity of informal businesses.

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.

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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.

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. 

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(Source:www.dynamicbusiness.com.au)

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.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst