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.
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.
Informal Economy Analyst.