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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Housing Poverty in Kenya

The challenge of offering affordable housing has for long been an uphill task for many developing countries. As at 2016, Kenya had 22,000 mortgages in the country of 45 million people. A report by investment and real estate firm Cytonn further notes that the low uptake in mortgages can be attributed to the high mortgage interest rates offered by financial institutions, which puts the dream of owning a home out of the grasp of many citizens. According to the World Bank, Kenya has a housing deficit of over two million units which increases annually by 200,000 units. Alongside this is the fact that nearly 61 percent of urban households live in slums.

(Image Credit: http://www.daaonline.org)

With one the pillars in the President’s Big Four Agenda focusing on the issue of affordable housing, efforts that look into how low-income earners can own decent housing have come to the forefront of government policy. Considering that about 90% of Kenyans are employed in the informal economy, it is timely that these strategies are being geared towards this segment of the population. In this sense, providing decent housing will be a step in the direction towards curtailing the growth of informal housing settlements, while at the same time reducing social inequalities.

One way of reaping the benefits of inclusive growth is by Incooperating this aspect to the Big Four industrialization pillar. In a quest to develop our manufacturing industries, it is crucial to integrate the building of housing for low-income earners around the different Special Economic Zones (SEZs) into the infrastructure plans of such projects. In this way, workers in these SEZs will be provided with an opportunity to own homes which they can pay for as they work. Further, integrating micro and small enterprises (MSEs) into the supply value chains will provide a means through which they can strategically bolster their incomes in a way that enables them to afford the houses. Linking infrastructure to industrialisation in this way will provide a means through which the affordable housing agenda can be met.

Another way of accelerating home ownership, particularly amongst low-income earners would be by channelling such efforts through cooperatives and more so, Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations (Saccos). Seeing as these are bodies through which most informal sector participants operate, it would be a positive move for government to get them on board this strategy by incentivising them in a way that would enable these to offer housing loans at cheaper rates. This would strengthen the sources of affordable credit to low income groups. This is an avenue if pursued, would widen the reach of this program to those that desperately need this intervention.

Given the difficulty in accessing affordable housing in the country, the deliberate move by government to make this pipe dream a reality is one that will have a positive impact and contribute to the country’s economy by not only having multiplier effect on job creation in the construction sector, but also developing an ecosystem of services that will provide employment for those that serve the residents of these housing communities.

litualex@gmail.com

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.

(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

Integrating the Informal Sector into Government Policy

Given the most recent statistics on the Kenyan economy which indicate that the informal economy accounts for the lion’s share of job creation outside agriculture, it is important to gain a deeper understanding of the sector dynamics. As per the Economic Survey 2017 released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the economy created a total of 832.9 thousand new jobs. Of these, 85.6 thousand were in the formal sector while 747.3 thousand were in the informal sector. The share of new jobs created in the informal sector represents a 5.9 percent growth from 83 percent during the previous year, to 89.7 percent or 13.3 million people.

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The sector has sub sectors that fall into three main sub categories, namely agriculture, services and manufacturing. In line with the government’s big four agenda, it is imperative to align and in cooperate the informal economy into this strategy in a way that enables businesses in the sector to reap the benefits of the economic empowerment program. The step taken to merging the Youth, Women and Uwezo Funds into the Biashara Fund is a plausible move in that, if properly managed it will enhance the coordination of activities aimed at supporting micro and small enterprises.

In as far as the manufacturing agenda is concerned, the jua kali sector which employs wood and metal work artisans, should be at the forefront of target initiatives. Efforts to ensure that issues such as standardisation of their products and access to wider markets should be addressed. Also, improving their working spaces and conditions will go a long way in making sure that they can attract more clientele to their premises, as well as minimise work related hazards. Implementing skills upgrading programs are one way to deal with the low levels of productivity in this sector. Further, both county and national government need to work through the various micro and small enterprise associations to sub contract them for projects by prioritising them in tendering processes.

The agriculture sector is not only important for the provision inputs in the form of raw materials for various industries, but is also the cornerstone that would ensure that the goal of achieving food security is achieved. For any meaningful progress to be attained, interventions for this sector should be channelled through existing cooperatives and Saccos to target the provision of farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, extension and training services, marketing, including processing, consumer services such as local shops, credit and sharing of farm machinery.

The importance of working through these bodies is that since most of them comprise membership of small scale farmers, the government will reach this crucial segment of the Kenyan populace in a way that enables them to improve their livelihoods. These cooperatives are a vital go between in that they increase the negotiating power with market intermediaries, improve post-harvest services, provide marketing logistics and information, facilitate investment in shared structures such as processing plants, bulk purchase of farm inputs and most importantly, facilitate micro-credit schemes. They are also an important link in growing the demand and supply value chain.

The emerging commonality in the approach that should be taken in addressing the engagement of the informal sector by the different levels of government is that of working through their associations. For effective implementation of the various programs to occur, pre-qualification processes would have to be carried out. These bodies ought to be readied by being taken through capacity building initiatives in the areas of financial skills such as book keeping practices, technical skills upgrading as well as sales and marketing skills. By propping them up in this manner, they will not only be better placed to qualify for and absorb the funds that are channelled in their direction, but also exponentially develop the individual business entities of their members.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst

 

 

Improving Informal Business

The past decade has been characterised by the gradual growth of informal businesses in the sub Saharan region. A global research-policy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), states that regional estimates of the size of the informal sector provide a useful overview, but they hide the diversity that exists within a region.

In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, informal employment tends to account for a smaller share of non-agricultural employment in southern Africa (33 per cent in South Africa and 44 per cent in Namibia) relative to countries in other sub-regions (82 per cent in Mali and 76 per cent in Tanzania). Some of the factors that have accelerated this growth include the rapid rate of urbanisation, a decrease in the number of formal employment opportunities as well as increased rates of poverty.

(Source: https://i.guim.co.uk)

While it may be argued that informal businesses provide a source of living for many families that would have otherwise been struggling to get by, the jobs that exist therein are poor quality ones. This is due to the fact that jobs in this sector of the economy do not offer any health or terminal benefits, as most operate on a wage-based model. Also, the conditions under which most operate are not conducive for the generation of business opportunities that may enable them to scale. For those that are involved in manual labour, a vast majority are exposed to highly risky environments as they do not have the requisite protective gear that would help them avoid work related injuries. Another common factor of businesses in the sector is their low level of productivity.

Policy makers have suggested various interventions for the sector that would see the improvement of informal businesses in a way that increases their incomes and offers some sort of decency to the lives of those engaged in businesses in the sector. One of the proposals that has been put forward is that of formalising informal businesses. It is often seen as a positive intervention from the perspective that it would not only make these enterprises more profitable, but also increase the tax base of a government, given the expansive nature of the sector.

One of the reasons that discourage informal businesses from formalising is the cost that comes with formalisation. Once they are formal, businesses are required to obtain certain licences as well as adhere to health and safety standards, all of which have a higher price tag than the cess fees that they are accustomed to paying. This aspect would naturally require such businesses to factor in these costs to their goods and services. An increase in pricing generally means that they would lose out on a certain percentage of their clientele who were accustomed to the lower prices.

Furthermore, given that the clientele of these enterprises mainly consists of low income households, the reality of a reduction in their base support system due to an increase in pricing makes the formalisation narrative a hard sell. A conundrum exists in the sense that on one hand, these businesses would like to grow to become more profitable entities while at the same time wanting to maintain their existing customer base. On the other hand, most of them would prefer to remain under the radar of the authorities in a way that minimises the taxes that they would have to pay and extra costs that accompany formalisation.

As it stands, most informal businesses are yet to be convinced that they will benefit from formalizing. When selling the formalisation narrative, policy makers and authorities need to better articulate the benefits that come with formalisation for informal businesses. This should be accompanied with interventions that enhance their business management capabilities, skills upgrading as well as increased access to finance as a precursor to formalization.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.

The Significance of Investing in the Young Population

The Kenya Economic Report 2015 whose theme is ‘Empowering Youth through Decent and Productive Employment’ released by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) is timely as it provides an indepth look at youth empowerment with a major focus on employment. The youth account for about 6o% of the labour force in the country, which is estimated to be growing at a rate of 2.9% per annum. According to the report, Kenya’s median age is estimated at 19 years and the proportion of the population that is below 15 years is estimated at 43%. Further, 78% of the population is aged below 35 years.

(Source: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke)

A big challenge facing most youth is the lack of decent and quality jobs; almost three out of every four youth are engaged in the informal economy, traditional agriculture and pastoralist activities. The share of employment in the informal sector in total employment, excluding traditional agriculture and pastoralist activities, increased from about 17.1% in 1983-1987 to 82.7% in 2013/14. This significant increase in the informalization of employment can be attributed to a shrink in formal employment opportunities over the years. As is the case in most parts of sub Saharan Africa, most entrepreneurs opt to venture into informal business as a last resort for it is often the only way they can earn a living.

With Kenya’s median population age being below 20 years of age, in order to arrest the rapidly growing rates of unemployment that have seen a spike in the growth of entrepreneurial informality, the report calls for the development and implementation of employment creation policies and strategies to that will engage this demographic group. Some of the suggestions include investment in productivity enhancement skills, and quality job creation in fast growing and labour-intensive sectors such as services, agriculture and industry, while promoting the manufacture of export goods for the regional and international markets.

Given that about 88 per cent of manufacturing sector employment is in the informal sector, potential interventions in the sector would be a good place to begin. As is the norm, jobs in the informal sector are characterized by low wages and a general lack of social security benefits. In this sense, the quality of jobs provided by the sector are of poor quality. Also, due to the reason that informality is driven by incentives to minimize tax and compliance costs as well as other external factors such as challenges to access of credit, the report suggests that in order to create quality jobs, policy making should mitigate some of the constraints limiting their transformation to formal enterprises.

It is interesting to note that the report also indicates that Kenyan micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) in manufacturing represent over 60% of establishments and account for 29% of those employed in manufacturing. The breakdown of MSMEs involved in manufacturing according to the 2016 MSME Report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is 95% as micro, 3.8% as small and 1.2% as medium sized enterprises. The sector was ranked as the highest contributor accounting for 24.3% of MSMEs gross value added. At publication of this report, this figure stood at 11.7% of gross value added. This represents a 12.6% increase over a two-year period. The significance of ingraining a value addition angle into the manufacturing processes of MSMEs cannot be overstated as it will ensure that manufacturers in this sector of the economy not only reap the benefits of fetching higher market prices for their products, but also enhance the growth of robust value chains that are essential to the successful implementation of national industrialization plans. As is the case with most informal enterprises, firms grapple with issues that include limited access to technology as well as limited research and development activity.

It is clear that tackling the challenges posed by informality is a key to providing a sustainable solution to youth unemployment in the country. Focusing on aspects that improve their productivity such as upskilling, increased access to technology as well as investing in research and development processes will enable those that are engaged in manufacturing to venture into value addition for their products. The trickle-down benefits of implementing policies that are centred around overcoming the aforementioned challenges will be an investment in this country’s future.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.

 

Facilitating Access to Credit for Small Business  

Last week, the World Bank released the Kenya Economic Update in which they look into ways in which credit to the private sector can be revived in a bid to accelerate growth in the economy. The Kenyan economy is projected to rebound and reach 5.8% of GDP in 2019. In order for this trajectory to be attained, one of the risks that have to be addressed is the need to jumpstart the recovery of credit growth to the private sector; particularly to Micro, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSMEs) and households. During the launch of the report, the Central Bank of Kenya Governor, Patrick Njoroge noted that the resilience of the Kenyan economy is largely attributed to its strong and vibrant private sector, whose backbone is MSMEs.

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

The document points out the fact that although the interest rate cap was meant to reduce the cost of credit, thereby making credit accessible to a wider range of borrowers, after a year of implementation the decline in credit growth to the private sector has continued with a couple of unintended negative consequences. One of these is that banks have shifted lending to corporate clients and government at the expense of small and medium sized enterprises and personal household loans. While the interest rate cap policy was an attempt to make credit less costly and therefore more accessible to borrowers, this policy objective has not been achieved. There has been a significant credit rationing to small and medium enterprises and for unsecured personal loans, while lending to the government and lower risk large corporates has increased.

It is interesting to note that the shift in the targeting of bank loan clients away from smaller and riskier borrowers is particularly impactful in Kenya, where riskier SME and micro borrowers make up roughly 80% of all borrowers. Smaller banks, who do not have a large corporate client base, are forced to maintain their portfolios in SME and consumer lending, but have stopped lending to new and unknown customers. The introduction of the rate cap has thus led to a situation whereby there has been a significant decrease in the disbursement of consumer and unsecured loans.

One of the recommendations that are presented in as far as dealing with the shrinking level of loan disbursement is that of recalibrating the current credit reporting system through which banks will be in a better position when it comes to making decisions on loans to risky borrowers, as opposed to the blanket one-size-fits-all approach that is currently being used. They will thus be able to offer financing that is priced per the risk of the borrower. To this end, in order to strengthen credit reporting in Kenya, the CBK is already working with commercial banks on increasing the quality of their consumer data and to include credit reporting data in lending decisions.

Another measure that can be taken to this effect is improving on the overall credit reference bureau data and products. Further, other lenders should be supported to also participate in the credit reporting system, such as SACCOs and microfinance institutions. The implementation of such reforms, coupled with a well-functioning credit bureau, will significantly improve pricing transparency among banks and broadly lower interest rates.

The document states that the goal of accommodating credit worthy borrowers with a higher risk profile, including personal unsecured loans and loans to SMEs calls for a more flexible pricing regime that allows banks to competitively determine loan prices. In order for this to be achieved there needs to be improvements in the institutional environment to prohibit predatory lending, through stronger consumer protections. For example, establishing a consumer protection bureau, could equip borrowers with greater bargaining power with banks and other lenders, promote more transparent pricing practices and increase financial literacy as well as allow for more effective dispute mechanisms.

litualex@gmail.com

Informal Economy Analyst.