Analysis of the SME Competitiveness Report 2017

The SME Competitiveness Report is an annual document that is published by the International Trade Centre (ITC) whose goal is to provide guidance to policy makers, business managers and trade and investment support institutions. This year’s report SME guide to regional value chains gives a way forward to stakeholders on how to become more attractive partners for lead firms, as well as how to strengthen their bargaining power within these value chains. It looks at how SMEs can best leverage value chains with a specific focus on regional value chains and how they can use these as a platform for internalization.


It is interesting to note that over the past last two decades, significant strides have been made in as far as creating a conducive environment for inclusivity in regional trade agreements. Provisions that have been made for gender equality and SMEs has seen the share of preferential trade agreements entering into force with this inclusivity angle more than triple since the late 1990s.

What comes out clearly is that regional value chains are more prevalent and easier to access than global ones. Generally, value chains are clustered around regional activities. However African firms tend to operate in a different manner as it was found out that they are more likely to join production networks outside of the continent. This is especially the case for East African Firms that typically export intermediate inputs to firms in East Asia, Europe or North America.

Also, the lack of regional integration in Africa means that it is more difficult for SMEs on the continent to lower their transaction costs and tap into regional value chains. To this end, the report shows that on the global scene, regional value chain activity was lowest in Africa. In their ranking of SME regional competitiveness, South Africa leads the score on the continent, but lies significantly behind top performers in other regions of the world. The low ranking of Sub Saharan African SMEs is attributed to the lack of a clear headquarter economy in the region.

Further, SME firms generally engage in business functions of low complexity, suggesting that they only capture a small share of value added in the chains. In order to gain traction in the right direction, SMEs can increase their bargaining power by improving the complexity of their goods and services and by also increasing the pool of their buyers. This can also be achieved by focusing on how to improve services as higher value is associated with segments of a value chain that trade services, and not goods. In both developed and developing countries, services are seen to be the glue that holds value chains together.

The report is timely and relevant for stakeholders for it clearly states the importance of having a well-coordinated process around the drafting and implementation of government policies aimed at regional integration processes in a way that enables them to spur the growth and success of SMEs by enabling them to tap into wider markets.

Informal Economy Analysis




















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.

Impact Investing in Informal Enterprises

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


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

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

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

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

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

Informal Economy Analyst


Labour Exploitation

In a research article published in the Arts and Social Sciences Journal entitled Economic Informal Sector and the Perspective of Informal Workers in India, the authors explore various dynamics that characterise the informal economy. Some of these include aspects covering job security, social security, rural urban migration, child labour, and exploitation of working women. They further point out a common phenomenon that is common with the informal economy whereby the lack of reliable statistics on the size, distribution and economic contribution of the informal sector has for long been a major constraint in providing a realistic understanding of its significance as well as working conditions in the sector. This has often led to its neglect in development planning.


Most of those engaged in informal activities are mainly the underprivileged in society and opt into the sector as of an alternative source of employment and income, in a quest to better their livelihoods. The authors go on to say that some of the reasons as to why people choose to run businesses in the informal sector vary from the lack of a basic level of education and skill sets that enable them to get jobs in the formal sector, to the prevalence of poverty in the communities in which they exist. These factors, coupled with those such as rural urban migration that is driven by the quest for better living conditions and job opportunities, are drivers for the rapid growth of informal sector businesses in third world countries. The precarious situation that most of these individuals end up being caught up in involve working conditions that leave them vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation.

According to a briefing paper by the Overseas Development Institute, the informal sector has its own obstacles, particularly for those working illegally or without registration. Some of these include inadequate access to credit, bureaucratic licensing requirements and regulatory restrictions, as well as overzealous policing which entails the removal of informal vendors, demolishing kiosks, confiscating stock and denying licences. In their view, informal work is a mixed blessing depending on context. On one hand it can be seen to offer an escape route from poverty in areas where informality is the norm due to the high demand for goods and services within such a community. On the other hand, instances where informal workers are more isolated exposes them to various systematic legal obstacles. This ideology is supported by the fact that urban areas differ in their economic diversity and their ability to respond to higher concentrations of consumers.

They argue that costs are likely to be higher in cities that are experiencing economic growth, because growth entails higher monetisation of basic services and other non-food items such as housing, transport, and informal payments to maintain livelihoods. While costs of living are higher in rapidly-growing cities, there may also be more income-earning opportunities. However, it is not necessarily clear that more opportunities translate into better working conditions or remuneration for the poor. Further, the flow of people into cities can be destabilising and push urban wages down. As a result, a growing number of migrants live in the informal sector, confined to unskilled, low-paid and low-security work.

It is clear that the informal sector is grappling with the issue of the wellbeing of workers that are engaged in it. Most importantly, giving a voice to the plight of those that are engaged in the sector with a view to actively engage governments and organizations in conversations on how to best address this challenge, is a positive step forward in seeking a credible solution to the problem.

Informal Economy Analyst

The Cost Of Informality

In a quest to formalise informal businesses, there are certain factors that stand in the way of this goal. It is clear that a good number of informal enterprises operate the way they do due to the underlying socio-economic background in which they find themselves working. For example, most of these are formed in areas where poverty is prevalent. In a bid to make these businesses formalise and hence become viable and profitable entities, some of these factors need to be taken into consideration as they can be used as catalysts or incentives to formalisation.


The International Labour Organization points out the fact that informality inhibits investment in bigger business ventures because they lack the necessary capacity and size to fully exploit economies of scale. One factor that drives this notion is their low levels of productivity due to poor access to skilled labour. However, this is not the case for larger formal enterprises for they are in a better financial position to access high-skilled labour and can hence fully exploit economies of scale which enhances their profitability.

The lack of secure property rights especially for micro and small enterprises deprives them access to credit and capital. This is a huge hindrance whenever they try to expand their business operations in the sense that their businesses do not possess the legal title deeds to the physical residences on which they conduct business. In this sense, their businesses cannot be used as collateral whenever they try to get loans from financial institutions. This mode of operation also makes it difficult for them to access legal and judicial systems to enforce contracts.  This aspect for example impedes them whenever they try to participate in the tendering processes of bigger companies or even government business.

Another obstacle for informal businesses is that most of them lack social protection. The fact that a vast majority of these are not registered units puts them in a situation where they are not recognised by governments under which they operate and hence fall outside of the official regulation network. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation for they are not protected by social and labour legislation. Corrupt government officials often demand bribes to ensure that they remain in business, which is an unnecessary expense in the long run.

What comes out clearly is that some of the mitigation strategies that need to be embraced and implemented revolve around issues that deal with capacity development especially upskilling as this is a crucial requirement for boosting the productivity of informal businesses. Also, the development and harmonization of informal organisational structures should be done in a way that enables them to own the working spaces under which they operate, be it on a collective or individual basis.  More importantly, the improvement of conditions of employment in the sector in as far as occupational safety and health policies are concerned is another area that needs to be addressed. This includes looking into the promotion of labour rights, the extension of social protection to reach the most vulnerable and a favourable regulatory environment that discourages corruption.

In a bid to encourage formalisation, the above factors need to be strongly considered. The most viable way to tackle the problem and move forward would be to target top tier small and micro businesses in each of the sub sectors in the informal economy and engage these in a pilot programme. This  would then be used to precisely map out the challenges faced on the path to formalisation with the aim of developing and implementing tailormade strategies for the different business sizes in each sub sector.

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.

(Source: )

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.

Informal Economy Analyst.




Informality In Sub-Saharan Saharan Africa

The latest Regional Economic Outlook: Sub-Saharan Africa is a survey conducted and released twice a year by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The latest was made public in April 2017 and highlights the importance of the informal economy as being a key component of most economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, contributing between 25 and 65 percent of GDP and accounting for up to 90% of jobs outside agriculture. This includes household enterprises that are not formally registered.


Estimation of the size of the informal economy is done by looking at indicators such as the tax burden, institutional development and unemployment rates amongst other factors. According to the paper, a larger tax burden is likely to encourage more economic activity to remain in the informal economy. The level of institutional development is another indicator whereby the lack of respect for the law encourages informal activity. Higher unemployment rates are an indicator of poorly functioning labour markets with labour not being absorbed into the formal sector.

The IMF indicates that the average share of informality in Sub-Saharan Africa reached almost 38% of GDP during 2010 – 2014. This is surpassed only by Latin America and the Caribbean at 40% of GDP and compares with 34% of GDP in South Asia, and 23% of GDP in Europe. In member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the informal sector is estimated to account for 17% of GDP. Their findings suggest that informality seems to fall with the level of income, likely reflecting higher government capacity and better incentives towards formality in higher income economies.

In terms of the experience of its populations as entrepreneurs, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of early stage entrepreneurial activity. However, about a third of the new entrepreneurs in the region report that they chose to be entrepreneurs out of necessity. Despite this, the region has the most positive attitude towards entrepreneurship. The policy change proposed in this regard is to create an environment in which small firms in both formal and informal sectors can thrive and grow, one that is supportive of SMEs.

As far as informality and productivity is concerned, high levels of informality in the informal sector have significant implications on productivity. This in turn negatively impacts economic performance. The paper draws certain conclusions from World Bank Enterprise Surveys which indicate that the productivity levels of informal firms are significantly lower than those of formal firms. On average, the productivity of informal firms is only 25% of small formal firms and 19% of medium sized formal firms, based on real output per employee. This reflects a lower level of physical capital and skill levels of informal workers.

In regard to tax policy, the document proposes that relatively high VAT thresholds are recommended for developing countries, with licences and fees for businesses below the VAT threshold. Such a move would reduce the number of small businesses that are discouraged from registering with the tax administration. As a result, the increased growth and transition into formality would allow small enterprises to grow to a size above the tax threshold, generating higher fiscal revenue. The benefit for formalisation would be better access to finance and public services, which would exceed the tax cost.

Moving forward, countries in the region need to focus on developing strategies that will not only foster and support the positive growth of informal sector activities, but also go further to incentivise their graduation into the formal sector. The importance of capacity building initiatives in the areas of technical, financial and management skills as well as those that are centred around technology adoption as a means to increasing their productivity cannot be overlooked if this is to achieved.

Informal Economy Analyst.