Earlier this month I was interviewed by The African Investor on Kenya’s Informal Economy.
In a research paper published by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IFW) , the largest part of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is generated by informal enterprises. In Kenya, they account for 89.7% of the employment demographic. These enterprises often lack the financial means or the managerial and technological skills required to expand their activities. The paper goes on to point out that one way of overcoming these constraints is to establish links with the formal sector.
From a business perspective, linkages are channels through which enterprises influence each other’s performance in a relationship that ensures that they maximise benefits and minimise risks. The two major types are backward and forward linkages. The Business Dictionary defines backward linkages as channels through which information, materials and money flow between a company and its suppliers which creates a network of economic interdependence. Forward linkages on the other hand are the distribution chains that connect the producer or supplier with the customers.
IFW identified a couple of factors that encourage the formation of formal linkages. The first is that of primary production factors (capital stocks, employees), infrastructure (electricity, telephone), and access to credit. The expectation is that enterprises with higher endowments of the above are in a better position to establish formal linkages. Also, the experience as measured by the age of the enterprise is another factor. The expectation is that it takes time to build up business relationships hence enterprises that have been in business for longer periods are in a stronger position to form and exploit these linkages.
Another factor that influences the formation of linkages is that of the characteristics of the owner/manager of the enterprise (age, schooling). It points out that older and more educated owners are more likely to establish formal linkages. Being a member of a professional association also enhances the establishment of linkages. Contact with associations facilitates networking and thereby raises the likelihood of formal business relationships. This is fortified by the fact that these associations provide avenues through which businesses can share ideas on best work practices. They also provide an avenue through which the pooling of resources is encouraged, an aspect that strengthens their negotiating power.
The informal sector, when sufficiently supported, can gain a lot by pursuing this model of establishing linkages with formal businesses. The paper further suggests that formal backward linkages exert a positive influence on the productivity of enterprises in the informal sector. A symbiotic relationship of this fashion would be beneficial to both sides of the coin.
In addition, if formal enterprises are not able to procure goods from an independent supplier and lack the physical or human capital to produce the goods themselves, they will be restricted in their ability to introduce innovations to their production. More generally, it can be assumed that linkages facilitate the dispersion of technical innovation.
Lastly, through the establishment of linkages with informal businesses, formal enterprises can take advantage of the markets that informal businesses have access to as a distribution channel for their products.
Informal Economy Analyst
The quest for people to engage in activities that generate money in an environment where formal employment is a limited option has caused many Kenyans to pursue options in the informal economy. In a country where the cost of living is constantly rising coupled with increasing poverty levels, most are forced to conduct small scale businesses that are often not well thought out, but provide the income that is necessary to sustain their families. One of the most common fields that people from low income households venture into is that of hawking.
Hawking in Nairobi has become a challenge to the Nairobi County in that not enough measures have been taken to ensure that those that are involved in the trade are provided with sufficient areas within which they can operate. It is this untamed approach that has led to an uncontrolled growth of this section of the informal economy. A huge setback that has arisen from this growth is that it poses a security risk to the city of Nairobi. There are a number of gangs that have been known to have networks within hawkers. They often use the hawking business as a front to conduct illegal activities such as drug peddling.
Another challenge that these informal traders present is that in that of contributing to the garbage accumulation within the city. Since most of them operate from temporary stations, they leave the residue from their activities such as the packaging of wares that they have sold lying on the streets.
I recently interviewed an informal trader who makes a living from selling bottled water and soft drinks in one of the parks in Nairobi. During the time I spent with him, I learned a lot on the mode of operation of businesses in this sector of the economy alongside the challenges that they face. On average, he makes Kshs 2,000 in profits from the business per day. He has to part with Kshs 500 on a daily basis to bribe officials from the county to enable him operate without disruption of his operations.
Those who do not bribe these officials often end up playing a cat and mouse game with these officials. He noted that for a person to comfortably operate the sort of business he does, it is a better option to pay the daily bribe as the fine one has to pay if arrested is Kshs 3000 which is accompanied with the confiscation of the vendor’s goods. This has fuelled this system of corruption as it is easier for the vendors to pay the bribe so as to comfortably make a living.
Sufficient measures have to be taken so as to come up with a sustainable approach to handling and accommodating this section of the informal economy. One such way would be the allocation of suitable areas within which they can conduct their businesses without harassment from the relevant authorities. This is a sector that if properly structured will be an additional avenue for revenue collection. It will also provide a sustainable source of income for those that come from low income households.
Informal Economy Analyst
One of the key areas of focus when setting up a business is knowing who your customers are. Targeting the right type of clientele is one of the pillars upon which the success of a business is based. With this in mind, it is important for a start-up business to know beforehand what their niche market is so as to channel its resources in the right manner. Aspects like getting the right location as well as having the right information on the profiles of customers within ones area of operation are key factors that dictate whether a business will succeed or fail. This is no different for informal businesses.
This aspect came out clearly during a recent visit to Nanyuki, a town in Laikipia County – Kenya, while interviewing different businesses in the informal sector. Victor Gaita, the chairman of the Nanyuki Municipality Jua Kali Association which has a membership of 150 businesses, pointed out some factors that determined the levels to which businesses within the association generated income. The first was that despite the fact that some of the craftsmen had the requisite skills to make high quality furniture like beds that would cost Kshs 35,000, they seldom did because these sold much slower than those that cost Kshs 4,000. The latter cost appealed to the low income clientele who frequent their premises.
Another factor that determined the level to which members generated income was their location. Those that operated from residential areas had higher returns than those that are located in the market places. This is due to two factors. The first is that those in the residential areas were not frequently visited by the county officials, which reduced the amount of bribes that they had to pay. This angle has a downside to it, in that due to the fact that the county officials do not frequent the residential areas, these businesses get away with not having to pay most taxes that are required of them, which gives them an unfair competitive advantage.
The other factor is that the cleanliness of the environment under which they operate determines the type of clientele that will visit their business premises. Those that are located in the market places often have to deal with the inefficient service provision by the county government when it comes to garbage collection. They are also congested in their working spaces, something that doesn’t encourage clients to visit their premises. Those in the residential areas operate in clean and spacious environments hence end up attracting higher end clients.
Phyllis Micheni is the chair of Jambo Kenya Women Group which is an association that is comprised of 15 members. Their core business is the manufacturing and selling of curios that include wood crafts, jewellery, hand woven carpets and African themed clothing. She noted that most of their clients were mainly tourists and locals that have a higher income dispensation due to the quality of their products and costs of production. Their prices were too high for the local clientele. Their main challenge was marketing their products and are thus looking into ways in which they can upscale their vending points in areas frequented by tourists.
Informal Economy Analyst
Having worked as a sales and marketer during the past nine years for various multinational companies in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry has brought me face to face with both formal and informal businesses. These have different models of operation depending on the cluster under which they fall, which requires one to employ different approaches and strategies when dealing with them. Most of the challenges I encountered came about when dealing with informal establishments.
The biggest challenge I faced as a sales person when dealing with informal businesses was that they insisted on procuring products on a credit basis, as opposed to most formal businesses that often paid for their products upfront. In order to get the products to be initially listed on their inventory, most of them were of the view that introducing new products to their customers was a high risk, so they preferred not to tie down their capital on goods that have a slow offtake. This required a tactful approach when it came to roping them in. A strategy that worked best was that of starting them off with fewer units of the particular product and gradually increasing the quantities they ordered during subsequent visits.
Another factor that came into play when introducing a product was its pack size. Smaller pack sizes did much better than the bigger ones. This is due to the affordability of these to their customers. Given the lower levels of income of most of their clients, the bigger pack sizes were viewed to be out of their pockets’ reach, hence their preference for the smaller units as these had a higher offtake. This form of aspirational marketing has been proven to yield positive results as most customers eventually graduated to the bigger pack sizes when their income levels improved.
Kareem Williams clearly points out that creating some semblance of customer loyalty is one of the biggest challenges salespeople face. One way to do this is with value-added services. Customer loyalty programs, discounts, free service programs, and other features can help one create return customers. While dealing with informal businesses, I found this to be cardinal. Sales turnover was higher whenever there was a promotional campaign. These ranged from offering price discounts to providing free products for every purchase made.
Going back to the point about informal businesses being high risk clients when it comes to credit, some of the situations that arise include losses accrued by companies due to the closure of some of them. Seeing as most of these businesses operate without all the legally required documentation and improper record keeping, if any, they are under no obligation to remain open in case of government crackdowns. This temporary operational mind set can lead to companies accruing huge losses. A good example is that of the crackdown on illicit brew in Kenya that led to the closure of wines and spirits outlets. Many companies suffered losses due to this closure because most of these wines and spirits businesses served as distribution points for them, especially in the rural markets. To this end, companies need to consider having risk budgets to cushion such losses.
Informal Economy Analyst