Earlier this month I was interviewed by The African Investor on Kenya’s Informal Economy.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released the Economic Survey 2017 which presents an analysis of the key sectors in the Kenyan economy. In relation to the informal economy, the survey only focused on the employment angle of the sector. The rest of data on the informal sector was extracted from the MSME 2016 Survey. Getting comprehensive up to date data on the informal economy is still a big challenge.
The 2017 survey indicates that the total 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 created in the informal sector. The share of new jobs created in the informal economy represents a 5.9 per cent growth from 83 per cent to 89.7 per cent or 13.3 million people. Wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants industries continued to absorb the highest number of employees, accounting for 59.7 per cent of total employment, while the manufacturing industry had a share of 20.4 per cent in informal sector employment.
A continual growth of the informal sector can be attributed to factors such as the shrinking availability of formal employment opportunities as well as the resilience of the Kenyan citizens. Informal sector growth in the country is however a problem due to the fact that most jobs in the sector are of substandard quality. This is because most are characterised by low wages, no social benefits as well as poor working conditions such as the lack of protective gear in most labour intensive businesses and operating in areas with insufficient social amenities such as access to water and toilets.
There were a number of statistics on the informal sector that were not highlighted such as an updated position on the key sub sectors. It would be useful to have information on the number of businesses that operate in the sector, as well as the overall contribution made to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This will paint a clearer picture of the sector in a way that can enable policy makers to adequately formulate strategies that would be beneficial in enhancing qualitative growth of this crucial component of the economy.
One of the suggestions on how this can be done is by starting out with a pilot project in one of the counties with a vibrant informal economy whereby data collection focuses beyond sifting through the records at county offices. This will allow for the concentration of efforts towards the conducting of a deeper statistical analysis of each of the sub sectors. Once this has been achieved, it can then be used as a benchmark for conducting a similar program countrywide. The gathered data would provide a clearer way forward when it comes to making informed decisions on how to channel the efforts towards implementing a sustainable plan that deals with the informal sector.
Informal Economy Analyst
Formal employment opportunities have been on a steady decline. Over the past two years, a number of institutions in Kenya have laid off staff as a cost cutting measure. This coupled with a constantly increasing level of unemployment, especially among the youth, has resulted in the mushrooming of small businesses that enable those that are caught up in such circumstances to make a living in the tough economic times. Most have opted to start-up small businesses which are predominantly informal in their mode of operation that enable them to provide for their families.
Despite the fact that a vast majority of informal businesses are perceived in a negative light due to reasons such as a good number of them not paying taxes, inadequate social security structures as well as poor internal financial infrastructures, there are lessons that one can learn from their operations.
Unity of purpose is one of the ways in which informal businesses have managed to grow and stay afloat. Given the scarcity of resources that they have to contend with, be it financial or technical, majority of them pool resources so as to achieve their goals. A good example can be found in instances where such businesses come together to form associations through which they tackle problems that they face. These range from interacting with government authorities and financial institutions to sharing skills and equipment. Interacting with government authorities and financial institutions in this manner puts them in a stronger bargaining position when it comes to negotiating for better terms of engagement.
Also, informal businesses are often pioneers when it comes to innovation. The growth in the rate of unemployment is one factor that has led to the growth of the informal sector. This, coupled with increasing poverty levels has pushed the informal economy to become the top employment segment in sub Saharan Africa. In Kenya, it accounts for 81% of the total employment demographic. In a bid to remain relevant and competitive, those that are engaged in informal businesses develop products and services that enable them to stay in business. Given that a majority of those engaged in informal businesses tend to be the youth, they contribute new and innovative ideas and technologies to industries that have for long remained traditionally rigid.
Another aspect that can be learnt from informal businesses is their resilience. This can be seen in their widespread presence. In Nairobi for example, if you need to have your car fixed quickly, there is always a garage around the corner. Supermarkets and grocery stores have been overtaken by the numerous “Mama Mboga” shops. In the beauty and cosmetics industry, informal salons are currently available in every neighborhood. This factor has contributed to the exponential growth of this sector.
With all this said and done, the informal economy is still largely characterised by the presence of poor quality employment opportunities. Efforts should be made to support businesses in this sector of the economy as it will be a huge step in the right direction in easing the burden of poverty.
Informal Economy Analyst
During the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of people pursuing alternate means to employment as a means of raising their living standards. This can be largely be attributed to the high levels of unemployment as well as the rising number of people that are engaged in poor quality jobs. The informal sector creates poor quality jobs and is an avenue for a large percentage of the population to find an extra source of income.
In the light of this factor, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has released the World Employment Social Outlook 2017 report. It focuses on trends in job quality, paying particular attention to working poverty and vulnerable employment. What come out clearly is the contrast in the growth of the regional economies over the past decade vis-à-vis the employment and poverty trends. The report states that Sub-Saharan Africa continues to report the highest rate of youth working poverty globally, at almost 70 per cent in 2016, while facing rapid growth in the number of youth in the labour force.
It further states that Sub-Saharan Africa’s unemployment rate is forecast to be 7.2 per cent in 2017, unchanged from 2016. While the unemployment rate remains stable, the number of unemployed is expected to increase from 28 million in 2016 to 29 million in 2017 due to the region’s strong labour force growth. Poor quality employment, rather than unemployment, remains the main labour market challenge in the region. With this in mind, the lack of productive opportunities for youth and adults alike meant that 247 million people were in vulnerable employment in 2016, equivalent to around 68 per cent of all those with jobs.
Statistics from the report show that an additional 12.6 million youth in the region will enter the labour force over the next four years. Due to growth in the working-age population, the number of people in vulnerable forms of employment is expected to increase by 14.6 million. Further, the outlook is particularly challenging for women, who are more likely to be in vulnerable employment, largely as contributing family workers. The share of female workers categorized as contributing family workers, at 30.6 per cent, is more than twice the rate for their male counterparts, at 14.0 per cent, with women additionally over-represented in informal non-agricultural employment.
The issue of vulnerable employment is linked to that of working poverty. The report adds that Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be characterized by elevated rates of working poverty, with 33.6 per cent of all employed people living in extreme poverty in 2016 – i.e. on less than US$1.90 per day – and an additional 30.1 per cent in moderate poverty – i.e. between US$1.90 and US$3.10 per day. This corresponds to over 230 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living in either extreme or moderate poverty.
These numbers are a strong indicator as to why the informal economy continues to consistently grow in the region. The downside to having a large informal economy is that those that are involved in the micro businesses cannot afford to access proper medical attention as well as other social welfare benefits. It would be prudent for policy and decision makers to look into and implement strategies that grow the capacity of informal businesses to enable them to become profitable entities. This will reduce the high levels of poverty by providing sustainable incomes to a vast majority of households.
Informal Economy Analyst
Informal businesses have often been perceived in a negative light. They are seen to be high risk ventures, a nuisance to formal enterprises and government as well as being of little assistance to the growth and development agenda of most nations. This is due to the fact that most of them have haphazard modes of operation and a majority are not registered and hence do not pay taxes. This sector has however registered rapid growth over recent years. In Kenya for example about 82% of those employed are engaged in informal businesses. The high levels of poverty has exacerbated this growth as a majority of people seek to make a living where jobs are hard to come by.
There are a wide range of issues that, if addressed, will see most of these businesses develop to a level where they will be even more positive contributors to the economy. A place to start would be offering financial literacy programs for those that operate these businesses. Due to the fact that a majority of them do not keep records of their day to day operations, it becomes difficult for financial institutions to offer any assistance because there is no clear basis from which performance can be tracked. The importance of basic skills like book keeping needs to be emphasized when developing capacity building programs for the sector.
Access to health facilities for informal workers is another area that can improved. In my experience while visiting various informal businesses around the country, most business operators have had to leave their work unattended as they try to seek medical attention whenever they fall sick. Most work under deplorable conditions without the required protective gear. The Kenyan government through the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) has launched a program that seeks to increase the number of informal workers who can access quality healthcare. The program aims to recruit 12 million Kenyans under a cover that sees them pay a monthly contribution of between Kshs 150 to Kshs 500 depending on their income status. This is a step in the right direction that needs to be replicated.
While interacting with businesses in the sector, a major hurdle that has consistently come up is the difficulty they face when trying to market their goods and services. Most do not have the skills required to widen their scope of customers. This is an area that should be considered by those developing capacity building programs for the sector. Another barrier has been the allocation of spaces they are given to operate their businesses. Most of these are in areas that potential customers cannot easily access and are often unattended to by those that collect revenue from them in terms of garbage collection. This considerably compromises the ability of the informal sector to attract clients and customers to their business.
Although information on those engaged in the informal economy is hard to come by, my experience indicates that the sector is ready for engagement; it is critical we tap into this goodwill. However, note that the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released the Micro Small and Medium Enterprise survey in 2016. In as much as this is a move to be applauded, most of the players in the informal sector that I interviewed over the past few months feel that the report was inconclusive as it excluded a huge percentage of micro businesses. A proper census will need to be carried out to provide a clearer picture of where the sector stands. This will go a long way in better informing policy makers and those that would like to engage with the sector.
In conclusion, these interventions can be best leveraged through bodies such as the Micro and Small Enterprises Authority (MSEA), who have established a credible network around the country as well as various organizations and associations that work with the informal sector at the county level.
Informal Economy Analyst
Insights from the Jua Kali Sector
I recently held a meeting with the Chairman of The Jua kali Association (Kamukunji), Mr Eliud Mbiyu in Nairobi to find out what growth opportunities lie in their way and the challenges they face when trying to achieve these. The association is a non-profit umbrella body that consists of 4,000 members from micro and small businesses predominantly dealing in metal works, blacksmiths, welders and fabricators.
Their greatest strength was the Sacco they had formed which provides its members with loans to further their business activities. The Sacco encourages its members to save money as a means of building and encouraging a savings culture. Most of its members are drawn from poor backgrounds who basically live from hand to mouth. A huge advantage of coming together is that they are able to source and service big orders which they achieve through a system of division of labour to its members. The challenge in this is that most of the work done is usually not of the same standard.
He added that the setting up of the Micro and Small Enterprise Authority (MSEA), which operates under the Ministry of Industrialisation has gone a long way in assisting them to achieve their goals which include sourcing of business, mediation of disputes that require government intervention and interacting with various government institutions such as the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) as well as the County government of Nairobi. MSEA has for example, played a major role in assisting the association to attain the title deed for the two acre piece of land on which they operate.
The main form of training undertaken by businesses in this field is apprenticeship, as most of those joining this field of work have not attained basic education qualifications. This manual handcrafted labour needs to be improved through the introduction of new technologies such as mechanisation, as the former makes them underproductive and as mentioned earlier, leads to the production of unstandardized products. In this sense, due to the investment required in terms of machinery, there will be need to train the artisans on how to use the machines.
Another challenge that the association faces is the sourcing of finances from financial institutions. This is in part due to the lack of financial skills by the businesses they represent as most do not keep records of their day to day operations. Their main source of revenue is the membership fee paid by its members and proceeds that they get from leasing out a hall on their premises for meetings. He pointed out that due to the fact that they are an underfinanced organisation, they have a problem attracting and maintaining quality employees.
Moving forward, Mr Mbiyu pointed out that some of the key areas that the association needs to focus on include offering financial training for the businesses under their umbrella, upskilling for the artisans so as to improve the quality of their products, exchange programs that will equip the artisans with modern technologies and a stern approach by government when it comes to dealing with unfavourable competition from cheap imports. Despite the challenges they face, he was optimistic of the future of the sector due to the positive feedback that they have gotten from the national government in projects that they are undertaking which include plans to build a business complex. “There is a great need for a change in perception of the Jua Kali sector from one that produces inferior quality products to one that can be seen as a key instrument to achieving Kenya’s Vision 2030 Industrialisation plan”
Informal Economy Analyst