Promoting Africa’s Informal Sector

Organising the informal sector and recognising its role as a profitable activity may contribute to economic development. This can also improve the capacity of informal workers to meet their basic needs by increasing their incomes and strengthening their legal status. This could be achieved by raising government awareness, allowing better access to financing, and fostering the availability of information on the sector.

Authorities’ awareness: Policy-makers in Africa should recognise the important role informal sector companies play in the economy. Associating the informal economy to criminal endeavours or tax evasion is not a good way to formalise the sector in Africa. There is a need for African governments to coordinate their policies and strategies in order to support the formalisation of the sector. Effective regulatory framework, good governance, better government services, improved business environment, and improving access to financing, technology and infrastructure are essential in this process. In that regard, development partners have pledged their commitment to support the formalisation process. This includes mainly the promotion of social protection to workers in the informal sector and support to small and medium-sized companies, which account for the bulk of Africa’s informal economy.

In addition, African policy-makers should be aware of the heterogeneity of the informal sector. According to a recent study on West Africa, governments should distinguish between small and large informal firms. The latter category plays an important role in the economy comparable to the role of major formal firms. Thus, African governments should adopt specific policies to bring large informal firms under formal regulation. For this, a systematic approach should be adopted in order to enforce a comprehensive regulatory regime including, for instance, registration for a formal tax regime.

Better access to financing: Limited access to funds is one of the major factors explaining the development of the informal economy. Facilitating access to formal financing channels such as micro-credit could be an overriding step to encourage informal entrepreneurs to shift toward more formal economic activities. However, raising the awareness of large conventional commercial banks of the potential of the informal sector is also essential.

Improving access to information: The fact that the informal sector has for a long time been neglected by policy-makers has not helped in generating knowledge on this sector. For instance, informal activities are often invisible in official statistics. In order to analyse the contribution of the informal sector in the economy, it is important to collect and maintain relevant information. This includes a wide range of information, such as the characteristics of actors, tax collection, impact on employment, working conditions, and productivity of informal companies.

Mthuli Ncube is the chief economist and vice president of the African Development Bank

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