Emerging African women entrepreneurs #informaleconomy

By | February 6, 2016

Ruth, the retailer who dreams of wholesale. Western Kenya Feb 2016 Photo: Niti Bhan

At the other end of the high tech geeky startup spectrum increasingly providing a platform for African women is the informal retail and wholesale trade sector. Like their West African sisters, the women traders I met in the border market of Busia, Kenya (next door to Busia, Uganda) and its nearby environs (~ 5km radius), and at Malaba, Kenya (also next door to Malaba, Uganda) are professional businesswomen, some with ties as far away as Egypt and Kampala.

They break the stereotype of the poor African woman who sells tomatoes as a livelihood activity to feed her 4 kids and send them to school. One company has a B2C outlet in Mombasa, while they sit in between Kampala and Nairobi, trading in women’s accessories and various accoutrements that are fun to own. Another imports clothes from Egypt, while also wholesaling eggs from Uganda. And ladies who are in the wholesale of staple agricultural commodities, documented evidence of which only began in the 2000s.

UNWomen would have it that the majority fall into the conventional description that doesn’t question its implicit assumption that operating in the informal sector automagically means you’re in the lower income category. Besides, the concept of “informality” in the English language causes more misconceptions around the sector as it exists in East Africa.

I’ll be honest, I cannot actually say without a proper market research study, at scale, whether the exceptions are the majority or minority. To be honest, as I noted in the previous post, it costs almost as much money to run an informal business as it would a formal. This whole topic of what is formal and informal is an entirely different, far more academic post. Income level does not really enter into the picture as a defining characteristic.

These are businesswomen with bank accounts and book keeping. They are invisible because their business can be conducted from indoors, by phone and mobile money transfer.

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