Archive for the ‘Prepaid Economy & Informal Sector’ Category

It’s way past the time to consider the Informal Economy as a distinct commercial environment

Brand stickers on avocados displayed for sale on a highway, Kenya. April 2013

Regardless of continent, it is now high time we accepted the informal economy (unformal or unrecognised or unorganized sectors) as a commercial operating environment in its own right.

The continued oversight is rapidly coalescing into a gaping void of hiccups and failures, by large companies, non profit institutions, and startups, alike. This issue goes far beyond “understanding the informal” or recognizing the fulltime professional status of the service providers that I’ve written about before.

It’s about the problems created by continuing to assume every individual is poverty stricken and struggling to make a livelihood simply because a significant portion of their commercial activity operates outside what is rarely defined but is assumed to be the formal, structured economy held up as the pinnacle of economic development.

It’s why academics can barely conceal their flabbergasted surprise that a person has a better quality of life, and a reasonably viable revenue stream in [gasp] informal market trading, or even agricultural work.

It’s why @pesa_africa questions the continued transplantation of e-commerce business models directly from Seattle to subSahara given that they’ve tended to wither on the vines.

It’s why market women and traders pay the price of daily harassment and abuse by those given authority over their peace of mind.

And, it’s also why the freshest produce gets to you first thing in the morning in Nairobi or Cotonou or Kinshasa.

This is not meant to be a paean to the hardworking women and men who keep the engines of commerce and trade humming in the harshest of environments with scarce resources and inadequate infrastructure.

It’s the first step in acknowledging yet another holdover from a colonial past that decades later still hampers and hinders the social and economic development that should have happened by now, by all rights.

It’s also the necessary counterpart to the recognition of agency required for design interventions to succeed once donor funding ends.

This theme is consistently covered in this blog in the category Biashara Economics and hashtag #biasharaeconomics

Launching Our Digital Documentation Project: Ibadan’s Tailors, Traders, and Textiles by Nigerian/British artist Folake Shoga

finalcopyAfter months of hard work, I am very honoured and proud to announced our new digital documentation project by my friend Folake Shoga, a Nigerian/British multidisciplinary artist with more than three decades of experience.

She went on a journey of discovery through the twists and turns of the informal value web that holds together West Africa’s famed textiles and fashionably styled culture.

Her window to this world is centered around Ibadan, Nigeria, and she takes us through an illustrated, personally narrated documentary that spans the experience of getting a new dress, from choosing the right fabric, all the way through building a fashion brand.

Come and join us for this fascinating peek behind the scenes! You can also find this unique photo-documentary again on my portfolio page.

Not Disaggregating the Informal Economy Properly Hinders Development Efforts

Michael Kimani (@pesa_africa) brought this prize winning essay on the importance of understanding the informal economy to my attention, together with a snippet of text from our last inception report highlighting a major oversight that we believe is of critical importance.

Mike took issue on Twitter with the author’s very first sentence introducing his work as a PhD candidate in The Department of International Development, LSE, viz.,

I research smuggling, or ‘informal cross-border trade’.

and I offered to flesh out our concerns in a blogpost. Here’s the snippet Mike extracted from the tralac website:

C8oeVQ8XgAAnc-fNow, I won’t go into the full scale literature review on the challenge posed by the conflation of illicit activities such as smuggling with the licit yet unrecorded daily commerce in border markets as it’s clearly framed here on page 5 through 7 since the author is already in academia.

However, what I will do is just pull out Kanbur and Keen‘s specifically worded framing of the challenge of not unpacking the various elements of the informal economy as the first step towards understanding it better.

We think this is the wrong way to look at things. The key to policymaking towards informality is twofold. First, to specify more basic objectives, such as efficiency and equity, which transcend informality – informality and its persistence in itself is neither good nor bad. Second, to disaggregate informality into policy-relevant categories, rather than take it as an undifferentiated lump and then gauge policies by their impact on its magnitude.

Let’s take the problem of conflating smuggling with cross border trade in the context of Kanbur and Keen on Rethinking Informality:

In so far as any precise meaning is given to the term in discussions of taxation, informality is usually taken simply to mean non-remittance of tax due – failure to pay. But there are all kinds of reasons why a firm or individual might pay no tax. Maybe they are simply below the threshold above which they are legally obliged to; or maybe they are evading. Might not why no tax is paid matter for policy making at least as much as the fact of it not being paid? And how should tax systems be structured when it is recognised that their design may affect not only how much tax is paid, but the different ways in which it is not paid?

These questions lead, in our view, to a more useful strand of analysis than generalities about reducing informality.

or, in the case of this essay, to generalities about the need to understand the informal without distinguishing within it the various categories of trade that occurs across borders, both biashara and magendo.

A matter of timing: seasonal opportunities

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Temporary stall for festive goods (Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017)

These stalls full of water pistols and balloons sprouted overnight a couple of days before the spring festival of Holi (March 13th 2017) – these vendors are neither local nor regulars in the market complex. They’re here to offer seasonal products and might even have been invited by the local shopkeepers to provide attractive temporary displays not unlike festival shopping at the mall.

IMG_7356Seasonal opportunities for special offers and custom products are not to be missed chances for a boost in sales. India’s FMCG majors can’t afford to ignore the seasons that guide the cash flow for the majority in the informal and rural economies over the course of the natural year.

India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future

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Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”

 

 

*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.

Exploring the Scope of Biashara Economics

biashara2There’s a dearth of research on the economics of biashara – the everyday commerce that keeps daily life running. And this hampers the efficacy of the design of programmes and policies meant for operating environments where the informal economy may be providing employment for more than half the working age population, and often, as high as 80 to 90% – India is at 92%, just for context.

This is not yet a literature review, although that is next on my list. It’s an attempt to capture the realization, while reading a couple of fascinating articles on the South African township economy, that the underpinnings of the informal retail and trade economy were not themselves the subject of research.

We stand firmly on the shoulders of giants, I realized, when reading these papers, though they maybe few in number. Without John Keith Hart’s body of work, none of us would be here, not even the “informal economy” –  the label itself attributed to his work in Ghana in the early 1970s. And without Martha Alter Chen’s rethinking of the informal economy, I wouldn’t have taken the path that I have this past decade.

…as long as you lump together the activities of the people like selling hotdogs door to door (although buying it from a wholesaler informally), distilling wine for the village, keeping small shops within walking distance when towns are far away or even urban services ranging from garbage disposal to dishwashing to repairing shoes – with the “firms that are hiding from formal regulations and don’t want to pay taxes etc” any formal programs or activities, whether from the social and economic development angle or the corporate profitability angle are going to act at cross purposes.

Martha Alter Chen writes in “Rethinking the Informal Economy” that India stands out as an example where the informal economy has been accepted, acknowledged and now slowly being addressed by government policy. Not in order to dissolve it or remove it but to work with it simply because the incomes of far too many people are dependent on it and no formal systems can be put into place to take care of each and every corner of the country nor her billion citizens.

One can then take what seems to be working, called “creative, resilient and efficient” by Hart, quoted by Chen, and enable systems that support it further, fostering development and increasing success rates at the touchpoints where the informal and formal meet.

So, it is with their distant blessing I will also put forth all that we’ve uncovered about the economics of informal trade and commerce, in the context of the various existing studies which overlap and provide us with insights or confirmation on our own findings. Including the tag “biashara economics”; I’ve now created it’s own category.

The dangerous assumption that there’s no competition from the informal sector

In addition, the informal economy of open street markets still dominates 90% of retail in large countries like Nigeria and Kenya, meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room to grow. ~ Quartz Africa, Jan 2017

Failure is a risk, and an inescapable function of the amount of resources invested, not just money. Time, effort, and managerial ambitions are also losses that destroy value for companies. Danger, then, lies in leaping to assumptions that turn out to be wrong. This is one of them.

First, a bit of history. Just over a decade ago, the Indian market was opening up to world’s investment flows in the retail sector, and estimates of the potential were as rosy and glowing as Africa’s today. From The Economist in April 2006:

Most Indian shops belong to what is known, quite accurately, as the “unorganised” sector—small, family-owned shops surviving on unpaid labour and, often, free land for a small stall. “Organised” retailing accounts for only 2-3% of the total, and of that, 96% is in the ten biggest cities, and 86% in the biggest six. However, organised retailing is growing at 18-20% a year and inspiring a rush of property development. Shopping malls are springing up in every big town: some 450 are at various stages of development.

By 2015, it was clear that these ambitious potentials were never going to materialize, though many malls did spring up in cities across the country. Last year, I covered this topic looking back at the growth projections and the subsequent real numbers achieved from the perspective of the resilience shown by the informal retail sector. I noted, in August 2016:

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious – formal retail has only reached 8% penetration in the past 10 years. Nowhere close to the 25% expected by 2010. Mind you, these were all the management consultancy reports bandying the numbers around.

I bring this up because I’m seeing the same kinds of projections happening right now for the African consumer market by the very same firms.

Second, this time it’s not just a management consultancy report with all the research and analysis efforts they pour into making their case. It’s not been distilled into one single yet dangerous sentence:

meaning it’s a near safe bet there’s plenty of room

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“Plenty of room” (Photo Credit: Yepeka Yeebo in Accra, Ghana)

There’s an inherent assumption within the assumption that the myriads of little stands, market ladies and their longstanding relationships with customers and suppliers, and the entire ecosystem which exists, such as in the photograph above, can simply be bulldozed over with a granite and marble mall development covered in shiny unreflective glass.
It didn’t happen in India, and it’s not happening in Africa. From Ghana, this news article on mall development says:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongside the dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.

cth8lgkwcaauetyFurther, and more dangerously, this blithe assumption of a cakewalk where an informal sector so tangibly exists, overlooks the innate ingenuity of those who seek a dignified life even while hustling for a living. And that there’s no competition or customer service.

Snapshot of the Dynamics of the Urban Informal Retail Trade in Nairobi, Kenya

Informal Economy Dynamics - Updated

Made by Latiff Cherono – click for larger image

Latiff Cherono quickly made up this diagram during a brainstorming session with Francis Hook and myself on the ways and means to further disaggregate the general category of “Informal wholesale and retail trade” that the Kenya National Statistics Board uses to lump together the second largest sector providing employment in Kenya after agriculture.

jobs2 In urban conditions, vending and hawking of this sort is the largest source of income for the formally unemployed.

As you can see in the map visualizing Latiff’s analysis of a well known location for street vendors and hawkers to operate breaks down traffic flows not only by speed but also takes in account both static and dynamic forms of informal trade.

It may look chaotic but there are principles underlying the decisions made by both pavement vendors and mobile vendors (streethawkers in traffic) for their location of choice. These relate to the speed of passersby and potential customers – both wheeled and heeled, as Francis is wont to say – and closer analysis will most likely provide evidence of attempt to drive more footfalls to the shopfront, so to speak.

An example is the way pavement vendors locate themselves on either side of the busy bus stops, while mobile vendors who vend their way through traffic focus on the bottlenecks created by the roundabout and the traffic police.

We’re still in early days yet but time and money seem to be two of the factors that describe the attributes to segment and categorize the informal retail sector in urban Africa.

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

reculture research bed

Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.

 

Signs of Interdependency between the Formal and the Informal Economy

bridging economiesThere is a lot to be unpacked here – I made a mindmap of the urban African entrepreneur who is the backbone of the visible emergence of a consumer class. I’m drawing from my experience of the Kenyan context. I started this in response to Michael Kimani’s Storify recently on the mythical “middle class” and the African consumer market.

We know that this demographic, regardless of the efforts to label it “middle class”, is quite unlike the traditional bourgeoisie that built the developed world a century ago. We can call them the informal bourgeoisie – solid members of society who nonetheless break stereotypes of the white collar, university educated, salaryman.

More often than not, they are entrepreneurs and businesswomen, traders and makers, and workshop owners, who bootstrap their lines of business through the traditional means available amongst what is still called the informal economy. If they’re lucky they might have finished high school, or even graduated from university, but a degree is not a prerequisite as it might be in a private sector job.

In this post, I’m only going to write about something that struck me last night when I was staring at the mindmap. The line that links business to entrepreneur can also be considered a bridge between the informal economy and it’s business practices, and the upcoming formal markets of urban population centers.

The successful workshop owner or regional trader rapidly acquires the signals of his or her business success in the form of consumer goods and increased expenditure on staples and necessities, including upgrades to choice of schools and church. I believe that formal financial services and products such as bank accounts, credit cards, and various apps on a smartphone are part and parcel of this.

In effect, the entrepreneur is the link between the informal economy which provides employment and income to the vast majority, and the burgeoning formal sector in consumer facing services and products.

The formal economy is more likely to be dependent upon the health of the informal sectors than the reverse.

This interdependency, and relationship, is important. I will be coming back to this diagram again to unpack more of what I’m seeing here. For now, it’s enough to have figured out that initiatives meant to eradicate the “pesky” informal trade might have greater implications than initially assumed.