Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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.

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.


Time to reach consensus on the #informaleconomy debate

As yesterday’s post showed, the unforeseen outcome of India’s demonetization initiative on the rural cash economy arose due to the lack of disaggregation of all that tends to get lumped together under the umbrella label “informal”. Segmentation would lead to more impactful design of policy and programmes.

WIEGO has an excellent review of the academic debates on the informal economy, covering the competing schools of thought. There is the Shadow Economy with its tax evasion and under reporting vs the livelihoods of the poor struggling to make a living in adverse conditions.


In 2009, Ravi Kanbur, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, posited a conceptual framework for distinguishing between four types of economic responses to regulation, as follows:

A. Stay within the ambit of the regulation and comply.
B. Stay within the ambit of the regulation but not comply.
C. Adjust activity to move out of the ambit of the regulation.
D. Outside the ambit of the regulation in the first place, so no need to adjust.

Under the Kanbur framework, category A is “formal.” The rest of the categories are “informal,” with B being the category that is most clearly “illegal.” (Kanbur 2009). […] Kanbur argues that using a single label “informal” for B, C, and D obscures more than it reveals – as these are distinct categories with specific economic features in relation to the regulation under consideration.

While acknowledging that it is useful to have aggregate broad numbers on the size and general characteristics of the informal economy, Kanbur concludes that disaggregation provides for better policy analysis.

So, why do we continue to wave our hands over the whole thing and conflate the legal with the illegal?

These distinctions are all well and good to debate in the cozy conditions of a seminar room without needing to come to any consensus, but as the human and economic cost of demonetization in rural India becomes clear, particularly the impact on the planting season, it puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of the way the rural and cash economies are currently dealt with. A pragmatic conclusion is urgently required.

My literature review on the past 20 years of research on the informal trade sector in Eastern Africa showed that this lack of distinction between what was shadow (B) and what was merely below the radar of the regulations (C &D per Kanbur’s distinctions above) gave rise to the criminalization of even the smallest livelihood activities of the local tomato seller who might cross a border to get a better price for her wares.

This in turn led to their harassment – particularly financial and sexual – by the authorities as there were no counteractive regulations in place that recognized fulltime crossborder trade as a licit occupation or profession.

What will it take for this to change?

India’s current experiences provide ample evidence of the dangers of leaving this untouched.

Unforeseen outcomes of India’s demonetization shine light on the value of our design philosophy

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and SegmentationLatest news on India’s demonetization informs us how the rural economy is bearing the brunt of this initiative.

The action was intended to target wealthy tax evaders and end India’s “shadow economy”, but it has also exposed the dependency of poor farmers and small businesses on informal credit systems in a country where half the population has no access to formal banking.

The details shed light on the consequences of implementing interventions without a holistic understanding of the landscape of the operating environment. In this case, it is the rural, informal cash intensive economy.

…the breakdown in the informal credit sector points to a government that has failed to grasp how the cash economy impacts ordinary Indians.

“It is this lack of understanding and not appreciating the importance of the cash economy in India on the part of the government that has landed the country in such an unwarranted situation today,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, an economist and director of public finance at India Ratings.

This lack of understanding the dynamics of the cash economy (I don’t mind calling it the prepaid economy, in this context) and it’s role in the rural Indian value web has led to unforeseen challenges at a time when farmers are planting seeds for the next harvest, hampering the flow of farm inputs as traditional lines of credit face the obstacle of an artificial shortage of liquidity.

I want to use this clear example of systems design failure to explain my philosophy and approach to our work in the informal economies of the developing world. I’ve written often enough about what we do, now I have an opportunity to explain why we do it, and why it’s important.

Read On…

An economy of trust

_92445052_02Cash on credit is the caption given to this cartoon by the BBC. Neighbourhood groceries are offering their regular customers cash advances in addition to bread and milk.

While the media is filled with a plethora of stories of heartbreak, my own suspicion is that we’ll discover the resilience of the cash intensive informal sector lies in the relationships between people, once the hubbub has died down.

Analysis of the mobile phone’s impact on cash flows and transactions in the informal sector

As we saw, Mrs Chimphamba needs to juggle time and money as part of her household financial management in order to ensure that expenses can be met by income. We also saw that the mobile phone was made viable and feasible by the availability of the prepaid business model that gave her full control over timing and the amount required to maintain it — how much airtime to purchase? when? how often? — all of these decisions were in her hands, within the limits of the operator’s business model. Now, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of the mobile on her domestic economy.

Readily available real time communication has helped Mrs C by speeding up the time taken for a decision on a purchase or a sale. That is, the transaction cycle has been shortened. As the speed of information exchange increases, it increases the speed of transactions — it shortens the duration of time taken to execute them from inception to completion. This, in turn, implies that more transactions can now take place in the same amount of time thereby increasing the frequency and the periodicity. When mobile money is present, one can see that as both quantity and frequency of transactions speed up, so does the cash flow. We’ll come back to this factor.

To explain using a real life example, Mrs Chimphamba does not need to sit at her homestead wondering if today someone will pass by to purchase a bottle of wine. Similarly, Mrs C’s customers do not need to go out of their way to pass by her homestead to see if the wine is distilled and ready for sale, or whether it will still take another day or two for the next batch to be ready. Further, the uncertainty of whether they’ll have cash on hand on that future day, or if they’ll return as promised are all elements that real time communication have minimized.

Now, Mrs C is able to let her regular customers know that she’s making a new batch for sale and do they want to reserve a bottle for purchase? It allows her customers to put aside cash for this purchase. She is even able to accept and execute larger orders for some future date, and even accept some cash advances if her operating environment includes the presence of a mobile money transfer system such as those more prevalent in East Africa. This in turn changes her purchasing patterns and decision making as the pattern of cash flows — timing and amount — changes. She isn’t making do anymore on an unknown and predictable sale based on sitting and waiting for someone to show up to buy her wine.

Real time communication has improved the decision making cycle for both buyer and seller in a transaction as it counteracts uncertainty and information asymmetry even while speeding up the time take for a decision.

As the quantity and frequency of transactions increase— first, in cash conducted face to face, and then later, remotely by mobile money, regardless of the size of each transaction — the change in cash flow patterns begins to smooth out the volatility (the uncertainty factor has changed completely) between incoming and outgoing, as well as the decisionmaking involved. That is, the gap between income and expense starts becoming less in terms of both timing and amount — there is the possibility of a steady stream in the pipeline. Calculus offers hints of how the curve can begin to smoothen out as frequency and periodicity of transactions begins to accelerate.

Size of transactions thus begin to matter less in that the incoming amount now does not need to be so large as to cover expenses for an unknown duration of time before the next incoming payment; nor do expenses have to be tightly controlled constantly due to the uncertainty of the duration of time before the next payment, and the types of expenses incurred during this unknown period of time.

So the boost in decision making — how long it takes to complete a transaction, how often can transactions be completed — enabled by the real time communication facilitated by the mobile phone; plus the attendant immediacy of receiving payment via the same platform is the root of the improvement in the hyperlocal economy and consumption patterns among the informal sector actors. This is why large established traders (with sufficient financial cushion) were heard to observe that both purchasing power and consumption patterns had changed in their market town (Busia, Kenya Jan 2016) in the past 10 years since first the mobile phone, and later, mPesa, were introduced into their operating environment.

Uncertainty and information asymmetry that have long characterized the fragile and volatile nature of the informal sector operating in inadequately provided environments with unreliable systems and scarce data. In the next chapter we’ll step back and take a broader look at communication, connectivity, and commerce in the informal economy starting with the description of the operating environment’s characteristics regardless of continent.

This is part of a newly launched Medium where I will write in detail on economic behaviour and its drivers in the informal economy. Much of it draws upon the original research in the field from 2008-2009 which was shared on the prepaid economy blog. I found that time had passed and increased my understanding and I wanted to explore those discoveries in writing. Much of this is the foundation for recent works on ‘Mama Biashara‘.

Mobile Money in South Africa: The nature of the beast by Flo Mosoane

pexels-photo-3The 2015 State Of The Industry Report (SOTIR) for Mobile Money published by GSMA, reveals a picture of a service that continues to change the landscape of financial inclusion in developing and poor countries across the globe. In December of 2015, the industry processed transactions in excess of a billion, most of which were in Sub Sahara Africa.

It seems however, that the continued success of Mobile Money eludes South Africa. What with the untimely death of Vodacom Mpesa after millions of Rands of reinvestment. Only 4 months after which MTN South Africa also announced that they are ceasing new registrations, marking the end of (Mobile Network Operator) MNO-lead Mobile Money deployments here.

Despite the large bang that MTN Mobile Money launched with, managing to sign over 2 million subscribers; at the end, Vodacom Mpesa only had just over 75 000 users, and MTN Mobile Money only about 140 000 or so users. A performance that neither of these well-established, successful, multinational MNO’s can be proud of.

We lament the apparent failure of Mobile Money in South Africa. It is well established that it has made a significant contribution to financial inclusion for underserved populations, and still presents significant opportunity to serve unbanked and underbanked communities.

This is a very special contribution by Flo Mosoane, writing from first hand experience on the ground on this subject. Do read the whole article.

Read On…

How to Spot Signals of Local Purchasing Patterns in the Market

np-md-mohamed-kanuThis photograph is taken from a regular news item from a Liberian newspaper announcing the opening of a new petrol station in the town of Ganta. What caught my attention is the size of the LPG cylinders being promoted. On the left is the 6kg and on the right is an even smaller size that I’ve yet to see elsewhere – the 6kg one has been spotted in the lower income side of Jakarta, and in the markets of Abidjan, and Nairobi.

What it tells me is that purchasing power in the local market is not only a little less than a major capital city, this is probably a tier 2 city, but also that its a cash intensive market where incomes are more likely to be the volatile cash flows from commercial activities in the informal sector.

The lumpsums available for LPG aren’t going to be as large as to afford the standard 13kg size, but it doesn’t preclude people from purchasing these smaller sizes more frequently. That is, we cannot assume total consumption volumes to be less than larger cities where larger sizes are more popular. On the other hand, the micro size on the right seems to hint at the possibility of LPG being more popular than traditional fuels such as kerosene, charcoal, or firewood.

These small sizes also signal a fragmented, informal market where small pack sizes and sachets are popular.

Dignity drives purchasing decisions for South African low income consumers

graph-1There is so much I was going to say when I came across this snippet in the news about South African consumer habits among the lower income folk for yesterday’s post. I am not convinced by the framing of the interpretation of the qualitative data but that’s an embedded SA problem with qualitative research in townships. So for now, I’ll just stop with the following quote:

Melzer says spending on clothing in South Africa is phenomenal. Talking to people about their spending patterns, the word “dignity” comes up again and again, she says.

Moreover, customers aren’t necessary buying what businesses think they are selling. A clothing retailer might think it is selling clothes, when in actual fact it is selling dignity or status.