Archive for the ‘Risk’ Category

Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity

There are two key elements which underpin the dynamics of any business or commercial enterprise in the informal sector. These are Time and Money.

A generalized framework can be diagrammed, as shown above, where the dotted line denotes the degree of uncertainty and volatility of an individual’s cash flow patterns – whether from a variety of informal economic activities – such as for the farmer or trader; or from the salary received for a white collar job. The X axis – Time – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Arrival date of a cash payment (from some revenue source), and the Y axis – Amount – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Amount that will arrive. Their relative ability to estimate Arrival and Amount with any degree of accuracy is indicative of their ability to forecast and plan for expenditure.

Thus, at one end of the continuum, one can position an odd jobs labourer who may or may not get paid work on any given day, and is unable to predict with any degree of certainty what type of job he’ll get selected for, nor for how many days it will last. It could be as basic as loading a truck for half a day’s pay, which in turn might even be in kind, and not cash. And, at the other end of this continuum, one can position a the typical white collar salaried professional or civil servant who knows with certainty exactly on which day they will receive the salary and exactly how much will arrive.

 

Positioning and Location

Now, we can frame these two elements of the commercial operating environment in the form of a position map, as shown above, that maps the ability to plan expenditures against the stability of the cash flow. The red arrow is the continuum of certainty and stability of Timing and Amount of an income stream, anchored by the most vulnerable odd jobs labourer at one end and the relatively most secure salaried professional at the other.

Where it gets interesting is the relatively liminal space in the middle where the various economic actors in the informal economy constantly shift position as they seek to mitigate the volatility of their income streams, through a variety of mechanisms. Much of their decision making is related to their own perception of uncertainty and ability to forecast.

For the purpose of this explanatory diagram, I have selected 4 typical examples drawn from different sectors of the informal economy common in the developing country context. Each are at the more vulnerable end of their own segments i.e. a subsistence farmer, rather than one with an established cash crop; or a small roadside kiosk rather than an established general merchandise store in a market town; since they have not yet achieved the goal of their business development strategies to move their own entrepreneural ventures towards relative stability, and thus provide more insight on the relationship between cash flow patterns and investment and expenditure planning.

The hawker of goods at a traffic light or junction is in a comparatively more fragile situation than the kiosk owner with a fixed location who works to develop relationships with passing customers in order to convert them to regulars at her store. Unlike the kiosk, which might be located near a busy bus stop, or outside a densely populated gated community; the hawker cannot predict which cars will pause at the red light as he darts through traffic shouting his wares. However, compared to the odd jobs labourer, the hawker has comparatively more control over his income generation since his is not a passive function of waiting to be picked from the labour pool in a truckyard or construction site.

The smallholder farmer might actually be better off economically in many ways than his urban brethren involved in informal retail, being able to live off the land more cheaply than in the city. Experienced farmers, for the most part, are able to predict with reasonable accuracy, more or less the quantity of their crop, and the estimated timing of the harvest. However, his sense of uncertainty is often perceptually greater due to the unmitigatable impact of adverse weather conditions, or the sudden infestation of a pest or blight, any of which could at any time completely destroy his harvest, and thus, his expectations. This sense of insecurity in turn influences his decisions on expense commitments to far ahead in time, or too large a lumpsum at some point outside of his regional harvest season. The farmer’s income streams are relatively more out of his control than the disposable income in the pockets of the kiosk’s customer base.

The market woman with her display of fresh produce, at the entry level of inventory investment capacity, might only have one or two different varieties of vegetables or fruit to sell, and may not yet have established a permanent structure – a table, a kiosk – in the market. She might start off with only a tarpaulin on the ground with some tomatoes and onions for sale. Unlike the traffic intersection hawker, however, she is more likely to begin by assuming a regular placement and location as this establishes the foundation for her future business development, through the factors of discoverability and predictability among the customers in that locale.

That is, in addition to Timing and Amount of Income – the cash flow patterns and sources – we begin to see the role played by location – Place1, as a supporting element of the commercial activity in the informal economy. While farmers are least likely to have much control over the location of the land they may inherit, their risk mitigation strategies to minimize volatility of their income streams and maximize their ability to plan for the future and manage emergencies will be discussed in depth in the section2 on rural household financial management. These practices are the foundation of business development strategies commonly observed in the informal economy in developing countries which tend to be less urbanized, and as is often the case, more dependent on agriculture as a component of national GDP.

 

Appendix
1 People, Pesa, Place: A Multidisciplinary Lens on Innovating in Emerging Markets
2 Rural Household Financial Behaviour on Irregular Income Streams at the Base of the Pyramid

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (http://www.ibop-asia.net), a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (www.idrc.ca)

The abstract:


The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.


The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

How the African movable assets bill can unleash innovation opportunities for the rural economy

Somewhere in Kenya, 4th June 2012 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

As Kenya joins Zambia and Zimbabwe in ratifying a Movable Property Security Rights Act, there’s a sense that the floodgates to innovation in access to finance might be taking place in rural Africa, south of the Sahara and north of South Africa.

Kenya’s law also goes beyond the cows and goats and allows a borrower to collateralise future receivables arising from contractual relationships.

How it ends up being implemented will set the stage for the next big disruption in financial inclusion. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the opportunity space for innovation in the informal and rural economy that dominates these operating environments.

 

1. A whole new bank, designed to meet the needs of rural Africa

Last night, a tweet by Charles Onyango-Obbo struck me forcibly, and reminded me of our Banking the Unbanked proposal crafted for ICICI back in January of 2007.

The very fact that contemporary thoughtleaders in the Kenyan banking industry are unable to take the concept of livestock as collateral for loans seriously, taken together with the deeply embedded assumptions of the formal economy’s financial structure leaves the door wide open to disruption.

It would not be too difficult to conceptualize a rural, co-operative bank custom designed for the local operating environment. In Kenya, where the mobile platform provides clear evidence of the viability, feasibility, and desirability of innovative financial tools and services that work for irregular income streams and provide the flexibility, reciprocity, and negotiability inherent in the cooperative local economies, such a bank could change the social and economic development landscape overnight.

In fact, one could conceivably foresee this “bank for rural Africa” scaling far beyond Kenya’s borders.

 

2. Insurance sector must respond to banking disruption

The domino effect of disruption in the banking sector should kickstart the stagnant insurance industry that has been ineffectually attempting to scale outside of the formal economy’s neatly defined boundaries. Bankers willing to take livestock as collateral for loans will therefore require insurance on their movable asset as a surety against the risk of disease, or drought.

Current products tend to emerge from the international aid industry, seeking to insure smallholder farmers against the shock of losing their livestock to climate related disasters such as prolonged drought, or an epidemic of illness. There is a dearth of relevant and appropriately designed insurance products from the private sector targeting the needs of the rural economy. For all the talk of African urbanization, even the most optimistic projections show that East Africa’s rural population will continue to dominate.

Thus, this an opportunity ripe for the plucking, given the right mix of product, pricing, and promotional messaging.

 

3. Disrupting assumptions of Poverty and Purchasing Power

Whether it is Kenya’s significant non profit sector or the nascent consumer oriented markets, the redrawn lines defining assets, collateral, and the floodgates of access to finance will require a complete overhaul in the way the population is segmented and measured.

Once these hundreds of movable assets have been valued, insured, and registered officially, even the most reluctant banker must now count the pastoralist among his wealthiest local clientele, able to draw a line of credit against his true wealth to the tune of thousands of dollars without feeling the pinch.

 

4. Triggering a rural investment and consumption boom

From mabati for a new roof and simti for the backyard wall, to the latest model smartphone or pickup truck, the concurrent boom in investments and consumption provides an ample playing ground for new products and services tailored for the contextual needs upcountry. Finally, Farmer Joe can install that solar powered irrigation pump for his orange groves in time to reap the next big harvest. And Mama Mercy can think of building up a nest egg of investments faster from the income provided by her farmyard animals.

Kagio Produce Market, Kenya, April 2013 (photo: Niti Bhan)

This might turn out to mean upgrading to a breed of high yield milch cows or being able to provide them with better quality feeds and medicines, but the financial bridge that a well designed strategy leveraging this movable assets bill and it’s timely implementation could mean the difference between the brass ring or treading water.

 

5. Trade and Commerce will open new markets

Given that the Kenyan Movable Property Security Rights Act 2017 goes beyond livestock to include other stores of wealth and value creation, there will be an undeniable impact on regional and cross border trade. No trader will give up the opportunity to leverage their existing inventory if it qualifies for additional credit that can be plowed back into the business.

On the road to Bungoma, Western Kenya, February 2016 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

Trader’s mindset and the documented biashara growth strategies already in evidence point clearly to the productive economic use of this access to finance rather than passive consumption alone. As their business grows, they will require a whole slew of tools and services tailored to their needs. This could be as simple as a basic book keeping app or as complex as customized commodity (assets, livestock, non perishable foodstuffs, grains and cereals) exchange platforms that integrate the disruptive new services percolating through the entire ecosystem.

 

In conclusion

These few steps outlined above are only the beginning of laying the foundation for disrupting the current social and economic development trajectory of small town and rural Kenya. I see immense potential for both direct to consumer as well as business to business segments for forward looking organizations seeking a foothold in the burgeoning East African markets.

We, at Emerging Futures Lab, would be pleased to offer you customized white papers on the opportunities for new products, services, and even business models, based on this emerging financial environment recently signed into law by President Kenyatta. Contact us for an exploratory conversation on the scope and scale of your particular industry’s needs. Our experienced team can help you maximize these opportunities from concept design and prototyping all the way through to path to market strategies.

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

Yeebo_Market_08

“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.

Insights on the psychology of cash money – Demonetization vs Financial Inclusion

moneyThe flurry of commentary on the Great Indian Demonetization of November 2016 has thrown up some nuggets of insight worth considering more deeply.

Santosh Desai explores the psychology of cash money in the Times of India blog, linking the need for tangible evidence of income to physical labour, as opposed to those of us with the contextual knowledge to understand the virtual concept i.e. digital currency.

“…there is another aspect of this situation that needs more reflection- the nature of the relationship we enjoy with cash. Cash is not merely a symbolic representation of value. Cash is the idea of value captured and owned. It is the product of labour that is an entity by itself and becomes much more than what it can buy. Sitting on a pile of cash gives pleasure both metaphorical and real.”

“…there is some value that is placed on the device of currency notes over and above the value that it signifies.”

This aspect has not been looked at deeply enough, imho, when financial inclusion is talked about, particularly in the context of digital solutions. I suspect that therein will lie behavioural insights that could conceivably drive design changes that lower the barriers to adoption in the strategies to introduce digital currencies and mobile monies to hitherto unbanked populations.

Earning money needs to be signified concretely. Those whose life’s earnings are in the form of a few high value currency notes, do not decode demonetization in quite the same way as those used to money in its conceptual form. The idea that it is possible to de-legitimise their life’s labour is to shake the foundations on which one’s life is constructed. What if some money is not exchanged? What if some paperwork, that bane of those living on the margins, is incomplete?

What if the mobile phone’s battery dies? Do my hard earned monies disappear like other unsaved data?

Trust in technology is a function of our contextual knowledge – our immersion in an environment saturated with electronic communication and screens of all types and purposes provides us with conceptual frameworks that are entirely different from someone whose daily labour is on the farm, or at a mechanic’s garage.

While those who are financially excluded might not face demonetization i.e. the de-legitimization of their labour, as Desai mentions above, the current attempts to convert their cash intensive habits into digital form via various “cashless” initiatives overlook the psychology of cash. Regardless of locale, those at the margins (the excluded) have high levels of mistrust in the system, through their experiences with institutions and the system, over time and history.

The talk of ‘cashless’ is easy, but it ignores that there is a cultural dimension to the physicality of cash. Digital wallets operate on a transfer of intention, where a promise to pay gets converted into an intention to buy. For this to work at scale, one needs to have become comfortable with the idea of surplus and develop the confidence that money will come without having to struggle or having to think about it all the time. One needs to develop trust in institutions, in a context where the evidence around is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

I suspect that if this subject was explored further, we would discover that where mobile money has succeeded, such as in East Africa, the institution that was trusted was the telco – the mobile service operator, and that the early stages of adoption have a different narrative from that being used currently in entirely new markets where mobile money still struggles to penetrate. India and South Africa are two such places where the unbanked and the financially excluded have reasons of history to develop high mistrust of the systems of the privileged.

To convert one’s worth into worthlessness, even if for a small period is to make everyone nervous. Psychologically, money works on a convention of mutual deception. We agree to call something money, and that is good enough. But to have the thinness of this convention exposed in such a way is to cause great anxiety.

The transition to a cashless future can be made gentler and more accommodating to their fears and concerns, generating a sense of security and commitment, with some empathy for an entirely different world-view and life experience.

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.

Research Question: Why is the informal retail sector so persistent and resilient?

retail2Retailing in India is currently estimated to be a USD 200 billion industry, of which organised retailing makes up 3% or USD 6.4 billion. By 2010, organized retail is projected to reach USD 23 billion and in terms of market share it is expected to rise by 20 to 25%. (Sinha et all, 2007)

These claims of projected growth were made based on a 2005 KPMG report on the Indian Consumer market, while the chart itself with it’s aspirational forecast is from the IBEF website. I have been watching and waiting for more than ten years for India’s retail revolution to take place.

The consistent message from the beginning of the retail boom has been that since the organized retail sector (what we would call the formal) has only been ~2% of the total retail trade in India (the balance is informal retail) there was ample opportunity for growth in modern retail.

Yet if you look at the data from 2015, you’ll see that the forecasts were far too ambitious (or, perhaps, aspirational, in the push for modernization driving India’s recently opened markets) – 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. And with very few exceptions, the majority of the SSA markets tend towards the same kind of proportions of organized vs unorganized retail  (formal vs informal, modern vs traditional et al are all variations on this theme with minor differences in definition).

And, even as the retail real estate development investments are booming, we are already seeing the very first signs of the same challenge that India faced – over capacity, low footfalls, and empty malls. Just yesterday, the news from Ghana – a firm favourite of the investment forecasters –  has this to say:

Ghana’s economic woes have translated into a variety of challenges for formal retailers who are competing for sales alongsidethe dominant and deep-rooted informal shopping sector. According to a recent report by African commercial property services group Broll – titled Ghana, Retail Barometer Q2, 2016 – overall sales in most modern shopping malls are well below historic averages, despite garnering sufficient foot traffic.
[…]
“International players are also looking at the market and re-adjusting their product/pricing mix to cater for the real middle class, whereby we are talking more in terms of value products rather than high-end products.”

And, retail developers are turning their attention to secondary cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi, as Accra reaches saturation point. The exact same pattern as we have been seeing in India. You would think people might pause a moment to take a look at similar markets and operating environments to assess patterns of market creation development.

This pattern is what gave rise to the research question I would like to frame – why has the informal retail sector been so persistent and resilient? What does this mean for modern trade? And, what are the implications for urban development and planning?

The trajectories of the Indian and the Ghanaian economies have taken different turns, thus, while one might point to these factors as the reasons for the challenges facing the mall owners and the retail brands, the big picture over the past twenty years points to something more fundamental in these operating environments common to the developing world.

That is what I would like to find out.

Japan’s Indian Strategy for the African Consumer Market

20160818Africa_large_580

One of the most high-profile events Kenya has hosted since independence begins this week when heads of state from across Africa and the Prime Minister of Japan Mr Shinzo Abe jet in for the Tokyo International Conference on Africa Development (TICAD). It will be the first time that Ticad has been held outside Japan and it is an honour to Kenya to have been picked to host this event. ~ Daily Nation editorial

The Nikkei Asian Review has been preparing for days with longform articles on the African consumer market, and other opportunities for Asian businesses. While Indian B2C investments have been closely analysed (and embraced), it is clear that the East Asians are eyeing each other as their closest competitors.

Africa was once dominated by Western investors, due to ties forged in colonial times. But Chinese companies have muscled their way in, and Indian, Japanese and South Korean players are arriving and thriving. This intense competition is no longer just about extracting minerals and materials. It is about tapping the next big consumer market.

Their articles are well researched and provide ample insights for businesses contemplating these new markets. Here are some highlights that caught my eye:

Vivek Karve has a clear picture of the ideal African market. The chief financial officer of India’s Marico, a maker of hair and body care products and other fast-moving consumer goods, said his company targets countries with “per capita GDP under $5,000, many mom-and-pop shops, low penetration of multinationals and political stability.”

There’s little handwringing over lack of data or missing middle class metrics. Inadequate infrastructure and informal retail in Africa is no different for your average Indian FMCG brand than their domestic market, thus the concept of the ideal market being one full of little mom and pop shops.

Marico’s strategy for achieving that includes promoting local brands familiar to African consumers, rather than pushing products that are popular in India. It uses multiple distributors to cushion itself against credit risks.

The Japanese, having already faced off with the Koreans in India’s large, diverse, and fragmented markets, are ready to take a leaf from the Indian playbook for their foray into the African market.

The gap between Asian and Western rivals is expected to narrow over time, with China making up much of the ground. About 3,000 companies from China — Africa’s largest trade partner since 2009 — are doing business in sectors such as infrastructure, resource development and telecommunications.

And even this focus on infrastructure development and large scale investments is changing. The Chinese idea is to boost purchasing power across Africa and turn the continent into a massive consumer market.

csm_Dr.Morimoto_and_Mr.Okabayashi_01_c364aafd49

Nissin Foods launched locally sourced sorghum noodles in Nyama Choma flavour in Kenya

The Japanese are preparing the ground to apply their own strengths in Africa. Japanese companies see Africa as a lucrative but daunting challenge — one they would rather tackle with a partner or subsidiary that is familiar with emerging markets.

This, again, is where India comes in. Toyota Motor, Honda Motor, Nissin Foods Holdings and Hitachi all export from their factories in India to Africa. The Japanese government is actively working to help companies make inroads in India as a springboard to Africa.

A couple of years ago, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry compiled a list of potential Indian partner companies with strong African operations in 16 fields, including beverages, consumer goods, retail, electronic parts and auto components. Godrej Group and Marico were among them.

The lessons of the last quarter century are driving a new collaborative strategy. My rupees and yen are on Asia.

The Kenyan informal sector’s well-trodden paths of upward mobility

IMG_4417Studying the dynamics of the informal economy of a particular region in Western Kenya has been an eye opening exercise in questioning one’s own assumptions and frameworks. Other times, I noticed answers to questions I’d never even thought of asking (an outcome of holding implicit assumptions).

One of these was career paths and ambitions.

The most obvious paths are the ones with tangible indicators of upward mobility. You begin with the bicycle, adding a cushioned seat at the back, and dream of purchasing a motorcycle, which can also double as a micro distributor at the last mile of delivery. Then, you dream of a car and taxi.

I was wrong. The decision to select one’s choice of vehicle is a professional one, and each of these transportation mechanisms is a distinctly separate cluster of owner/entrepreneurs. There isn’t much cross vehicle mobility as you’d imagine. There are older gentlemen who preferred the simplicity and the low running costs of a bicycle, saying that anything one earned after a big solid breakfast in the morning was pure profit.

However, this is not to say that the fundamental paths to expansion and growth of opportunities were as closed. They are just different from what we imagine, looking on from the outside, and the drivers for decision making are fundamentally characterized by the patterns of flow of time and money in the informal/rural economy.

For instance, in Malaba and Busia on the western Kenya/eastern Uganda border, one does not begin in Malaba. For the penniless youth emerging from his father’s shamba deep interior where no tarmac goes, its Busia that provides the facility to earn seed capital. They call this kibarua, and there’s a yard near the truck loading docks where they can join the available pool of labour. Its the first step to earning an income in the economy the world calls informal. Women prefer to grow something to sell – be it chickens, eggs or a wide variety of fruits and veg. One lady sells partially treated roots and branches that’s the seed for locally brewed beer.

Once one has amassed some cash, one can buy stock to sell, or invest in a growth vehicle for cash flow. A dairy cow is a growth vehicle, with almost daily cash flow. The challenge for growth on the farm is lack of cash money. Women dominate the informal wholesale and retail trade, just as they’ve been documented to do in West Africa. They are newcomers to trade, having been noticed in this region only in the past 10 or 15 years. They’re smarter, shrewder, and know how to leverage their extensive social networks. They are a growing demographic, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, eastern DRC, South Sudan, and Rwanda. Burundians, it seems, are happy to live on their farms and let their Rwandan friends do the hard work of buying and selling them stuff.

Then, one can move from tabletop sales into retail and wholesale. Its an interesting example of leapfrogging the middle income trap – by the time the market woman with a cloth covered with merchandise can grow her stock to rent a permanent store, she has also become a micro-wholesaler who will break bulk down to the smallest denominations for her micro retail customers to sell on their tables and mats.

Their next ambition is to become that micro-region (a radii of 50km) re-distributor. That is, by the business practices of the global FMCG majors, they want to be registered and counted. The local Coca Cola distributor has probably a hundred such wholesalers scattered around a 100km radius. The scale of operations is limited by the cost of fuel and transport.

Now, many who don’t wish for the extensive groundwork that the former ambition requires, move on to trade from Malaba. Its where the larger regional trade flows take place, not just the multiple micro-crossings of Busia (which by the way annually cross 33 million US dollars). In just one border market, there’s annual biashara worth $5 to 10 million. There will be one or two outliers to this due to natural and geographic advantages.

The energy of biashara is obvious in the market. And every market day along the better roads, the scale of trade was far more than anywhere upcountry, even the roads to Nyeri and Nanyuki. These trading ties go back centuries to before the white man came and the kings of the Buganda loved teh stuff the Indian Ocean traders brought to the Swahili Coast.

The best paid profession is that of a long distance trucker. Yet, intriguingly, young men aspire to reach this position only to acquire the networks of a broker and to retire from the dangerous business of driving heavy inflammable loads for a living.

There many such paths to live a good enough life, educate the kids in town, take care of mums back home on the homestead. The informal economy does indeed offer the lowest barriers to entry into business.

 

The hidden cost of doing business #informaleconomy

household shop

Kenya, 2nd Feb 2016. Photo Credit: Emerging Futures Lab

This looks like its a low cost business operation with low barriers to entry. All you need to do is find a decent tree under which to display your wares.

The reality is that these entrepreneurs have numerous fees and costs that they must pay in order to do business, regardless of how informal it all looks. They pay rent for that space on market day, they pay the council in order to transport their wares, they need to pay for transportation, and any assistance they might need for loading and unloading, they even need to pay the various formal and informal “tax” collectors on the road to this market town.

There is a cost to doing business, and there’s uncertainty of income and cash flow. Some of these fees might be fixed or known, but some, like the amounts asked for, along the way, might be dependent on the mood of the officer, or even, the weather.

On the other hand, these fees and taxes and payments ensure that the retailer has a decent location in the market, that they won’t be harassed or chased away during working hours, and that the “system” – chaotic though it might seem to our eyes – will serve their needs.

If you were ask them what they think of this, they would shrug their shoulders and tell you its just the cost of doing business.