Posts Tagged ‘biashara’

Mobile Phones and the Informal Economy

Western Kenya, June 2012

Over the past week or so, I’ve been scanning literature from African researchers on the broad theme of mobile phones and the informal economy. Here are some of my top findings:

  1. The Mobile Phone is a Business Tool and Income Generator – Regardless of the region (and cultural context) of study –  Cameroon or Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya or Botswana or Tanzania; and, regardless of whether the research methodology was quantitative or qualitative, respondents across the board considered their mobile phones as a critical capital expense for running their business, important for boosting efficiency, productivity, and incomes. In these studies focusing on the informal economy, respondents were micro and small enterprises, most often owned and operated by a single individual.
  2. Mobile phones and cellular services opened entirely new avenues of employment, particularly for youth – More visible in the earlier years of Africa’s mobile revolution, but still important enough today, are the new avenues that the ecosystem and infrastructure opened up for young people.  A slew of supporting services such as airtime sales, voucher sales, mobile money agencies, phone sales, download services, call booths, et al each had their day in the sun as a promising new way to tap into the double digit growth sustained by African mobile markets in the past two decades.  Most notably, mobile phone repair shops stand out as a whole new career path enabled by cutting edge technology. And, some of the best known hardware and software hackers went on to bigger things.
  3. Mobile money agents preferred to banks – Studies on this theme – if they were conducted where mobile money had reached critical mass – noted that mobile money agents were often considered as “one of us” by informal sector businesspeople as compared to forbidding requirements and investment in time required by banks. Mobile money agents were located conveniently in the same markets, often in neighbourhood shops, were open for longer and more convenient hours, and even on weekends. They were definitely more flexible and accommodating of the needs of informal sector commercial activity, and often a critical part of the business person’s network than any bank.

These three things caught my attention as showing up over and over again the literature, regardless of whether it was a PhD dissertation, an academic’s paper, or an MBA student’s thesis.


The diffusion and Impact of Mobile Phones on the Informal Sector in Kenya (2010) – Wakari Gikenye and Dennis Ocholla

The role played by the informal economy in the appropriation of ICTs in urban environments in West Africa (2008) – CHENEAU-LOQUAY, Annie

The Economic and Social Effects of Mobile Phone Usage: The Case of Women Traders in Accra (2015) – Dissertation, Yvette A. A. Ussher

Mobile phones in the transformation of the informal economy: stories from market women in Kampala, Uganda (2016) – Caroline Wamala Larsson & Jakob Svensson

Cell Phone Repairers in Cameroon, 2000-2013 (2015) – Walter Gam Nkwi

Financial Patterns at the Last Mile of the Farm to Fork Value Chain


This value web illustrates the last mile of the farm to fork agricultural value chain in the state of Maharashtra, India. We’d mapped it during our project/s for the Dutch government back in mid 2013, where we’d introduced human centered design thinking for sustainable agricultural value chain development. Subsequently, I led a multidisciplinary team conducting fieldwork in rural Kenya, in order to compare and contrast the last mile in the African context.

As mentioned previously, while the details of seasonality and crops may change due to geography, the essential foundation and framework of the farm’s financial management behaviour remained the same. And, while the actors and roles in the value web may shift and change between rural India and rural Kenya, the essence, here, too, remains the same. There are intermediaries and brokers, transporters and aggregators, and wholesalers and retailers, along with agrovets and extension agents. Everyone has a part to play in the interdependent web of value exchange, based on trusted relationships for the most part.

Therefore, their cash flows and income streams too, are closely linked to the harvest seasons and the crops, just like the farmers‘. In fact, Indian business magazines go as far as to assess the health of each year’s monsoon season in order to attempt forecasts on the annual peak of consumer activity – the post harvest festival season in the October-November period. They recognize the linkages and networks that connect the rural and urban markets, and the ripple effects of the quality of the year’s harvest. It would not be inaccurate to say that the degree of impact and influence is proportional to two related factors – the proportion of GDP from agriculture and related activities; and, the percentage of the country’s population dependent on agriculture and related activities.

Market town finances

In addition to the linkage, we have observed financial management behaviours among traders, and not just those dealing in agricultural commodities or fresh produce, that resemble those on the farm.

The factors that impact the management of working capital and income streams – uncertainty of amount and the timing of its arrival – remain the same, as do the majority of the characteristics of the operating environment, such as infrastructure and systems. A trader dealing in new clothes also sees seasonal differences in her sales, and, unlike a trader in foodstuffs, is also more likely to see greater impact of a low season as people go without the discretionary purchase of a new shirt. Thus, traders must also manage the volatility, uncertainty, and seasonality of their addressable market, and their customer base, and their cash flows and income streams accordingly. We see the impact of this in their business development strategies, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Furthermore, in market towns and border markets, unlike urban metros with a myriad of occupations, the health of the agricultural season will impact everyone in the ecosystem not just the traders themselves. The internetworked last mile of the farm to fork value web closely links the health of the harvests with that of the rural and peri-urban economies.


Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

Rural Household Financial Management on Irregular Incomes

While all farms are not alike, and scale and variety and geography differs, the pattern of household financial management holds its fundamental logic across continents.

click to expand image

As we saw previously, an experienced farmer tends to fall somewhere in between a salaried employee and an odd job labourer in their ability to predict with any reasonable degree of accuracy when they might expect cash income to arrive and approximately how much. They are able to estimate the quantum of the crop, and when it will be ready to harvest. They may already have buyers or a market.

However, in practice, farmers rarely rely solely on these infrequent lump sums for managing their household finances – a big harvest once or twice a year, maybe three times depending on the crops and the local geography. Instead, they manage on sophisticated portfolio of investments, each maturing over different periods of time, as a way to mitigate risk, as well as smoothen out cash flows over the course of the natural year, and minimize the impact of uncertainty or shock. The drivers for these goals are the foundation for the variety of business practices observed across sectors in the informal economies of the developing world.

You will find even the humblest farmer, as long as he owns the patch of land on which his homestead is built, even if his fields may be further away, doing some or all of a combination of these activities to manage his income stream over the course of the natural year. I will explain the basics, and then give examples from different regions.

Managing A Portfolio of Investments based on “Time and Money”

The illustration above captures our attempt to map the various cash flow patterns from the farmer’s portfolio of investments. Consider each cluster of elements as a “deposit” with varying times of maturity for cashing out, as the need may be. For example, cows give milk which can be sold for almost daily cash returns, as can the eggs from chickens. The fresh produce from the kitchen garden matures far more quickly than staples such as maize or beans. And, if there is a cash crop such as tea or coffee, this may taken an entire year for the harvest to be monetized. At the same time, various farmyard animals are invested into when young, maturing over time for sale, as an emergency cushion or for earmarked expenses such as annual school fees.

Thus, over the course of the year, cash arrives in hand with varying degrees of frequency, and periodicity, thus ensuring the farm’s ability to manage regular household expenditure on a more or less regular basis, even though there are no predictable wages. Nor, is the farmer burdened with credit and debt over the time whilst waiting for her 2 or 3 major harvest seasons.

Variance in regional seasonality influences coping mechanisms

While the foundational framework of the farmstead’s domestic financial managment remains the same, regional differences due to geography, and thus seasonality, influence crop choices, number of harvests, and the details of the coping mechanisms selected by the farmer to manage her financial portfolio.

For instance, in rural Philippines, in the rice growing Visayas islands, only well situated farms benefit from three rain fed rice harvests a year whilst the majority must manage on two. Thus, farmers invest in piglets, calves, or even cull chicks for nurturing into fighting cockerels which sell for more than 10 times the price of a regular chicken. They stock firewood, coconut husk, and supplement their cash money needs through petty retail during the low season.

In rural Malawi, outside of Blantyre, the farmwife who is a member of beekeeper’s cooperative, distills traditional wine for sales 2 to 3 times a week, boosting her cash flow frequency instead of waiting for the annual honey harvest.

Minimizing volatility to enable financial planning

Thus, we can see that even under conditions of uncertainty, farmers have established the means to manage their household expenses, including periodic ones such as school fees or loan repayments, on irregular and unpredictable cash flows from a variety of sources. Their sophisticated portfolio of investments contain “deposits” that mature over varying times, for different amounts, and their planning, thus, goes into ensuring that the volatility between income and outgoing expenses is kept to a minimum.

Next, we will see how less agriculturally dependent sectors of the informal economy base their financial management patterns on the rural economy’s foundation of portfolio management.


Collected Works
Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment – Links to organized series of articles on the topic

East African Imports in rural Rwanda?

This highway ‘storefront’ in rural Rwanda made me wonder if the trader had imported his goods rather than purchased them locally. And, further, if they were imports from Kenya.

First, unlike the majority of such roadside shops, he is dealing with multiple products – while all are related to home decor, they are made of vastly different materials – wood, ceramic, plastic flowers. This is so rare that one can say he’s one of the handful such displays I’ve seen. This gives rise to the conjecture that he’s spread his inventory investment across a price range – from a full double bed to a bunch of flowers – to cater to the range of customer expectations on the road. And, that in itself is a sign that he’s purchased them from different dealers as people tend to specialize in product lines they trade in.

Second, it resembles the product lines along Ngong Road in Nairobi far more than the what I saw being locally produced. That made me wonder if these had been imported across the borders – which also underlines the careful display and the choice of the highway to capture the attention of wider variety of customers with differing wallet sizes than just his hometown market.

Today, 5 years after that trip through Rwanda, I’ll never know, but I can wonder out loud, can’t I?

TEDTalk video: Recognizing the value creation and economic contribution of the informal economy

My talk given at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, this August, went live on at some point during the night a couple of days ago. At that very moment, I was on a Finnair flight from SIN to HEL, so with a wee bit of delay, here’s the link to the video of the talk. Also available is a recommended reading list I curated, along with footnotes.

I just want to add that its high time we considered the informal sector as a commercial operating environment in its own right. This change of perspective will transform the way we think about poverty, it’s alleviation, and, importantly, open the doors to innovating products and services that can help boost productivity and revenues for micro, small, and medium sized businesses across the developing world, but particularly in Africa and India.

By doing so, we can recognize the economic contribution and value creation by women who make up the majority of such entrepreneurs, and put dollar values to their investment capacity and growth opportunities. As long as they’re lumped together under the umbrella term “informal sector”, with its unquestioned assumptions of low skill and low productivity, they’ll remain invisible, and solutions meant to support their development will never reach them.

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.


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

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment

This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.

Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged


Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

Deconstructing “Formalization” as Panacea for the Informal Economy

IGO definitions of the informal economy are crafted from a top down perspective (Global North*) of the operating environment prevalent in the economies of the developing world (Global South*). Further, they do not distinguish between the operating environment of the shadow economies of OECD nations, and those which encompass the unorganized sectors of trade and industry in emerging regions.

Schneider and Enste describe this so:

A factory worker has a second job driving an unlicensed taxi at night; a plumber fixes a broken water pipe for a client, gets paid in cash but doesn’t declare his earnings to the tax collector; a drug dealer brokers a sale with a prospective customer on a street corner. These are all examples of the underground or shadow economy—activities, both legal and illegal, that add up to trillions of dollars a year that take place “off the books,” out of the gaze of taxmen and government statisticians.

And, this applies very well for the shadow economies of the OECD, and the transition nations per their classification (which are again in Europe). However, the question is, whether this applies, without caveats, to the developing world?

Deconstructing their definition shows a framework based on an implicit underlying assumption of a functional state, with adequate infrastructure and reliable systems of service provision. In fact, Schneider and Enste correlate size of shadow economy, as they label it, with issues of governance, corruption, and state regulation. However, their underlying assumption of a functional design for the bureaucracy required to govern that state still hold. And, critically, it assumes that taxes collected will be invested back into easily accessible and well designed citizen services, or that the licensing and permits are backed by enforceable rules and regulations on health and safety, for instance.

One example of inaccessible services would be from Kenya’s new Trade Policy (May 2017) which acknowledges the unnecessary barrier to formalization posed to micro and small enterprises countrywide by the centralization of business registration at government in the national capital. Thus, simplifying this process, and enabling it online would certainly have great impact on the numbers of micros/small enterprises still informal.

An even more complicated real world example is that of Somaliland, a rather peaceful, entrepreneurial trading nation who has yet to be recognized as such. Is their entire economy to be considered informal by the best definitions available? And if so, how exactly would any recommendations to formalize so that they can “join the global trading network” be implemented? The Financial Times offers some interesting answers to this conundrum.

… in the eyes of the international community, Somaliland does not exist. This causes innumerable problems, not least economic.
Yet Somalilanders pride themselves on their stoicism and resourcefulness; and in spite of the myriad issues that lack of formal recognition brings, the business community remains optimistic.
Those with the foresight to look beyond the question of recognition, and towards the potential that Somaliland offers, will be rewarded — and will help to make history.

This could be very well said for the entire informal economy in the frontier markets of the developing world. India, for instance, possessor of over 400 million people employed in the informal sector, has had no choice but to consider potential for job creation and employment opportunities serving 90% of her workforce as the mainstream. In fact, current analysis echoes the same sentiments as Somaliland’s:

The conditions under which formality – taken here as compliance with the rules and structures of a taxable economy – flourishes can be described by the example of Finland. The system of administration more or less works transparently, and with accountability, within the rule of law. Decent work is not only mandated by policy, but such social protections are enforced publically. Tax revenues visibly provide benefits such as free education through to post doctoral level, and supports healthcare and other amenities to the community. Bureaucracy mostly does its job sincerely and cheerfully – speaking from experience as an expat, and now an immigrant. One can become a properly registered business as a sole proprietor, or self employed entrepreneur, quickly and affordably either online or at the local authorities.

Without all or most of these conditions being met by the infrastructure and the systems, as currently designed and implemented, in developing countries, such as those on the African continent, or in India, can “formalization” be pushed unconditionally as the optimal solution to the development problem of their economies? Is it any wonder that nowhere has informality been eradicated as promised decades ago, in fact its only grown as new jobseekers face extreme competition for the limited number of positions available in the formal or modern or civil sector?

Zimbabwe offers a case study worth studying further to validate this given that their economy has informalized exponentially over the past decade or so.


* Hence why this label is in itself problematic.

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


“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.