Posts Tagged ‘biashara’

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)

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.

Signs of Interdependency between the Formal and the Informal Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging East Africa’ formal – informal financial services divide

Kenya’s formal inclusion looks pretty, the financial inclusion industry has been has been great at talking up its achievements over the past 10 years. Here, 75.3% of Kenyans are now formally included, a 50.3% increase from 19 years ago. Official statistics on mobile phone penetration is up to 80.5% of the population and there is general consensus, the mobile phone has been central to expanding formal financial services to the – unbanked and under banked. The numbers are pretty awesome.

In February, FSD Kenya’s chart of the week featured an interesting pattern.





The red line marks the axis between the formal (prudential) and informal financial services alternatives. The largest source of credit for the bottom 40% populate the informal segment – SACCOs ,MFIs, Peer to peer, community groups. Dotting the top in blue are the banks and mobile banking lending products Mshwari.

So, there is more going on besides what the numbers say about formal financial inclusion.


Appreciating the informal sector’s financing alternatives

I got a sense of this gap between what the reports say and what was on the ground in 2015/2016 as part of 2 immersive fieldwork projects – Nyeri Mama’s Financial Diaries and later same year as part of Borderland Biashara: Mapping the cross border, national and regional trade in the East African informal economy project. I got to meet and spend time with biashara people, mama biashara, informal traders at the borderlands, boda boda guys, brokers and 65 year old Wangari – all in their natural setting – the mostly rural and cash intensive informal economies at the borderlands.

I found out that 90% of them had a basket of alternative credit, investment, insurance and savings informal financial products at their disposal – up to 8 different volatility management groups. The flavor of these alternatives ranged from extreme formal prudential to extreme informal.

Wangari, from Nyeri, for example, did not have a bank account but, was part of

  • 1 Micro-finance bank,
  • 2 Cooperatives
  • 1 ROSCA (Rotating Savings and Credit Association
  • 1 Chama (savings group)
  • a Catholic church group and
  • a modest Nokia mobile phone with Mobile wallet (Mpesa) and mobile wallet bank (Mshwari)

At the borderlands of Busia and Malaba between Kenya and Uganda, close to 96% of 100 biashara interviewees were part of at least 3 savings groups, besides their mobile phone. There was almost always one savings group that was part of their trade or craft networks.


Bridging the Gap


When we look at the under banked strictly through the lenses of a bank, we miss out on the rich diversity of community bank-like products at their disposal. When their options are labelled informal, the tone becomes one of expanding the larger banking formal system, at the expense of our dear Chamas.

My suggestion for the present day efforts to push towards financial formalization, is to instead transform into a pull towards formality. Is there a middle ground? Where we can have the rich of the Chamas and savings group together with the formal financial system? Or where we can have a blend of the rich of the savings groups with technology?

Yes, we can, and there are examples from East Africa’s Kenya and West Africa’s Chad

  • Equity bank directly engages registered savings groups at the Busia Malaba border, a trader’s Chama.  A credit officer from a local branch attends weekly meetings with the group, and liaises between Equity Bank and the Chama. The bank facilitates loans guaranteed by the group as a unit. 

“Muranga county seeks to ease unemployment with cow loans”Daily Nation

  • Ng’ombe loan, by Muramati and Unaitas SACCO, was an unconventional loan product much closer to the realities of a rural Muranga. Youth in this county received high-yielding, pregnant dairy cows on credit, and were to repay the loan through milk deliveries to processors. An expectant cow as the loan principal, with repayments priced in daily milk deliveries. How cool!

“TigoPaare – People’s Banks for Communities across Africa”Balancing Act Africa

  • In Chad, Paare are the equivalent of Chama group savings plans in East Africa. TigoPaare is a group wallet that adds a ‘group layer’ on top of standard mobile money, to deal with common funds, trust and other group initiatives. The wallet helps informal cattle trades look after their income from cattle sales, with the functionality to make loans to members. The pilot attracted 19,000 users, including community mutual funds, cotton producers cooperatives, churches, market sellers and women’s groups.



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.

Perspective on the Carpenter’s Problem

exampleThis is my favourite concept for describing how to cost effectively iterate complex systems solutions within a given set of constraints and conditions. That is, the ideal solution for best fit, can be said to lie in the shaded area as shown in the graph above.

This approach to solution framing comes from operations research – what is the optimal solution that minimizes resources (inputs) for maximum outputs (value creation).

I first used this in a speech I gave at the CII NID Design Summit back in the December of 2006. Oh my, has it been ten years already? How time flies.

As Granny was saying, with this conceptual framework for problem statements, one is assured of the maximum constraints possible i.e. the most inclusive design is set up as the ideal – affordable, accessible, and equitable.

Even if language and literacy put up barriers between people connected to each other via their mobile phones, especially smartphones, can’t we not design a universal user interface, such as Ted Boulou’s Somtou device, that could use all the power of the tech at our fingertips to do the greatest good towards a more inclusive internet than all the free wifi in the world. There, I said it.

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‘.