Posts Tagged ‘cross border trade’

Not Disaggregating the Informal Economy Properly Hinders Development Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Cross Border Mobile Money Boost intra African Trade and Regional Integration?

cross border MMTOver the past 18 months, since I started tracking the spread of cross border mobile money payments across the African continent, there has been visible progress in leaps and bounds, as documented by the GSMA. In fact, back then, I’d written:

Top down reportage on banking and interoperability seems to focus only on the customer’s individual needs, and overlooks their agency as entrepreneurs, traders and business people.

The map above has been taken from the GSMA’s Mobile Economy 2015 report, and the 2016 report reproduces it as well. Now, the role of mobile money transfers in facilitating cross border and intra African trade is finally being recognized for its potential and cost savings. Author Ashly Hope lays out clearly the high cost of remitting money in the SADC region:

cost of remittance sadcSouth Africa and Tanzania are the largest sources of remittance, yet their transaction costs are significantly higher than the Sub Saharan average of 9.7% (which in turn is the most expensive region in the world where the average cost is now ~7.4%). And this is only one regional grouping.

It is when we look at the penetration of mobile money, that we see something that hints at the digital economy emerging in East Africa (birthplace of Mpesa in case you weren’t aware).

Given teh pace of change, we can safely assume that the figures given above have only increased since 2014. Tanzania’s mobile money market has been frequently cited for its growth and opportunity – it is also outstanding for the level of interoperability within the telco ecosystem.

In the previous article, we noted that Tanzania had just flagged off a Chinese funded regional logistics and trade hub which would include a local footprint for the distribution and sales of China made goods in the form of a warehouse.

“The trade hub will also help Tanzanians especially women to buy products here instead of travelling all the way to China, hence cutting costs down,” said Ms Janet Mbene, Deputy Minister of Industries & Trade.

Savings on travel and shipping is bound to translate into increased inventory purchases, and thus value and/or volume of goods traded. Taking the context of the entire East African Community’s “informal” cross border trade, and the visualization of the interconnections now provided by various mobile money transfer systems in the map above, one can safely start to forecast the potential gains to both traders, and the telcos, as the landscape of the local operating environment begins to change in response to infrastructure investments.

Whether this potential opportunity is exploited by the region’s traders, or overlooked and missed due to the existing digital divide, is the question that remains to be answered. The EAC’s mobile economy (~96% prepaid) needs to start thinking of itself as more than just telco led and impact hub driven, and get down to the ground at the fringes for the future.

Borderland Biashara: Mapping the Cross Border, National and Regional Trade in the East African Informal Economy

efl research team

Rinku Gajera & Michael Kimani, Malaba Border, Kenya, January 2016. Photo: Niti Bhan

And, we’re back! With apologies for the long delay in posting on the blog, we’d been busy wrapping up our groundbreaking design research for development programming project for Trade Mark East Africa this past month or so. As you can imagine, the last few weeks of any project suck all the bandwidth out and leave little for blogging or writing.

Let me be the first to say that this project could not have been executed or completed without a rockstar research team – Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate, together put in gruelling hours in the sun, and on Skype, to help increase our understanding of the informal economy in East Africa, particularly the informal trade sector – cross border, national, and regional. Emerging Futures Lab has been immersed in design and development of pioneering methodology for mapping the informal trade ecosystem – henceforward known as biashara, at the borderlands of the East African Community, since November 2015.

tmeaFor this opportunity, I must thank the CEO of Trade Mark East Africa, Frank Matsaert, who saw our passion and our belief in the worth and value of the informal sector, and recognized the need to understand the traders, their business practices, and their aspirations, as the first step necessary for the design of interventions that are not only people-centered, but cost effective and impactful.  We were granted creative license to colour outside the box of the terms of reference with our designer’s empathy and exploratory mindset, and frame this project as an exercise in developing the understanding necessary for the design of human centered methods, tools and frameworks for development programming. You can be sure that there will be more on this topic published soon on this blog, so grab the RSS feed now, or sign up for inboxed posts.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016Final Report, General Public – Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab

Cross-border mobile financial services in Africa are going to be huge

africa_webAnalysis Mason has an excellent article on the next big thing in mobile money across the African continent – cross border payments. I covered the emergence of these services, through regional operators as well as partnerships based on interoperability earlier. This is what I asked for:

Mapping it all

I’d love it if someone could capture all of this into one map and infographic – not only the cross border transactional ability but also the cross border interoperability as well as in country interoperability. Like the Zambians, I think the potentials for business, trade, e-commerce and biashara are far more than anyone has even considered. Top down reportage on banking and interoperability seems to focus only on the customer’s individual needs, and overlooks their agency as entrepreneurs, traders and business people.

And this is what Analysis Mason’s article has to add:

Cross-border mobile money transfer services enable the informal sector to participate in the formal financial system and avoid opening a bank account, which typically requires more extensive documentation (for example, proof of residence) than registering with a mobile operator. Mobile money provides a safer, quicker, and often less expensive, alternative for cross-border money transfers.

Demand for cross-border remittances is also driven by regional integration, particularly in East and West Africa where regional agreements promote cross-border trade and monetary integration. Significant movement of African labour across borders, to seek higher wages and new employment opportunities (especially within regional ‘blocs’), also creates a mobile population, driving demand for mobile remittance services.

Given the dates of emergence of partnerships extending the reach of well known services such as Mpesa after the publication of this analysis, I suggest going with the data collated here first. On the other hand, they were the first to map it all so I’m surprised my earlier search didn’t turn up this article which shows an earlier publication date on the web page.

Growth in Africa’s informal trade with China needs more formal diplomacy

China Southern Airlines announces 3 flights a week between Nairobi and Guangzhou. This can only be a signal of increasing informal cross border trade between the greater African continent and China’s manufacturing hub. Earlier, we’d noted the importance of this trade for Kenya Airways when they announced the opening of a ticket office in Nairobi’s Tea Room area – a hotbed of informal trade that supplies the entire country, and beyond.

 The informal level is often ignored in discussions about Africa-China trade but it plays a massive part in the overall trade relations between the two. African traders based in China act either as direct buyers or middlemen and organise the logistics behind thousands of container loads of consumer goods headed for African ports. Transactions are in cash and all parties watch each other like hunting hawks, as lack of trust is the normal state of affairs.

But the addition of more flights, this time by a Chinese airline implies brisk business in this critical trade corridor. Here’s a key snippet from a recent article in mSafiri, Kenya Airways’ inflight magazine:

One trader said that virtually every flight from West Africa brings around two million dollars in cash, and there are around eight flights a day.

We don’t know the dollar value (in cash!) of the flights from East Africa, but if they are anywhere close, then we can do the math for 3 additional flights a week!

Its not just Kenyans who make the journey, lugging back suitcases bulging with products or placing orders for containers to arrive in Mombasa. Nairobi’s JKIA serves as a connecting hub for traders from both the Congos, Rwanda, Tanzania and more. As the mSafiri article informs us:

Nigerians form the largest group, followed by Malians, Ghanaians and Guineans. There are traders from DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and a fairly large contingent from Angola.

Some researchers believe that 90% of goods in African markets today come from China, Thailand and Indonesia, and it is the traders in Chocolate City who organise the thousands of containers that make their way to African ports.

Even as we note the benefits of this pipeline of affordable consumer products reaching the smallest village market, there’s an increasingly visible downside. Travelling afar for new opportunities is not just a one way flow, and the Chinese in turn have been coming into Africa’s informal markets as well. How this increase in competition will impact livelihood activities at the local level remains to be seen.

Cultural differences and mutual suspicion seem to run deep.

African smallholders have complained bitterly that Chinese hawkers have been driving them out of the market by undercutting their prices and by operating cabals. There have been protests, riots and violent stand-offs between African and Chinese people at mines, factories, shopping malls and markets. Indigenous building contractors and architects also complain that Chinese firms use underhand means to secure contracts and that their operations are opaque. The build quality of some Chinese construction is so poor that official complaints have been made at the national level, for example, by Botswana.

The thousands of African traders who travel to China and other Asian countries to place orders for consumer goods complain that they receive poor treatment from the authorities, are racially discriminated against and abused and cheated by their trading partners.

As Anver Versi, the author of the excellent indepth article says, in conclusion:

One cannot help thinking just how much this form of business could develop if the African entrepreneurs were treated better by the Chinese authorities and given some protection against crooked dealers. It would also make the large presence of Chinese people in Africa more palatable.

 

 

Traveling on the New Silk Route with African traders to the Far East

The 21st century’s version of the old Silk Road that led caravans of traders from around the world to China and back is the flight path between the African continent and China. Bangkok Airport is one of these new oasis for caravaneers on the New Silk Route, where I caught the Kenyan Airways flight on its stopover between Guangzhou and Nairobi.

Sitting next to me were entrepreneurs – the lady from Kigali returning after deal making in electronics and new clothes and the Congolese traders from Brazzaville exuberantly enjoying their after dinner cognacs, all chattering away in French.

The Ancient Silk Route

It was the onboard announcement made just prior to landing in Nairobi that made me realize what I had just experienced – connecting flights out of Nairobi reached across the Sub Saharan landscape from Accra to Kigali, Harare to Lubumbashi – exotic names in distant places, yet gathered under one roof, if only for a short moment in time.

How different was this from caravanserais of yore as the mishmash of “small small English” mingled with la langue francais et every mother’s tongue? Kenya Airways had Thai stewardesses and I heard each safety instruction being repeated in fluent Mandarin, Gujerati and Swahili as well.

Only the technology and the means of transportation and communication have changed, the bazaar is still the marketplace for exchange of goods and services as it has always been.

Until now I’d only read about increasing trade between these two far flung places, the majority of which emerging from the so called informal economy or Neuwirth’s systeme D. But this short immersion in the energy flow in between underlined the reality and scale of what was happening. The flight was full and there were few getting on in Bangkok, the vast majority of passengers returning to their various destinations after their short sojourns in Guangzhou.

 The other flights out of Bangkok – to Brisbane or London – were full of holidaymakers but not this flight unless one counted the group of young Koreans going on a volunteer trip with an NGO.  Perhaps its time the old Silk Road map was updated with current day flight paths in bright purple.

Here’s a short snippet from an article article translated from the Japanese on the unique model of globalization displayed by “Little Africa” in southern China that gives us a glimpse of the tremendous changes connectivity and communication are making to commerce:

 Including undocumented immigrants, it is estimated that there are an astounding 150,000 Africans in Guangzhou, a majority of them male. It should come as no surprise then that among Guangzhou’s foreign residents, those from Africa make up the largest proportion. These immigrants essentially operate on an individual basis. Working in China as buyers, they can be seen determinedly ranging the streets of central Guangzhou’s wholesale district. There are variations in density, but among the passersby on some bustling streets, half will have African features.

There are those from East Africa and West Africa, of all kinds of builds from all different countries. They come to stock up on goods ranging from clothes to cosmetics and sundries, even fake brands – probably collected from factories forced to compete with prices in the Guangzhou region – seeking out deals for everything. Gathering together enough to fill a shipping container, they send these miscellanies home and then flip them for twice the cost, with Guangzhou’s customs duty apparently accommodating such motley trade.
[…]
The individual buyers are supervised by North African or Middle Eastern controllers, and when night comes they gather at restaurants to carry out microloan-style finance meetings.
[…]
There are restaurants serving cuisine from the Congo and Nigeria, stalls with cheap telephone rates to Africa, mobile phone brokers, specialty barbers, vendors hawking cassettes and CDs of African music, and in some buildings that have been completely occupied by African tenants, the rare African-run intermediary wholesaler doing order-made customization.