I came across some excellent research by Dr Almamy Konte and Mariama Ndong of Senegal. While I’m sure the original working paper in French must be far better than this drafted English translation, their key points are nonetheless something to make us sit up and listen, particularly with regards to innovation in the informal economy.
Research has shown that the informal sector of ICT is a sector that has recently developed (since 2000). This sector has evolved to meet the specific needs of the ICT society. Coping mechanisms in this sector spend by taking into account the social and economic populations.
Taking into account these social realities is the basis innovations noted in the sector. These innovations (social innovation, organizational innovation, and marketing innovation) are a reflection of the Senegalese society and its organization. These innovations are based on values and thus Senegalese distributive logic versus the logic of profit prevails in the capitalist system. ~ from their abstract
They have found that the innovations observed among the informal ICT sector (covering all aspects of information and communication technology such as the repair and repurposing of old equipment, sales of new and refurbished including scratch cards and accessories etc) are those that have emerged in response to cultural and social needs inherent in Senegalese society and many of the core values of the businessmen reflect this localization.
A snippet from page 10:
In Senegal, the informal sector provides enormous potential and capacity for innovation that justifies his place in the Senegalese economy. The emphasis is on using knowledge rather than the production of knowledge. Innovation has always been viewed as a transgressive action individually or in groups to improve unsatisfactory situations, or at least solve problems.
However, innovation is not a simple problem solving but it contains within itself the seeds of creativity and originality, it acts on the margins of freedom of the actors when dealing with operations increasingly demanding control (CROS, 2007, 9). Any characteristic of the informal sector in Senegal who works in the “lack of structure”, but who is under enormous pressure and intense competition in the modern sector.
Innovation is meeting a need (real or potential), a market and workable solutions. It is important to link the needs to the requirements because the informal sector in Senegal follows the demand and adapts itself. It has a great capacity for innovation and responsiveness that the modern sector itself has not.
I have highlighted the sentences that stood out for me – while I had not been able to comprehensively address this topic as well as the authors have managed to do – it was back in the Autumn of 2010 that we’d conducted a field study among the jua kali workers in Kenya to take a closer look at innovation under conditions of scarcity among the informal manufacturers and fabricators based on the same logic.
That here, the informal sector’s responsiveness to customer needs was of a level entirely different to that of the formal industry – that their inventiveness and ingenuity was partly a demonstration of their ability to make and offer for sale exactly what their market wanted. There was little or no scope for errors in an environment of resource scarcity and irregular incomes. Products sold were incomes earned, a direct correlation that Konte and Ndong observed as well:
we try to show that the innovational act in this area is beyond the theories of innovation. Indeed, here the imaginative character of the actor is based on a sense of survival. With a highly developed competition, the human being must be creative and resourceful to get a place in the economic market.
While the PDF as a whole is a treasure trove on the informal ICT sector in Senegal and related literature, this last part from their sampling exercise did also stand out for me. It is the identification of the core values that helped increase their revenues, by the participants of the study, that is the informal ICT business owners:
Social values that contribute most to the increase in turnover of UPI are honesty (Jub ak ngor), courage (Diom), solidarity (ndimbaleunté) and hospitality (téranga). Indeed, the arguments advanced by respondents in the UPI to justify the choice of social values are numerous.
Honesty for these IPU (Informal Production Unit) respondents is the value that leads to success. It helps to establish trust, to secure and retain customers. An insured customer always comes back and you can even get other customers.
Courage is an essential value for a person who seeks a horizon. For them person must be selfless in order to survive in this business. It is not easy to get up early and be present every day for a long duration (12 years for some). Thus, only the courage and perseverance can help them to move forward.
Solidarity for them is a national value, Senegalese, because Senegalese feel affection for helping each other. It serves to reinforce the links in the sense that these UPI are family so everything happens in families. This solidarity is reflected in contributions, loans among themselves and participation in happy events as unfortunate. Furthermore, this solidarity allows IPU meets their limits by complementarily. Solidarity also fixes and maintains customers (make loans). This social value is often instilled in them their religious associations(Dahira).
Hospitality is value of any good Senegalese in their opinion; some of them had to receive it in their career. A welcome to the customer saves his confidence by putting them at ease and that sometimes happens with a smile, buying fruit drinks to customers. Therefore, a client welcomed, always returns.