Posts Tagged ‘informal economy’

The Resilience of Innovation under Conditions of Scarcity

Kouassi Bafounga works on a storm lantern, Bangui, Central African Republic, January 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva

Innovating beyond the traditional tin lantern – a simple wick attached to the can – Kouassi Bafounga cuts shapes from tin cans and fixes them together with glass, string and a little petrol to produce storm-proof lanterns.

Last year, Bafounga was one of 11 winners in a “Fab Lab” innovation competition run by the French embassy and Alliance Française, a French cultural centre in Bangui, with financing from the European Union’s Bêkou Trust Fund. The finalists, chosen from more than 100 applicants, received assistance to develop their products into businesses.

Inna Lazareva writes on this “creativity from crisis” sharing stories of inventors and makers who must single-handedly create solutions for daily needs in highly volatile conditions of material scarcity.

Given the challenges faced by the Central African Republic, I see these stories as evidence of the resilience of innovation, something often overlooked when we ooh and ahh over the creations themselves.

How can we learn from this?


For more on Innovation under conditions of scarcity and Scarcity as a driver for innovation

Formalization is no panacea for micro-entrepreneurs, a liminal space is necessary for growth

Yesterday, my bank sent back a client’s payment though I’d presented the invoice and other paperwork. I’m a registered micro-business in the highly formal economy of Finland, and the bank I’ve been with since 2009 has upped their internal regulations after a spate of bad publicity surrounding the Panama papers. I’ve been caught in the middle of changing rules though the kind young man sitting with me at the bank did tell me I was neither alone in this nor was it rare among their customers. They’re going through changes.

We talked a little about the work I do among women entrepreneurs in the informal economies of East Africa, and he pointed out that Finland was a very difficult operating environment for startups and entrepreneurs. They recognize this. He observed that my experiences at this formal end of the spectrum could only help me with my work on the other end. I had to agree, though I left the bank empty handed, having been turned down by their corporate banking side as well.

Still, I haven’t come here to moan about my banking troubles so much as to point out that the young man was right. Neither end of the spectrum of formal and informal is healthy for a rapidly evolving newly born business or micro venture. Too little support and growth is slow and painful; too much regulations and you fall off the wagon everytime your business changes or their rules evolve.

What is needed and rarely articulated is a grey area between formal and informal – a liminal space if you will. One that allows for change and acknowledges the experimentation and iteration that is the natural part of the development process. A common cliche is to liken a young or small business (my small business is 12 years old) to a growing child who might sometimes have to burn a finger on a match to learn about fire.

What perhaps is needed is to codify this ambiguous moment or period and discover ways to fit that within the formal structures of a highly developed society, as well as adapt it as a stepping stone in the unstructured informal underdeveloped locale. These bridges need not be identical in details so much as concept – that an entrepreneurial venture’s nature is such that it needs room to move and grow unhampered whilst still receiving the support and facilities that it requires.

There’s hope yet for me, allegedly. The bank has set up a startup unit and I’ll call them today to see if there’s anything that can be done. Else I’ll have to look around for another bank. In the meantime, the taxes still have to be paid and the remittance problem solved. Wish me luck!

A Unique Path to Development Seen for the Informal Economy

Just recently I stumbled over this slim book < 60 pages that analyzed existing data sources in order to frame an answer to the research question they posed:

How did the informal economy―markets and the private sector―develop in the absence of legal and administrative frameworks to support it?

Some of the most intriguing insights extracted here:

And they echo my own statements regarding the East African Community that its the informal sector that’s growing faster and responsible for employing the majority of the population. This makes integration and bridging efforts between the formal and global together with the local and informal even more critical.

The path to integration as described in the book may not apply to the African economies but holds some unusual insights for those in eastern Europe which may struggle with some of the same issues of top down planning and grassroots income generation.

All in all, the step by step approach over the past decade to recognize, and thus integrate the informal sector was much appreciated and if you’re interested, you can download the book here.

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.

Time to acknowledge the social cost of mobile and apps driven disruption

Abandoned makeshift recharge cards stand (Source: Punch Newspaper, Nigeria)

From Lagos, Nigeria comes this moving human interest story that looks at the downside of modern technology and it’s impact on livelihoods. For those who must hustle to make a living, send the kids to school, or put food on the table, smartphone driven digitization of the services they used to provide are disrupting their incomes.

“On the negative side, it has seriously affected our business with about 40% drop in passenger traffic. There is nobody among us (cab drivers) that would say he’s not feeling the pain.”

Whether its Uber and Taxify grabbing customers from traditional taxis, or the ease of an online purchase of airtime eating into Mama’s recharge card sales, the long awaited and much hyped transformation of African economies by ICT is arriving at a much higher cost than noted anywhere in media, or in research reports on mobiles for “social good.”

Literate youth quick to pick up new skills have no choice but to adapt and adopt. Its the older traders, the taxi drivers, the less literate, the long established service providers in the urban informal economy who are shouldering the brunt of this disruption.

“Even the prices charged by ‘those phone things’ are not realistic. I just pity the people who are rushing to them. A time is coming that they would increase their fares. And by that time, people wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, because they would have killed the competition. They just want to destroy the taxi business, which many of us are using to take care of our families,” Baba Ayo added.

Whose responsibility is this anyway?

Disruption is what every techno bling startup seeks, blaring it in their press releases, as they launch an app for this and that. What falls by the wayside is consideration of the social cost of this disruption – much more expensive in developing countries like Nigeria where there is no social safety net, no welfare department, and certainly no old-age pension for those whose livelihoods are lost to look forward to.

“I have been selling recharge vouchers for about 10 years and I can tell you that the situation has never been this bad. It’s as if someone commanded people to stop buying airtime. I accused some of my customers of patronising other people, and some of them said they usually top-up their phones online whenever they run out of airtime,” she explained.

The entrepreneurial will adapt, or move on to other services that apps have not yet replaced. The article is illustrated with photographs of abandoned recharge seller’s makeshift stalls as the line of business fades away in the big city.

But who will think of all the rest who may not have the energy or youth to start over, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that technological progress is not exclusive?

This post is a reminder to us all of the tradeoff we make when we choose to innovate or disrupt in societies where the margin between hunger and full belly is as slim as this year’s latest smartphone model.

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)

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 (, a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (

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.

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.

A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa

Download the comprehensive literature review (PDF) on informal cross border trade, in the context of the informal economy of the East African Community, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. This paper was supported by TradeMark East Africa during the period November 2015 to January 2016. A short extract from the preamble is given below:

For trade to be truly inclusive and sustainable, it must embrace the informal economy rather than excluding it. When John Keith Hart first coined the termi in the early 1970s, he did not distinguish between the illicit and licit aspects of the informal trade he observed all around him on the streets of Accra. In the decades since, this conflation has created more challenges than necessary, throwing up barriers where there were none.

As Kanbur and Keen suggestii, unpacking the basic concept of the “informal sector” and describing the various segments will lead to far greater returns on the resources invested and improve the outcomes and impact of the policies and programmes designed for each.

“Informal trade” across Eastern Africa can best be described as a web of interlinked networksiii serving to connect peoples and products across the region. Held together byiv trust, kinship and community relationships, it has been seen to be resilient, and persistent. Robust enough to survive natural disasters and manmade upheavals of the decades past, it is flexible, nimble, and responsive to patterns of abundance and scarcityv.

i Hart, K (1973), “Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana”, The journal of modern African studies 11 (01), 61-89

ii Kanbur, R and M Keen (2015), “Rethinking Informality”,

iii Walther, O. (2015), “Social Network Analysis and Informal Trade”, Working paper for the World Bank

iv Hart, K (2000), “Kinship, contract, and trust: The economic organization of migrants in an African city slum”, Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations, 176-193

v Bhan, N. (2009), “Understanding BoP household financial management through exploratory design research in rural Philippines and India”, iBoP Asia and IDRC