Studying the dynamics of the informal economy of a particular region in Western Kenya has been an eye opening exercise in questioning one’s own assumptions and frameworks. Other times, I noticed answers to questions I’d never even thought of asking (an outcome of holding implicit assumptions).
One of these was career paths and ambitions.
The most obvious paths are the ones with tangible indicators of upward mobility. You begin with the bicycle, adding a cushioned seat at the back, and dream of purchasing a motorcycle, which can also double as a micro distributor at the last mile of delivery. Then, you dream of a car and taxi.
I was wrong. The decision to select one’s choice of vehicle is a professional one, and each of these transportation mechanisms is a distinctly separate cluster of owner/entrepreneurs. There isn’t much cross vehicle mobility as you’d imagine. There are older gentlemen who preferred the simplicity and the low running costs of a bicycle, saying that anything one earned after a big solid breakfast in the morning was pure profit.
However, this is not to say that the fundamental paths to expansion and growth of opportunities were as closed. They are just different from what we imagine, looking on from the outside, and the drivers for decision making are fundamentally characterized by the patterns of flow of time and money in the informal/rural economy.
For instance, in Malaba and Busia on the western Kenya/eastern Uganda border, one does not begin in Malaba. For the penniless youth emerging from his father’s shamba deep interior where no tarmac goes, its Busia that provides the facility to earn seed capital. They call this kibarua, and there’s a yard near the truck loading docks where they can join the available pool of labour. Its the first step to earning an income in the economy the world calls informal. Women prefer to grow something to sell – be it chickens, eggs or a wide variety of fruits and veg. One lady sells partially treated roots and branches that’s the seed for locally brewed beer.
Once one has amassed some cash, one can buy stock to sell, or invest in a growth vehicle for cash flow. A dairy cow is a growth vehicle, with almost daily cash flow. The challenge for growth on the farm is lack of cash money. Women dominate the informal wholesale and retail trade, just as they’ve been documented to do in West Africa. They are newcomers to trade, having been noticed in this region only in the past 10 or 15 years. They’re smarter, shrewder, and know how to leverage their extensive social networks. They are a growing demographic, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, eastern DRC, South Sudan, and Rwanda. Burundians, it seems, are happy to live on their farms and let their Rwandan friends do the hard work of buying and selling them stuff.
Then, one can move from tabletop sales into retail and wholesale. Its an interesting example of leapfrogging the middle income trap – by the time the market woman with a cloth covered with merchandise can grow her stock to rent a permanent store, she has also become a micro-wholesaler who will break bulk down to the smallest denominations for her micro retail customers to sell on their tables and mats.
Their next ambition is to become that micro-region (a radii of 50km) re-distributor. That is, by the business practices of the global FMCG majors, they want to be registered and counted. The local Coca Cola distributor has probably a hundred such wholesalers scattered around a 100km radius. The scale of operations is limited by the cost of fuel and transport.
Now, many who don’t wish for the extensive groundwork that the former ambition requires, move on to trade from Malaba. Its where the larger regional trade flows take place, not just the multiple micro-crossings of Busia (which by the way annually cross 33 million US dollars). In just one border market, there’s annual biashara worth $5 to 10 million. There will be one or two outliers to this due to natural and geographic advantages.
The energy of biashara is obvious in the market. And every market day along the better roads, the scale of trade was far more than anywhere upcountry, even the roads to Nyeri and Nanyuki. These trading ties go back centuries to before the white man came and the kings of the Buganda loved teh stuff the Indian Ocean traders brought to the Swahili Coast.
The best paid profession is that of a long distance trucker. Yet, intriguingly, young men aspire to reach this position only to acquire the networks of a broker and to retire from the dangerous business of driving heavy inflammable loads for a living.
There many such paths to live a good enough life, educate the kids in town, take care of mums back home on the homestead. The informal economy does indeed offer the lowest barriers to entry into business.