How to rev up informal industry in Kenya

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 28, 2017

The creation of high quality employment for Kenyans is a development priority for the country. Unfortunately, an increasing number of Kenyans are finding employment in the informal economy and there is growing informality in job creation. In 2015, 83 percent of employed Kenyans sat in the informal economy, in 2016 that jumped to about 90 percent.

According to the World Bank, labour productivity in Kenya is significantly higher in the formal than in the informal sector. Labour productivity, as measured by sales per worker, is higher in formal firms and thus unsurprisingly, more productive firms pay higher wages. This means the informal sector does not truly generate wealth for the 90 percent of Kenyans employed there. Additionally, in the formal manufacturing sector, job security is relatively high, with more than half of employees holding a permanent job. Contrast this with the informal sector where jobs tend to be seasonal with no benefits, poor working conditions, little social protection and low wages.

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However it is important to note that within the informal sector, the manufacturing sector is the most productive. According to the World Bank, informal manufacturers register more sales per worker than both informal agriculture and services; the furniture industry performs particularly well. In terms of firm growth, again, informal manufacturing leads where 31 percent of manufacturing firms experienced expansion in the past 3 years, compared with 24 percent of services firms.

Thus given that informal manufacturing is both the most productive and the sector expanding the fastest, why aren’t these features correlated with income and firm growth, and the creation of more jobs? This conundrum can be understood by unpacking three structural factors that work against the sector: capital, skills and business environment.

In terms of capital, internal funds serve as a source of financing for working capital for 86.8 percent of informal firms. Mainstream financiers, MFIs included, are reluctant to lend to the informal sector. Secondly, informal manufacturers tend to be inadequately skilled in terms of technical skills (i.e. carpentry, welding, use of technology etc), as well as financial and business management skills. Thirdly, informal firms work in a very difficult business environment. They have limited access to land and are targets for bribery and corruption; 60 percent of informal firms report harassment by government officials. The business environment is particularly onerous for informal manufacturers who work in very congested and dilapidated shacks with no protective gear, no water and sanitation systems, unreliable electricity and lighting, and no security provisions.

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All these factors explain why many firms remain informal and never scale and formalise and thus are stuck in a rut of low productivity and profitability. That said, informal manufacturing is a bright spot in the informal economy and thus can be the starting point for interventions aimed at increasing profitability and productivity. By addressing the three factors of capital, skills and business environment, informal manufacturers which are already star performers in the informal economy, can be an avenue for creating better managed business that generate wealth and employment for the country.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;



The Dualism Conundrum

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This article first appeared in my weekly column the Business Daily on August 17, 2015

Kenya, like many other African countries, has a dualism issue in the structure of its economy that informs the patterns of the economic development of the country. Although there are several forms of dualism active in the Kenyan (and African) economy, the article will focus on formal vs. informal dualism.

The formal sector of the economy comprises of activities that are captured in GDP statistics, tend to comply with legal and regulatory requirements (i.e. tax compliance, implementation of labour laws etc), offer jobs that are financially secure and tends to be the wealthier section of the economy. However, the informal sector exists as well.


Informal sector activities are typically not captured in official GDP figures, are often not officially registered, are not formally regulated, do not necessarily meet legal operational requirements and are typically not tax compliant. According to the IEA, in Kenya, the informal sector is estimated at 34.3% and accounts for 77% of employment. Over 60% of those working in the informal sector are youth aged between 18-35 years, 50% of which are women. In the East Africa region, the sector is the source of 85% to 90% of all non-farming employment opportunities. According to NORRAG, the informal sector is no longer confined, in terms of practice or as an image, to the road-side mechanic or dress maker, the sector now includes other areas such as ICT and related service enterprises. In fact the informal sector is now present in a wide range of business operations where skills are demanded and where opportunities for productive employment generation are found.

There are multiple implications of this formal vs. informal dualism; firstly the lack of clarity on the precise size of the informal sector translates to a lack of certainty with regards to the size of the Kenyan economy. Do GDP figures capture the informal sector? Although the informal sector is said to contribute about 18% of the GDP, is this a comprehensive figure? Is it understated or overstated? Is the economy is actually bigger or smaller than assumed? To what extent is the informal economy ‘guesstimated’ into official GDP figures? The ambiguity of the size of the informal sector means that Kenya does not really know how big the economy is; this then informs the accuracy of statistics such as the debt-to-GDP ratio that provide useful information on the extent to which the country is leveraged.


This formal vs. informal dualism also inform factors such as the ability of the country to move comprehensively in one direction. Policies and laws pertinent to the economy are mainly implemented and monitored with regards to the formal economy, leaving the informal behind. Other issues include social protection; workers in the informal economy are generally not covered by adequate social protection. This makes informal workers a vulnerable and sizable proportion of the Kenyan population.

Quality assurance is an additional issue. The formal economy tends to comply with established standards and quality norms; this is not necessarily the case in the informal sector. Some may meet industry standards while others do not; this has implications for consumer protection rights. Another issue is productivity; most informal sector players cannot afford analysis that informs them of the productivity of their enterprise. Thus inefficiencies are likely to continue in the informal sector, dragging down the sector’s efficiency.

Skills transfer is an additional issue of importance. While the government may change curricula in Universities and TVETs, this does not truly affect the informal economy as 60% and 73% of informal sector employees (with less than 20 employees) acquire their skills through apprenticeships. So the formal sector is likely to benefit for updates in curriculum while the informal sector does not. There are already implications to this dualism because, for example, apprentices in informal auto mechanics sub-sector have dropped sharply because many of the “older master mechanics” do not have skills to handle the “newer versions of injection engines”, they only know carburettor engines.


While there may be efforts being made to formalise the informal sector the reality is that there is limited incentive for the informal sector to do so. Formalisation is often an expensive process with registration fees, lawyer’s fees, social insurance payments for employees and, the big one, tax. Why should informal business owners formalise if the exercise will be expensive with limited benefits accrued?

In terms of a way forward, the informal sector in Kenya should develop Informal Sector Associations, as seen in West Africa, which are tuned into skills updating and allow for an easier track of emerging training needs. Such associations also allow for self-regulation, make it easier for interventions to be implemented and facilitate easier and a more accurate monitoring and analysis of the sector.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; email: