“Don’t learn about us, without us”

“Don’t learn about us, without us”

What methodologies and mindsets might we need to enable learning with and from an ecosystem the size of a country? How might different tools, techniques, and principles empower hundreds of citizens and organisations to contribute to and benefit from research?

These are some of the big questions we asked ourselves when working with TRANSFORM to design our approach to the “Future of Work in the Informal Economy” project. Our goal has been to understand the current realities and future possibilities for the millions of entrepreneurial Kenyans who hustle to sustain livelihoods across the informal economy (read more about the context of the work here).

TRANSFORM, Procol Africa, Busara, Laterite, Ideas Unplugged, and Brink have collaborated throughout, co-designing participatory and equitable approaches to surfacing, generating, and sharing evidence.

These are some of the ways that we've been using the power of collectives to learn about the future of the informal economy in Kenya:

Enabling  key stakeholders to shape the focus of our work:

Given the size and diversity of the informal economy in Kenya, we had to narrow our focus. By consulting with 40 experts, we narrowed an initial list of 9 possible sectors down to 5, prioritising based on the sector's current size and future potential, its importance to women and youth, the prevalence of knowledge gaps, and its priority in terms of urban policy. 

We then hosted a deeper prioritisation workshop with key ecosystem actors. In the workshop, we presented an overview of key data about the segments, before participants took part in a preferential voting system. The group voted for their preferred market segment across three rounds of voting, with the participant’s highest preference segment being selected and then eliminated from the next round. 

Voting decisions were therefore informed and influenced by three things: firstly a participant's existing insight and experience; secondly, the market segment data and analysis that we shared in the workshop; and thirdly, in thinking about the overall shape of our project, later voting decisions were influenced by the segments already selected. The results were: Agri-Business (44% of Round 1 votes), Food Service Providers (44% of Round 2 votes), and Creatives and Entertainment (37.5% of Round 3 votes).

In October and November 2023, we spoke with and learned from 400 Kenyans who own businesses within the informal economy across the Nairobi metropolitan area, Mombasa County, and Kisumu County. The wisdom, ideas, and reflections of these 400 Kenyans were gathered through a combination of phone interviews, in-person in-depth conversations, and focus group discussions. 

This expansive primary data collection revealed the reality of the daily lives of typical Kenyan entrepreneurs within the informal economy. Specifically, we spoke about the types of work they are engaging in, their business models, their needs and challenges, their aspirations, and their thoughts on the future of work in the informal economy. At this scale, their contributions have enabled us to recognise trends across and differences between the market segments, as well as to understand more about people’s varying experiences based on gender, age, and other characteristics.

“it was the best…our voices are being heard…I’m happy and looking forward to another forum.” (A focus group participant)

Using a series of interactive “Partner and Learn” events to make decisions, test findings, and shape recommendations:

To ensure our research was meeting ecosystem needs and was informed by ecosystem stakeholders, we hosted a series of five virtual “Partner and Learn” events between July 2023 and January 2024. The Partner and Learn events were intentional about convening a multidisciplinary group of stakeholders with either interest or expertise in the informal economy in Kenya.

These events were interactive by design and included break-out room conversations, polls, and open discussions with key decisions about our work being genuinely made by the stakeholders at those events. Overall, the Partner and Learn events welcomed active participation from 100 people (plus 8 regular AI-bot attendees), who together pooled their knowledge about the informal economy to drive decisions about our research questions, to test our assumptions and findings, and to shape our results and recommendations.

Training Citizen Scientists to lead research design and data collection in their areas:

We used a combination of citizen science research and participatory evidence approaches so that women, young people, and marginalised groups in particular, weren’t just subjects in this work but active participants, contributors, and decision-makers. We trained ten people in citizen science techniques, transforming their capacities in critical reflection and dialogue, research design, data collection, and data management. 

Once trained, our ten citizen scientists researched the three market segments in their areas and built a database of key stakeholders for each segment. Following this, they facilitated workshops about the notion of ‘prosperity’ and what it means in the context of the Kenyan informal economy and then carried out in-depth interviews. In total, our citizen scientists engaged over 100 key informants.

Our incredible citizen scientists, together with their trainer

Hosting "Co-Design Meet-ups" to dream about the future, together:

Following the incredible work of the citizen scientists, we then hosted a series of in-person learning, validation, and co-creation meet-ups in Kisumu, Mombasa, and Nairobi. The design and delivery of the meet-ups were focused on diversity and inclusivity throughout - among other things, we facilitated the meet-ups in multiple languages, enabling 60 informal economy entrepreneurs to join us and actively participate throughout.

During the meet-ups, informal economy entrepreneurs reflected on our findings so far, co-created a series of ‘better future’ vision statements, and identified and co-designed possible pathways and interventions for working towards those better futures.

A group deep in conversation at one of our meet-ups

Ultimately, we have demonstrated the value of learning “with” and “for”:

We gathered insights from a diverse cross-section of the ecosystem, hearing from over 700 individuals. This comprehensive collective approach has improved the quality and rigour of the work by ensuring that a multifaceted understanding of the informal economies dynamics, challenges, and aspirations has emerged through genuine dialogue and co-creation.

Our understanding of the future of work in Kenya's informal economy has emerged through collective learning and intelligence, and has been driven by a core principle for research here at Brink: rather than only learning “from” or “about”, we also always learn “with” and “for”.

Thanks to our incredible partners and every single one of the 700+ people who have been integral parts of this journey so far.

TRANSFORM, alongside Brink, Laterite, Procol Africa, Busara, Ideas Unplugged, and partners from across the ecosystem, invite you to our hybrid launch event.

We will share insights from our 9-month participatory research journey in collaboration with 700+ informal economy entrepreneurs and stakeholders. Uncover their stories, understand their challenges, and be part of shaping a thriving future for Kenya’s informal economy.

If you’re in Nairobi and can join us in person, sign up here: In-Person Launch Event

If you’re from anywhere else then you can join us online, sign up here: Online Launch Event

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!