The Future of Work in the Informal Economy

A road lined with eclectic businesses in Nairobi, at nighttim

Picture this stark reality - across the African continent, nearly 280 million people are navigating the daily rhythm of life without enough food. A staggering 600 million still don’t have access to electricity, and hundreds of millions are without access to basic necessities. Approximately a third of the continent's 420 million youth are unemployed, and women are less likely to be in work than men. 

Our formal economies are struggling to create the opportunities that are needed to help alleviate poverty levels. What’s more, they are also struggling to respond to people’s ambitions and energy to create a better future for themselves.

So what is the alternative? The vibrant informal sector is driven by energetic, entrepreneurial, yet mostly invisible people doing and dreaming big things! The informal business sector, it is argued, is the next frontier in Africa and is a major source of employment across the continent -  yet it has not quite reached its full potential.

The informal economy plays a major role in supporting the livelihoods of up to 85% of sub-Saharan Africans and does so with very little support. The urban informal economy in particular is identified as an important contributor to poverty alleviation and is expected to continue playing a pivotal role for the foreseeable future.

Kenya’s invisible 83%

Kenya’s informal economy employs five times more workers and in 2022 created jobs seven times faster than the formal economy. Almost half of workers (44%) in the informal economy are aged 15-34, and over half (58.5%) of informal enterprises in Kenya are owned by women.

Our earlier research, on the Repair and Reuse Economy in Kenya (2022) engaged over 450 stakeholders and revealed a thriving but invisible sector lacking crucial data, incentives, clarity on different business models, and more. We heard how many operating in this space rely on multiple side hustles across various sectors to survive, and face challenges such as negative perceptions and limited access to finance.

Now, in collaboration with TRANSFORM and our local Kenyan research partners Laterite, ProCol Africa, and Busara, we are expanding this work to examine the informal economy in Kenya with a particular focus on women and youth.

Making the vibrant invisible, visible 

Our research hypothesis is that by understanding the wants and needs of people working within the informal economy, we will be better positioned to positively shape the future of work in Kenya. To test this, we’ve employed a mixed methods approach, blending co-creation, qualitative and quantitative research, and collective intelligence. 

Over two phases of work, we will be bringing people from across the ecosystem together, to map and surface deeper insights about selected informal economy sectors (phase 1), and then to collectively imagine the ‘Future of Work’ in Kenya, leading to actionable recommendations (phase 2).

Throughout, we will draw on the power of the collective, and continually build on evidence through collective learning and intelligence. We will regularly convene ecosystem stakeholders from across Kenya, facilitating group discussions to test insights and expand our thinking. By combining hard data with lived experiences, we will arrive at collective intelligence about the current realities and future of work within the informal economy that reflects locally rooted realities. Read more about what we’ve learned so far in this blog post.

Join the conversation: How you can get involved

In December, we are hosting in-person events in Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa. We always welcome connecting with stakeholders in Kenya and beyond who have something to say about the future of work in the informal economy, so please get in touch with us if you’d like to contribute to our ongoing conversation: [email protected]

Your input is invaluable as we collectively shape the narrative and contribute to a better future for the informal workforce.

Brink Foundation are proud to be delivering this project in collaboration with incredible partners

TRANSFORM unites corporates, donors, investors and academics to support visionary impact enterprises across Africa, Asia and beyond. Together, they test and scale new solutions that tackle environmental challenges, improve health and wellbeing, and build inclusive economies. Combining grant funding, business insight and research, TRANSFORM is accelerating the development of innovative business models to help solve global challenges. It was established in 2015 and is led by Unilever, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and EY. 

Busara works with researchers and organizations to advance and apply behavioural science in pursuit of poverty alleviation. Their approach to applied research seeks to directly help individuals towards more equitable and self-determined lives, to amplify their voices, and to help their partners and others to listen and respond to their voices.

Laterite specialises in research for social impact. Their approach is structured, data-intensive, and embedded in the local context. Laterite uses rigorous techniques to provide context-relevant evidence, combining technical excellence in quantitative and qualitative methods with a deep understanding of the local context.

PROCOL Africa is an innovative collaborative research programme seeking to broaden the discussion of what constitutes prosperity in Africa. Led by the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) at University College London in close collaboration with local partners, their research harnesses cutting-edge science, community knowledge, astute policy development, and participatory research methods to develop smarter, localised understandings of prosperity.

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