How informal economy tackles middle class trap

How informal economy tackles middle class trap

In African countries where agriculture is a major socio-economic activity, policymakers and development agencies seem determined to move economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing.

Source: How informal economy tackles middle class trap – NewsDay Zimbabwe March 15, 2017

The whole discourse around value addition suggests a strong desire to get rid of informal marketing of agricultural commodities and convert all commodities into manufactured products which can be bought and sold in supermarkets or exported as finished goods.
While that sounds logical and sensible, there is evidence showing that such a transition will not by-pass the informal economy.


Lessons from South Africa’s middle class trap

What the South African economy is going through is an important indicator of the fact that a distinct development approach unique to African contexts should not ignore the informal economy. By embracing the Western model of economic development, South Africa has become locked into a middle class trap without realising it. The country is now being forced to develop agriculture as a second economy because the current industrial system has no room for the majority of people to participate as economic actors. Inequality, poverty and unemployment are increasing, due to deep structural challenges imposed by the Western model of economic development. The domestic market is too small for the level of industrialisation that has been provoked in South Africa.

You cannot be a successful manufacturing country when the domestic market cannot afford what you are producing. Due to insufficient local buying power, South Africa has reached the limits of its industrialisation. It is now trying to use the supermarket model to break out of structural economic challenges. That is why South African supermarket chains are spreading their wings into neighbouring African countries and as far as East Africa. In an aggressive effort to broaden demand for products from its sprawling industrial sector, South African supermarkets are getting into countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and others where local companies cannot compete due to poor supply chains.

Besides triggering resentment in the business circles of neighbouring countries, the supermarket model is not sustainable because the middle class in those countries is too small to sustain levels of production in South Africa. The supermarket model focuses on meeting the needs of the middle class, who earn more than $4/day. On the other hand, the majority of African consumers earn less than $1/day. That class does not go to supermarkets, but resort to the informal market. No wonder the informal market is expanding in many African countries. Manufacturing is a good idea, but once it puts finished products beyond the reach of the majority of consumers, it stops contributing to economic growth. It becomes big business without growth or employment creation and that is not sustainable at all.

The importance of fully understanding domestic markets

Assuming developing countries are determined to move completely from raw commodities to manufactured agricultural products, it is critical to fully understand the domestic market, before exploring foreign markets which tend to be highly competitive and antagonistic. You cannot talk of value addition without an accurate sense of how much stocks are available in domestic markets per given period. Every country should strive to know the local demand for each of its commodities ranging from horticulture, field crops and livestock. Such intelligence should be disaggregated according to population, buying power, class, age, gender, consumer taste, consumption patterns and other important factors. Where consumption of particular commodities is going up or down or remaining stagnant, reasons should be teased out in order to inform socio-economic decisions.

Diversifying sources of evidence

While much of the practical socio-economic wisdom is now within the informal economy, economists and financial advisors in developing countries are still reluctant or unable to learn from this important sector. They prefer sticking to textbook knowledge which, unfortunately, is being borrowed from the West where the context is different. Like all truth, knowledge from the informal economy is likely to be ridiculed first, violently opposed and then finally accepted as self-evident. One of the reasons this knowledge is being ignored is because it flies in the face of what is considered common sense in academic and policy circles. Having invested a lot of resources into what they think is knowledge, it is difficult for formal knowledge systems to accept that reliable knowledge can be found in unexpected places like informal markets. However, developing countries do not have the luxury of letting such important knowledge languish in obscurity when it can provide the much-needed solutions.
eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6


  • comment-avatar
    Morty Smith 1 year

    What is missing from almost all “development” discussions is the essential criminality of most African governments.

    Ruwanda is far from perfect, but does give an example of how quickly development can take place when the political elite does not steal everything in sight

  • comment-avatar
    Mazano Rewayi 1 year

    Our underdevelopment has very little to do with how well we analyse our socio-economic situation. Collectively, we just do not do enough for own our development, believing instead that the kindness and efforts of others will take us to Canaan. We do not value our products and are always thinking of running away. We are basically lazy, selfish, think only of the “here and now” and give up too easily. We are cry babies who always blame someone or something for our predicament – colonialism, politicians, drought, Satan and God are all guilty of making our life s**t, NEVER ourselves. We are too quick to find excuses for not doing the right thing. The fault is entirely ourselves that we are underlings and the laughing stock of the world. We just need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Eventually hard working and honest leaders will emerge to take us to the next level. For now the “leaders” we blame are just a reflection of the society that we allow ourselves to be. To develop we need to change our attitude to life.