Image 1: Traders and Transport Options on the Border of Kenya and Uganda. Photo credit: Niti Bhan.
Upon reading the Emerging Future's Lab newly released report Borderland Biashara (2016), you will quickly realize that everything you think you know about trade and the informal economy on the Kenya/Uganda borderlands is probably wrong.
I have always been interested in what is labeled the informal economy. As an African American, de facto segregation and discrimination meant that my parents, and especially grandparents, operated in the informal economy. They hailed gypsy cabs before there was Uber. One grandfather was a money lender, so there was a preference to deal in cash not bank accounts. Wages could be paid under the table. Holiday presents may have "fallen off a truck." They operated in a gray zone of legality and illegality, when American laws were prejudicial against black people.
I more directly experienced the informal economy when I spent my formal anthropology career in East Africa (1993-1999), specifically in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. But this was before the cultural shifts happening in Africa due to access to mobile technologies. To understand the dynamic quality of entrepreneurship on the Kenya and Uganda border today, you must read the Borderland Biashara Report because it does two things extremely well.
First, the report does an excellent job of providing an in depth description of the interconnections between personal relationships, which, by definition of being part of the informal economy, are not mediated by formal contracts, and the success of a trader's business. This is due to the ethnographic approach of the research team: Niti Bhan, Emerging Future's Lab Director, Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate.
One of the key insights of the report is HOW different kinds of informal traders improve the quality of their family, financial, transport, information technology, and customer networks in order to improve their businesses. You could feel the hustle and bustle of the traders' various socially-driven economic activities whether it is calling, texting, or transferring money on M-pesa for agents or family on their mobile phones; visiting a supplier via a matatu, or sitting under a specific tree where customers will know where to find them. Good social networks are good business.
Second, the report selects a trader segment, which the team calls the Hidden Middle, as a focus for their nuanced analysis of the relationship between formal and informal structures in support of the traders' business. I hate to break it to the banks out there hoping to cash in on the informal economy in Kenya and Uganda--you are seen to provide limited ROI in terms of these trader's business value and your fees make no sense. The team's insights into Hidden Middle's optimization of both systems present a break through for those in development to understand when formalization works or does not work as a driver of entrepreneurship.
The Emerging Future's Lab Borderland Biashara Report demonstrates the best of what design thinking--although I think their work is more aligned with my seven principles of design anthropology--can do in helping organizations to better understand the dynamics and non-exploitative opportunities that exist in various alternative economies in the world. I hope to see the team presenting their report at all the design and ethnography conferences next year (EPIC, Core77, HOW Design Live, Ico-D) in recognition of their project's accomplishments.