After listening to Micro and Small Enterprise owners during a recent presidential roundtable on Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) at Strathmore University in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta refused to read his speech. After considering the mismatch between policy and reality on the ground, the president claimed that he did not want to be embarrassed. The president openly acknowledged that the speech he was about to read misrepresented the story of MSEs in the national economy and their relationship with the government.
The misrepresentation of MSEs is not unusual in everyday development and academic discourse. It began with the work of Keith Hart and ILO in the 1970s when the MSE sector was labeled as the informal sector. According to Keith Hart and ILO, the informal sector has the following attributes: ease of entry, reliance on indigenous resources, family ownership, small scale of operation, labour intensiveness, adapted technologies, and acquisition of skills skills outside the formal school system. Keith and ILO observe that the formal sector’s attributes include: difficulties in entry, reliance on overseas resources, corporate ownership, large scale of operation, capital intensiveness, imported technologies, formally acquired skills, and protected markets (through tariffs, quota and trade license).
Keith and ILO recommended the formalization of the informal sector as a development strategy. This marked the beginning of the misrepresentation of the MSEs. While the attributes of the informal sector represented an indigenous strategy that was ubiquitous and would save on foreign exchange, African governments were advised to embrace the formal sector instead of promoting the informal sector.
The other misrepresentation of the MSE happened when the sector was identified as a safety net for shielding people from the adverse effects of the structural adjustment programs. The development strategy adopted during this neoliberal period entailed further intensive formalization. Programs included the World Bank Voucher training program as well as the supply of equipment and demonstration centers by UNDP among others. The government’s effort to establish technical training institutions and to accord sheds to jua kali artisans to operate was based on the premise that the Jua kali was a faulty sector which needed reform and guidance.
The MSE sector can contribute greatly towards the revival of our economy if it is allowed to tell its own story that elite development and academic professionals should be willing to listen to and learn from. In Gikomba, in particular, the elite should learn how the ‘camera’ auction works for both the seller and customers. Mechanical engineers should be able to work with Kamukunji metal workers to improve on structural designs of items and implements. Fashion designers, models and textile engineers should visit Uhuru and Kariokoo markets and work towards standardization of sizes and improvement in colour and fashion of the items produced.
Elite development and academic professionals need to learn how MSEs build communities that harness human agency and creativity. Producing goods in Uhuru, Kariokoo, Gikomba and Kamukunji involves setting rules and regulations for maintaining fairness and order in production and exchange. The informal sector’s ability to form communities helps it in resolving conflicts and garnering the courage to go on in the context of hardship and violation by the development, academic and political elites.
It is also important to understand the MSEs philosophy on wealth and wellbeing. That means understanding their values and norms about gifting, sharing and reciprocity in determining wealth and wellbeing.
There is need to understanding how learning takes place in the MSE clusters. What kind of pedagogy is transferred? How is it transferred and delivered? What are the rewards and punishments? How is order maintained?
By learning from this subaltern knowledge, we shall know how to engage with them without feeling embarrassed. We shall be able to design workable programs that will enhance the sector rather than try to change it. The MSE are part of our solutions for development. We need to understand their story and stop misrepresenting them in our development, academic and political discourse. This will serve as our basis for technical and vocational education.
By Njeri Kinyanjui PhD
Author of Coffee Time, Vyama Institutions of Hope, and Women in the Informal Economy in Urban Africa: From the Margins to the Centre.