Return to the main Informal Sector pages
The Informal Sector
Empowering the Informal Economy:
Strategies for Integration and Growth

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series C-047


The informal economy plays a vital role in the socioeconomic fabric of many developing countries, providing livelihoods for a significant portion of the population. However, it is often characterized by challenges such as limited access to finance, lack of social protection, and inadequate infrastructure.

To harness the potential of the informal sector and unlock its contributions to economic growth, it is crucial to implement effective strategies for its improvement and integration into the formal economy.

This paper explores ten key strategies that have been employed by developing countries worldwide to address these challenges and promote the growth and integration of the informal economic sector. From formalization and access to finance to education and training, infrastructure development, social protection, regulatory reforms, market access, technology adoption, collaboration and partnerships, and data collection and research, these strategies offer a comprehensive framework for supporting informal businesses and unlocking their potential.

By examining successful case studies and best practices, this paper aims to provide valuable insights for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers seeking to understand and enhance the informal sector's role in sustainable development.

Defining the Informal Sector

The informal sector refers to a segment of economic activities that operates outside the scope of formal regulations, structures, and protections. It encompasses a diverse range of economic activities, typically characterized by a lack of legal recognition, limited access to formal financial systems, and minimal government oversight. The informal sector is often associated with self-employment, small-scale businesses, and informal employment arrangements.

In the informal sector, economic activities are predominantly carried out by individuals or small enterprises, often with limited capital and resources. These activities can include street vending, home-based businesses, small-scale agriculture, and informal labor arrangements such as casual work or day labor.

The informal sector plays a significant role in many economies, particularly in developing countries, and is often a vital source of employment, income generation, and livelihoods for a large portion of the population.

The informal sector operates within its own distinct set of dynamics, which can differ significantly from the formal economy. Informal businesses typically face challenges such as limited access to credit, lack of legal protection, restricted market access, and reduced social security benefits.

However, they also exhibit flexibility, adaptability, and entrepreneurial spirit. Understanding the informal sector is crucial for policymakers, as it allows for targeted interventions, policy formulation, and the development of strategies to improve the well-being and productivity of those involved in informal economic activities.

The size of the urban informal sector can vary significantly across countries and regions. In many developing countries, the informal sector tends to be substantial, often representing a significant portion of urban economic activity and employment. Estimates suggest that in some countries, the informal sector can account for a significant percentage of urban employment, ranging from around 40% to 80%.

For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal sector has been reported to employ a significant proportion of the urban population, often exceeding the size of the formal sector. In countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, the urban informal sector is a major source of employment and income for many urban dwellers.

Challenges in Developing Policies for the Informal Sector

Developing policies for the informal sector poses several challenges. Firstly, the heterogeneity of the sector, encompassing a wide range of activities and diverse workers, makes it difficult to design policies that address the specific needs and dynamics of each segment. Policymakers must navigate this complexity to ensure that policies effectively cater to the varied characteristics and circumstances within the informal sector.

Secondly, the lack of reliable data and the informal nature of many businesses hinder policymakers' ability to gather accurate information and make informed decisions. Without comprehensive data, policymakers face challenges in understanding the contributions, challenges, and potential impacts of policy interventions in the informal sector. Finding ways to collect accurate and up-to-date data is crucial for evidence-based policymaking.

Thirdly, balancing formalization efforts with the inherent characteristics of the informal sector is a delicate task. Policies need to strike a balance between encouraging formalization, which provides legal recognition and protection, and preserving the entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility, and affordability of informal businesses. Striking this balance requires careful consideration of the potential impacts of formalization on informal businesses and finding ways to minimize unintended negative consequences.

To address these challenges, policymakers should prioritize comprehensive understanding of the informal sector, stakeholder engagement, flexible policy approaches, and continuous monitoring and evaluation. By adopting these strategies, policymakers can develop effective policies that promote the well-being, growth, and formalization of the informal sector while considering its unique dynamics and characteristics.

Strategies for Integration and Growth of the Informal Sector

While countries initially looked at the informal sector as a "nuisance" sector that has to be "eradicated," more recent approaches by governments have focused on developing policies that help in supporting the informal sector and providing services that help foster its formalizing and growth.


Figure 1: Ten Strategies for Intergration and Growth

Good practices have illustrated ten strategies in this direction - Formalization, access to finance, education and training, infrastructure and basic services, social protection, regulatory framework, market access, technology adoption, collaboration and partnerships, and data collection and research. Each of these startegies are discussed below with examples.


1. Formalization:

Informal sector enterprises face a number of challenges such as the lack of legal recognition and limited access to resources, markets, and support. Formalization aims to provide legitimacy and enable growth opportunities for informal businesses. This can be done through simplified registration processes, reduced bureaucracy, and offering incentives such as tax breaks or access to financial services.

Encourage and facilitate the formalization of informal businesses.

  • Simplifying registration processes for informal businesses, reducing paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles.
  • Offering tax breaks or incentives to informal businesses that formalize their operations.
  • Providing support services and guidance to assist informal businesses in transitioning to the formal sector.

  • In Peru, the government launched the "Formaliza PerE program, which simplified the registration process for informal businesses. It introduced a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs can register their businesses quickly and easily, reducing bureaucracy and paperwork.
  • In India, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation aimed to bring informal businesses into the formal sector. By providing incentives and streamlining the taxation system, it encouraged informal businesses to register and comply with formal requirements.
  • In Nigeria, the Lagos State government initiated the "Register-to-Open" campaign, allowing informal businesses affected by COVID-19 restrictions to register and obtain necessary permits. The campaign aimed to bring them into the formal economy and provide them with access to government support programs.

  • 2. Access to finance:

    Informal enterprises have limited access to formal banking service, including sdavings and loans: limited ability to secure credit or access financial services, which hinders their growth and development. By improving access to credit and financial services, informal businesses can overcome these obstacles and effectively invest in their operations and expansion.

    This can be achieved through microfinance initiatives, creating specialized loan programs, or establishing partnerships with financial institutions to develop tailored financial products for informal entrepreneurs.

    Enhance access to credit and financial services for informal businesses.

    • Establishing microfinance initiatives specifically designed for informal businesses, offering small loans and financial services.
    • Creating specialized loan programs with flexible repayment terms tailored to the needs of informal entrepreneurs.
    • Partnering with financial institutions to develop financial products that cater to the unique requirements of informal businesses.

  • Bangladesh has successfully implemented microfinance initiatives like Grameen Bank, which specifically target informal entrepreneurs. Grameen Bank provides small loans to women in rural areas, enabling them to start or expand their businesses and improve their livelihoods.
  • Kenya's M-PESA mobile money platform has facilitated access to financial services for informal businesses. It allows entrepreneurs to save, borrow, and transfer money easily, providing them with the necessary financial tools to grow their businesses.
  • In Colombia, the government launched the "Bancamú}" program, which offers microloans to informal entrepreneurs who lack access to traditional banking services. The program provides financial resources and training to support the growth and formalization of their businesses.

  • 3. Education and training:

    Most informal workers do not have sufficient educational and vocational skills to efficiently carry put their work: lack of access to formal education and skills development, which can hinder their productivity and competitiveness.

    By providing training and capacity-building programs, informal workers can acquire essential skills and knowledge necessary for better business management, financial literacy, marketing, and overall improved productivity. This can include business management, financial literacy, marketing, and other relevant skills to enhance their productivity and competitiveness.

    Provide training and capacity-building programs to improve the skills and knowledge of informal workers.

    • Conducting business management workshops to improve entrepreneurial skills and knowledge of informal workers.
    • Offering financial literacy training to help informal entrepreneurs manage their finances effectively.
    • Providing marketing training and workshops to enhance the marketing capabilities of informal businesses.

  • The Philippines implemented the "Kapatid Mentor ME" program, which provides training and mentoring to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), including informal businesses. The program offers modules on business management, marketing, and financial literacy to enhance the skills and knowledge of informal entrepreneurs.
  • In Brazil, the National Service for Industrial Learning (SENAI) offers vocational training programs for informal workers. These programs provide training in technical skills, such as welding, carpentry, and sewing, enabling informal workers to acquire formal certifications and improve their employability.
  • Uganda's "Skilling Uganda" initiative focuses on providing vocational training and entrepreneurship development to informal workers. The program offers training in various sectors, including agriculture, construction, and hospitality, equipping informal entrepreneurs with the necessary skills to enhance their productivity and income.

  • 4. Infrastructure and basic services:

    There are a number of broader urban infrastructure services that informal sector enterprises face, including the locational disadvantages - as most are located in slums and squatter settlements. Here they face a lack of reliable utilities, transportation, and communication networks, which can hinder the productivity and growth of informal businesses.

    By improving infrastructure, these businesses can reduce operational costs, increase efficiency, and be incentivized to formalize their operations. Improving infrastructure can reduce costs, enhance productivity, and attract more informal businesses to formalize.

    Invest in infrastructure development, including access to reliable utilities, transportation, and communication networks.

    • Investing in the development of reliable utilities such as electricity, water, and sanitation services.
    • Improving transportation networks to facilitate the movement of goods and services for informal businesses.
    • Expanding access to communication networks, including internet and mobile services, to enhance connectivity for informal entrepreneurs.

  • In Rwanda, the government has invested in improving infrastructure, including the construction of roads, electricity networks, and water supply systems in rural areas. These efforts have facilitated the movement of goods and services, reduced transportation costs, and attracted informal businesses to formalize their operations.
  • The government of Indonesia launched the "Village Infrastructure Development" program, which focuses on providing basic infrastructure such as roads, irrigation systems, and electricity to rural areas. This initiative has enabled informal businesses in these areas to access reliable utilities and expand their operations.

  • 5. Social protection:

    Implement social safety nets and social security systems to protect informal workers and their families. This can include healthcare, retirement plans, and other forms of social protection to provide a safety net and reduce vulnerability.

    Implement social safety nets and social security systems to protect informal workers and their families.

    • Implementing healthcare programs that provide affordable and accessible healthcare services to informal workers.
    • Establishing retirement plans or pension schemes to ensure long-term financial security for informal workers.
    • Introducing social security systems that offer protection against income shocks and economic vulnerabilities for informal workers and their families.

  • Brazil's Bolsa Famú‰ia program has played a significant role in providing social protection to informal workers and their families. The program offers cash transfers to low-income households, including those involved in the informal sector, helping to alleviate poverty and reduce vulnerabilities.
  • South Africa's Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) provides support to informal workers by offering unemployment benefits and maternity benefits. This social protection system aims to mitigate income shocks and provide a safety net for informal workers during times of financial uncertainty.
  • In India, the National Health Protection Scheme, also known as Ayushman Bharat, provides health insurance coverage to informal workers and their families. The scheme ensures access to quality healthcare services and protects informal workers from high medical expenses.

  • 6. Regulatory framework:

    Due to the inherent disadvantageous position of the working conditions, informal workers face a lack to broader social services such as of access to healthcare, retirement plans, and other forms of social security, which leaves them vulnerable to economic shocks and reduces their overall well-being.

    By implementing social safety nets and social security systems, informal workers and their families can have access to essential benefits and protection, promoting their economic stability and reducing vulnerability. This may involve creating flexible regulations that consider the unique nature of informal activities while ensuring basic standards of safety, quality, and fair competition.

    Review and adapt regulatory frameworks to accommodate the needs and characteristics of informal businesses.

    • Adapting regulations to accommodate the specific needs and characteristics of informal businesses, without compromising safety and quality standards.
    • Creating a simplified and flexible regulatory framework that allows informal businesses to operate legally and comply with basic requirements.
    • Introducing mechanisms to ensure fair competition between formal and informal businesses, while protecting the rights of informal workers.

  • In Thailand, the government introduced the "Easy Formality" program to create a simplified regulatory framework for informal businesses. The program streamlined the process of obtaining permits and licenses, making it easier for informal entrepreneurs to operate within the legal framework.
  • Ghana established the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI), which focuses on developing policies and regulations that support the growth of informal businesses. The NBSSI advocates for the interests of informal entrepreneurs and ensures that regulations are tailored to their needs and challenges.
  • The city of Medellú‹ in Colombia implemented a "Single Window" system, which allows informal businesses to fulfill regulatory requirements in a simplified and efficient manner. The system consolidates the administrative processes for business registration, taxation, and licensing, reducing the burden on informal entrepreneurs.

  • 7. Market access:

    Due to the informality of their business operations, enterprises in the informal sector have limited ability to reach broader markets, lack of market information, and limited networking opportunities.

    By promoting linkages with formal enterprises, providing market information, and supporting networking opportunities, informal entrepreneurs can expand their customer base, improve market presence, and overcome barriers to market entry. This can help informal entrepreneurs expand their customer base and enhance their market presence.

    Facilitate market access for informal businesses by promoting linkages with formal enterprises, providing market information, and supporting networking opportunities.

    • Organizing trade fairs or exhibitions where informal businesses can showcase their products and connect with potential customers.
    • Providing market information and analysis to informal entrepreneurs to help them identify market opportunities and trends.
    • Facilitating networking events and platforms that bring together informal and formal businesses for collaboration and partnership opportunities.

  • In Ethiopia, the government launched the "One Stop Shop" initiative to connect informal businesses with formal enterprises. The program creates platforms and networking opportunities where informal entrepreneurs can showcase their products and establish business linkages with larger companies.
  • The Philippines' Department of Trade and Industry established "Negosyo Centers" across the country to provide support and market access to informal businesses. These centers offer business advisory services, market information, and opportunities for partnerships with formal enterprises.
  • Mexico's "Tianguis Turúticos" initiative promotes market access for informal businesses in the tourism sector. The program organizes events and exhibitions where informal entrepreneurs can showcase their products and services to national and international buyers

  • 8. Technology adoption:

    Informal enterprises face limited access to digital tools, lack of digital skills, and reduced efficiency and competitiveness in the digital era. By promoting the adoption of digital technologies and e-commerce platforms, informal businesses can improve their operational efficiency, expand their market reach, and enhance their competitiveness in the digital marketplace. This can include providing training on digital skills, supporting the development of online marketplaces, and improving access to affordable technology.

    Encourage the adoption of digital technologies and e-commerce platforms to enhance the efficiency and competitiveness of informal businesses.

    • Offering training programs on digital skills and technologies relevant to the operations of informal businesses.
    • Supporting the development of online marketplaces where informal entrepreneurs can sell their products or services.
    • Improving access to affordable technology devices and internet connectivity for informal businesses to leverage digital tools effectively.

  • In Kenya, the government launched the "Digital Literacy Program," which aims to equip informal entrepreneurs with digital skills. The program provides training on using computers, smartphones, and digital platforms, enabling informal businesses to leverage technology for improved efficiency and market reach.
  • The e-Emprende program in Colombia offers digital training and resources to informal entrepreneurs. The program focuses on teaching digital marketing, e-commerce, and online branding, empowering informal businesses to embrace digital technologies and expand their customer base.
  • India's Digital India initiative has made significant strides in promoting technology adoption among informal businesses. The program aims to provide affordable internet access, digital tools, and training to informal entrepreneurs, enabling them to leverage e-commerce platforms and digital payment systems.

  • 9. Collaboration and partnerships:

    Challenges faced by informal enterprises include fragmented efforts and limited resources available to support their business activities. By promoting collaboration and partnerships, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector can leverage their expertise, share resources, and work together to address the diverse needs of the informal sector in a more comprehensive and effective manner. Collaboration can help leverage expertise, share best practices, and ensure a comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of the informal sector.

    Foster partnerships between government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to coordinate efforts and resources for supporting informal businesses.

    • Establishing partnerships between government agencies and non-governmental organizations to provide comprehensive support to informal businesses.
    • Collaborating with private sector entities to leverage their expertise and resources for the benefit of informal entrepreneurs.
    • Creating platforms for knowledge sharing and best practice exchange among stakeholders involved in supporting the informal sector.

  • In Kenya, the Micro and Small Enterprises Authority (MSEA) collaborates with non-governmental organizations and private sector entities to support informal businesses. The MSEA leverages partnerships to provide training, access to finance, and market linkages, fostering a comprehensive approach to supporting the informal sector.
  • The Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (SMEDA) in Pakistan works in collaboration with international development partners and local organizations to offer support services to informal businesses. These collaborations ensure a coordinated effort to address the needs of the informal sector and provide targeted assistance.
  • The Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) has established partnerships with various stakeholders, including government agencies, financial institutions, and industry associations, to promote the growth of informal businesses. These partnerships facilitate knowledge sharing, resource mobilization, and the implementation of supportive policies and programs

  • 10. Data collection and research:

    A lack of broader understanding of the key roles of the informal sector, and how informal enterprises operate results in a lack of comprehensive and accurate data, which hampers effective policymaking and understanding of the sector's economic contributions. By investing in data collection and research, policymakers can make informed decisions, design targeted interventions, and gain a better understanding of the informal sector's dynamics and its impact on the overall economy. This can inform policy decisions, facilitate evidence-based interventions, and improve the overall understanding of the sector's contribution to the economy.

    Invest in data collection and research to better understand the dynamics and impact of the informal sector.

    • Conducting surveys and studies to collect data on the characteristics, contributions, and challenges faced by the informal sector.
    • Investing in research projects that analyze the impact of informal businesses on the economy and identify strategies for their integration.
    • Collaborating with research institutions and universities to generate insights and recommendations for policy-making based on reliable data.

  • The National Institute of Statistics and Census in Argentina conducts surveys and research on the informal sector to gather data on its characteristics and contributions. This data helps inform policy decisions and interventions aimed at improving the situation of informal workers.
  • The National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria regularly conducts surveys and studies to assess the size and impact of the informal sector. The data collected guides policymakers in designing strategies to support informal businesses and enhance their integration into the formal economy.
  • The Center for Economic and Social Research in Egypt conducts research on the informal sector to understand its dynamics and inform policy development. The research findings contribute to evidence-based interventions and strategies to address the challenges faced by informal businesses.
  • The strategies outlined in this paper demonstrate that improving the informal economic sector requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses its unique challenges while fostering its integration into the formal economy. Formalization initiatives, enhanced access to finance, education and training programs, infrastructure development, social protection mechanisms, regulatory adaptations, facilitated market access, technology adoption, collaboration and partnerships, and data collection and research all play crucial roles in empowering informal businesses and unlocking their potential.

    These strategies, as showcased through various cases from developing countries worldwide, highlight the importance of tailored interventions and comprehensive support systems. By embracing these strategies, policymakers can foster an enabling environment that nurtures the growth, productivity, and resilience of the informal economy.

    Moreover, recognizing the contributions and potential of the informal sector not only enhances livelihoods and reduces poverty but also contributes to sustainable and inclusive economic development. It is through the collective efforts of governments, civil society, and the private sector that the informal economy can truly thrive, ultimately leading to a more equitable and prosperous society.


    References

    De Soto, H. (1989). The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World. Harper & Row.

    Hart, K. (1973). Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 11(1), 61-89.

    ILO (International Labour Organization). (2013). Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture (2nd ed.). Retrieved from

    Portes, A., Castells, M., & Benton, L. (1989). The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries. Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Schneider, F. (2014). The Shadow Economy and Work in the Shadow: What Do We (Not) Know? IZA Discussion Paper No. 8278. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2472213

    Creative Commons License
    This work by GDRC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. You are free to share and adapt this piece of work for your own purposes, as long as it is appropriately cited. More info: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/


    on

    Return to Informal Sector
    Comments and suggestions - hsrinivas@gdrc.org