The informal journey to experimentation

A snapshot of our first experiment — by Shamiso Ruzvidzo, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab in Zimbabwe

Walking down the streets of Harare or any other city in Zimbabwe you can’t help but be enveloped by street vendors going about their day and selling you everything from bananas, belts to carpentry services. But it’s not what meets the eye that’s surprising, it’s the fact that the informal sector contributes 60% to Zimbabwe’s GDP. Zimbabwe is known to have the second largest informal sector in the World, and there is no question that an “economy” is bubbling there and no set formula seems to apply.

Street vendor sells his merchandise

Today the informal economy appears to be as important as ever to Africa and its future development, which has led to renewed interest by policy-makers, social partners, development practitioners and researchers in developing effective policies for transitions to formality. But how do you approach a sector that is a minefield of issues, challenges and opportunities, with the goal to formalise? Researchers say with the right incentive mechanisms it has the potential to transform economies.

The informal sector represents an untapped reservoir of entrepreneurial energy that if fully harnessed, could contribute towards sustainable and pro-poor development — Prosper Chitambara: Labour & economic development research institute of Zimbabwe (Ledriz)

Unlocking the issues and drivers

Huddled in a building in central Harare, with the sounds of the streets enveloping us, the Zimbabwe AccLab brought together various stakeholders to unpack the formal-informal sector nexus. Collectively the stakeholders, which included Harare city council, government representatives, vendor associations and vendors explored various challenges and opportunities related to informal trading.

Collectively unpacking the drivers

Although the informal sector is a spectrum of services, the Lab for the issue mapping exercise chose to zone in on street vendors. Interactively the group discussed the issues that can be found within the informal sector and these were categorized under the following subject areas: socio-cultural, technological, political, financial, educational, infrastructure and legislative.

As the group dove into unpacking the sector collectively, from the onset the challenges of work spaces emerged. However as we dove deeper and started to map the issues, we uncovered the pertinent issue was the need for inclusivity. Through consistent, co-creation, collaboration and co-ownership vendors felt navigating some of these challenges within the informal sector could bring about clear change (even formalisation). But does this end there? What is the actual driver of this main issue, after a vote the emerging driver was policy and legislation.

City linkages

The question however is, is this new information? Or is it something researchers have already uncovered about the sector. From the beginning the Lab realised the importance of conducting the same collective intelligence exercise, in a number of cities within Zimbabwe. The key thinking around this was to identify what issues and drivers emerge from each city, and identify the common trends (how do the issues change from city to city or do they stay the same?) It was equally important for the Lab to look at current data in uncommon spaces, and zone in on new sources of information.

Cities the Lab is currently mapping issues within the informal sector

As we continue to unpack the sector, human stories and solution safari’s to map solutions will be key in supporting our increased understanding of the informal ecosystem. Living examples derived from the solution safari will be used to create hypotheses, which will lead to the design of a series of experiments to test the hypotheses. We will run multiple short cycle experiments in parallel, which will allow us to accelerate the process of identifying what works quickly, and what doesn’t work in bridging the divide between the informal and formal sector.

Non-traditional partners

As we build out our series of experiments, the Lab continues to look around at who is already innovating within the informal sector; especially related to the key drivers we identified in issue mapping sessions. Looking at not just the people immersed in some of the problems, but at who is working with them and innovating within the sector to solve some of the biggest challenges faced. As we start to map this ecosystem we are seeing innovators such as SocialDtale who address the role of design in the working lives of vendors, in urban centres. Socialdtale experimented on assembling repurposed objects, using minimal manual labour to produce a prototype, for a road-side washbasin and drinking fountain for vendors.

Left:Informal Roadside Vendor Market Stall Interventions Sustainable Livelihoods. Centre: Prototype components for Washbasin and Drinking fountain — Right: Re-purposed woven basket to act as a steel bucket holder. Credits: Studio [D] Tale, Design by Maxwell Mutanda with fieldwork by Getrude Mufanebadza.

Why not design around the needs of people in the sector, they already have set ideas of how they build, they already have self built structures so let’s build structures that are easily changeable, sustainable and give them access to water — Maxwell Mutanda (Socialdtale)

The Lab will continue to share the journey to experimentation leading up to the end of the year, so watch out for our next blog! For now, we leave you with a small note from the Labbies.