Creating jobs and reducing poverty: why not enable the informal sector properly?

Author: Frederick Fourie

President Cyril Ramaphosa aims to set the country on a new path of growth, employment and transformation. Key to this are action plans for employment creation, to be deliberated at a jobs summit.

The South African Informal Sector: Providing jobs, reducing povertyA new edited volume, published by HSRC Press, flags the importance of explicitly addressing the informal sector in such initiatives, given the key role it plays in providing paid employment and reducing poverty. The book is based on research done in the Research Project for Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth (REDI3x3).

This research shows unambiguously that the informal sector is an important source of employment (and of paid employment), with a growing propensity to employ. Regrettably, for many decades the sector has remained forgotten or, at best, in the margins of economic analysis and policy consciousness. Many policy makers appear to group it together with formal SMMEs. Such an approach risks missing key elements of the ‘forgotten’ world of informal enterprises – their potential, the constraints they face, their particular vulnerability, and the policy support they need to be viable and self-standing.

How many jobs are created in the informal sector?

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The resilience of some small towns in the Karoo

A new article in the Journal of Arid Environments (see reference below) examines the ‘Small Town Paradox’ in eight small towns in the Eastern Cape Karoo. Normalised data (enterprise numbers per thousand residents) and estimates of enterprise richness were used in the comparisons. Willowmore, Steytlerville and Jansenville outperformed Aberdeen, Hofmeyr, Steynsburg, Venterstad and Pearston in terms of total enterprises per 1000 residents as well as enterprises per 1000 residents in the tourism & hospitality services and agricultural products and services sectors. In fact, in some measures these towns even outperformed the larger towns of Graaff-Reinet, Cradock, Somerset East and Middelburg. Over some seven decades, the enterprise richness of Willowmore, Steytlerville and Jansenville increased (like those of the larger towns) whereas the enterprise richness of the other five small towns decreased. Hausmann et al. (2017) postulated that productive knowledge is a main determinant of the wealth/poverty of nations. I think this is also true for towns and used enterprise richness as a proxy for the levels of productive knowledge in the towns.

The resilience of towns is now a hot scientific topic. It refers to the ability of towns to respond successfully to adverse changes. Some do it well and some not; hence the ‘Small Town Paradox’. The decline of agriculture, particularly wool farming, in the Karoo stressed many Karoo towns. The study was done to determine if resilience was present in the Eastern Cape Karoo. It was.

The article demonstrates two important issues: 1. There are useful measures whereby the strengths/weaknesses of the entrepreneurial development of South African towns can be compared. 2. Productive knowledge is probably an important component of the resilience of South African towns.


Toerien, DF (2018) The ‘Small Town Paradox’ and towns of the Eastern Cape Karoo, South Africa. Journal of Arid Environments. Available free of charge for a limited period at:

Hausmann, R, Hidalgo, CA, Bustos, S, Coscia, M, Chung, S, Jiminez, J,  Simoes, A & Yildirim, MA. (2017) The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity. Center for International Development, Harvard University.

Zipf’s law and South African towns

An important question has exercised the minds of many economist over time: why are there differences in the sizes of different towns? For instance, why are all towns in a region not of equal size? The answer has to do with power laws.

There is no Hobbesian significance in the word ‘power’ – it is just a mathematical term. If the value of some quantity q depends on the value of another quantity x according to a power-law relationship, this means that each time x is doubled, y increases by some constant factor (Ball, 2005).

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Of enterprise richness in South African towns

In two recent publications in the South African Journal of Science, we explored the enterprise richness, defined as the number of different enterprise types, of South African towns:

Enterprise richness as an important characteristic of South African towns; and
The enduring and spatial nature of the enterprise richness of South African towns

Remarkable and enduring regularities were observed between the number of enterprise types and the total number of enterprises in towns.

Picture 1Log-log relationships which endured over 70 years were recorded and these relationships raise important issues about the nature of entrepreneurship and its dynamics in different-sized South African towns. The figure shows such a relationship that covers a range of villages with fewer than 10 enterprises to towns with 350 enterprises.

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