Social economy as a route to labour markets in Africa

Streetnet International President and ZCIEA National President speaks on the social economy as a route to access labour markets in Africa

Social economy as a route to labour markets in Africa

Streetnet International President and ZCIEA National President speaks on the social economy as a route to access labour markets in Africa – At the International Seminar on “The Social and Solidarity Economy”, held at the Julián Besteiro School in Madrid, Spain on 21 September 2017

Streetnet International President and ZCIEA National Lorraine Sibanda said Sustainable Development strategies cannot be achievable if countries and communities do not fully embrace the concepts of the social economy. The social economy is often different from the public and private sector economies in terms of intent. Social economists are working towards the insertion of social goals and solidarity into economic thinking and decision making.

Grassroots entrepreneurial movements are more than an accumulation of individual enterprises they are creating jobs and producing goods and services. The social economy is also emerging in many countries as an integrated system of social innovation , rooted in local and regional development and supported by new systems of governance based on new partnerships with government, labour and the private sector. This new reality is referred to in different terminologies depending on the continental or national context. It is referred to as social economy, social enterprise , social innovation, community economic development, third sector , non-profit and cooperative sector and community enterprise. Cooperatives and solidarity economic units are;

  • membership based and inclusive
  • open to individuals who share common values, interests and goals
  • have a participatory system of governance
  • influence local economic growth and poverty reduction strategies
  • improve market access and financial services to both rural and urban communities
  • have closer interaction with government
  • strategic grassroots partners in the implementation of national development programs
  • span a large portion of the economy including; poultry, dairy, fish , manufacturing and retail sectors

The question may be asked, what exactly is a social economy? Social economy includes a wide variety of enterprises and organisations that produce goods and services with the express goal of maximizing social , environmental or cultural impact while at the same time responding to community needs and creating decent jobs. Examples of such enterprises are community-based enterprises, mainly cooperatives and non-profit organisations producing goods or service with a social and economic mission. The social economy as a plural economy allows for choices between private , public or collective control of production and distribution. It further provides complementary paths of development that bring together economic stability, social justice, ecological balance, political stability and gender equity.

It is therefore, important to understand why the social economy can be a route to access labour markets in Africa. Civil society organisations and communities have begun to come up with innovative approaches in order to respond to the needs of society. The models or approaches are rooted in the need for sustainable development that is driven by the social and environmental concerns which are embedded in the process of wealth creation. Developing countries in Africa and their governments have become interested in this approach, against a backdrop of their incapacity to progress within traditional frameworks of markets.

Africa has a strong potential in labour-intensive light manufacturing and agricultural sector , including traditional primary products such as groundnuts and cotton and non-traditional products such as horticulture and fishing. Governments, labour, foreign investors and local entrepreneurs should work together to identify and overcome barriers to competitiveness faced by social and solidarity economy entities in their countries in order to access the labour markets. Successful examples such as the coffee exports in Rwanda and footwear in Ethiopia should be examined and efforts made to adapt to country-specific situations.

The social economy is thriving, sustaining millions of households and providing employment to many people in Africa. Examples and lessons, though not exhaustive, can be drawn from the following countries in Africa:


  • The social economy in Morocco has progressed noticeably due to the cooperation between government, local development associations , international donors and state agencies to form and expand the cooperatives movement across many sectors, for example, in fisheries and agriculture.


  • The cooperatives movement in Kenya, which is the most organized social economy actor in the country employs over 250 000 people. Cooperatives in Kenya contribute largely to the country’s food security, building social capital and promoting social and economic welfare in addition to contributing to the country’s gross domestic product.


  • Many formal organisations are registered with three apex organisations, namely; Ghana Cooperative Credit Unions Association (GCCUA), Ghana Cooperative Susu Collectors Association (GCSCA) and Ghana Cooperative Council (GCC)
  • The three apex bodies have over 600 000 individual members.
  • Farmer-based organisations are the most widespread.


  • A high proportion of mutual aid associations work on the provision of traditional insurance services or safety nets and caring for vulnerable group.
  • The cooperatives movement covers a large portion of the economy.


  • High levels of informality and precariousness of work has brought a big shift in the place and description of work
  • There has been a big growth in the number of own-account workers, solidarity economic units, savings and credit cooperative societies (Saccos), small to medium enterprises and organisations which support these entities.
  • The Ministry of Small to Medium Enterprises gives technical and financial support to the cooperatives and small to medium enterprises.
  • Cooperatives and savings and credit cooperative societies are registered and licensed by the Ministry of SMEs.
  • The informal economy employs over 90 percent of workers in the country (94.5%, according to the 2013 Labour Survey)
  • The informal economy activities, cooperatives movement as well as small to medium enterprises in Zimbabwe include many areas of trade such as manufacturing, repairs, cottage industry, retail trading, vending, agriculture and credit associations
  • Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies (SACCOs):
  • These are a good example of strong solidarity economic units that have bolstered livelihoods, created jobs and empowered communities economically
  • Members contribute and save money together
  • Most offer loan and credit facilities to members
  • Some saccos use their proceeds and savings to explore different income generating ventures
  • Team members are able to access funding from their sacco and start their own business

Organisations which support informal economy workers in Zimbabwe are numerous and have different approaches. My focus will be on the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), whose operations and activities I am familiar with. The ZCIEA:

  • is a membership driven organization of informal economy workers in Zimbabwe
  • is also an affiliate of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
  • leadership is drawn from the informal economy workers in different parts of Zimbabwe
  • has a wide national and geographical coverage with members in thirty (30) territories. Territories refer to cities, towns and rural areas in which ZCIEA has membership
  • territory is made up of at least 500 members and 5 chapters.
  • Currently ZCIEA membership totals over 200 000 of which 65% are women and an increasing percentage of youth and people with disabilities.

A clear system of governance enables ZCIEA head office to decentralize work to the territorial leadership. Part of the ZCIEA package to members:

  • Education and training in areas such as financial literacy, rights awareness, health and safety , skills development in desired trades or income generation projects
  • Market research and analysis
  • Platform for engagement, networking and partnerships
  • Economic empowerment through an internal revolving fund (which is disbursed to members to help them grow their enterprises) and access to registered sacco membership
  • Access to ZCIEA cooperatives such as the national housing cooperatives and livelihoods cooperatives
  • Representation: Youth ,women, people with disabilities and disadvantaged groups
  • Organised structures of work according to gender, trade, geographical area
  • Lobby and advocacy platform

This is just a brief of the work that ZCIEA does in Zimbabwe to support and bring growth to the work of the informal economy workers in Zimbabwe. Members are encouraged and deliberately organized into working groups or teams to foster the concept of solidarity and thus these teams have emerged as solidarity economic units.

Despite all the work and potential shown by workers in the different countries in Africa, there are still a number of barriers to the full and more beneficiary development of social economy in Africa which can lead to the effective access to the labour market in the continent. Among barriers to such development are:

  • Weak legal frameworks
  • Inadequate policies targeting the informal economy
  • Poorly developed managerial practices by the entrepreneurs
  • Inadequate skills

The social economy cannot be considered simply as enterprise development; it is also the manifestation of new relationships between the market, the public sector and civil society and requires innovation in governance and a commitment to social dialogue.

In countries such as Brazil, Spain, or Canada where the social or solidarity economy has gained the most recognition, new civil society institutions have emerged as recognized intermediaries between government and enterprises, as new spaces for dialogue between social actors and other social movements, including the labour movement.

Several governments are offering active support to these networks, recognizing their contribution to social innovation and to the development of more efficient public policy. Of note are the ILO”s efforts to promote social economy in Africa. Between October 19 and 21, 2009, ILO held a Regional Conference in Johannesburg, under the theme; The Social Economy-Africa’s Response to the Global Crisis. At this conference a Plan of Action for the Promotion of Social Economy in Africa was drawn up. It is my hope that the plan and its course of implementation will be widely shared in Africa and other continents.

In conclusion, there is need to appreciate the emerging social economy and adapt traditional tools of evaluation to capture the depth and scope of these citizen-based initiatives. It is also very important to draw lessons from the progress being made in different parts of Africa.


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