Pushing beyond the trade walls to unite nations

Women in cross border trade airing their grievances during a recent meeting held by UN Women on prospects and challenges for cross border traders.

Imagine travelling for thousands of kilometres crossing borders into other countries to buy goods like clothes for selling back home. However, when you get to the border, customs officials throw some of the goods down and confiscate the rest. You watch in shock as your toil and sweat scatter in all directions in the dirt.

This means you cannot sell them to your costumers again. This is the story of Furaha Ntanga who plies her trade of selling coconut oil and clothes through Namanga border into Kenya, across Busia border and into Uganda.

Though the importance of cross-border business has hardly been recognised by many governments across Africa, women in this industry are promoting regional GDP growth and integration between their countries of origin and the other nations that they transit through as they conduct their businesses, a visible proof of economic interdependence between countries which help in building stronger ties.

Their efforts to reduce poverty in their communities, create jobs and contribute to food security can no longer be ignored. According to Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce (TWCC) chairperson Dina Bina, these women contribute through taxes, license fees, and duties but are never accounted for in their respective countries’ GDPs.

Intra-regional Trade in East Africa alone accounts for 8.3 per cent of total trade in 2017, less than the continental average of 14.5 per cent according to African Development Bank (AfDB). However, if we add cross border traders, the contribution would be more significant.

They basically trade in clothes, cosmetics, crafts, horticultural produce, and other foodstuff which forms an important component of regional trade though this has been insufficiently highlighted and no much data is available on the number of women who cross border daily,weekly, bi-weekly or monthly to buy and sell goods beyond their national boundaries and spend several days away from their families.

Although some cross border traders are successful, most women who dominate this business are struggling with low education and low value of goods if what was presented at the UN meeting in collaboration with Trade Mark East Africa and TWCC on “prospects and challenges for women cross-border traders” on the sideline of last week’s Uganda Tanzania business forum is anything to go by. According to the USAID, some 30-50 per cent of sub-Saharan trade involves cross-border traders who are mostly women.

And according to Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce, 75 per cent of cross-border traders are women.

They keep goods and foodstuff moving from one country to the other despite complex obstacles and tough conditions at the border posts they face in the course of their work across the 11 border points in nine regions of Tanzania.

Paying heavy customs, being at the mercy of customs officials, sexual harassment, poor basic infrastructure and facilities and weak trade associations are some of the obstacles standing in their way to success.

A few Tanzanian women who navigate the borders share their experiences and how they overcome these challenges and calls for removal of these obstacles to facilitate trade while promoting regional integration and reducing marginalization of women.

Anna Rwebangira

The 40-year old has been in this business for five years and conducts her trade in Uganda and Tanzania where she takes her fish to Uganda through Mutukula border post. At times her fish can be held at the border post for long which can render them stale. She says a lot of corruption is involved, and if it is dealt with, the process can be faster - thus helping her reach the market quickly with her goods.

She is of the view that to overcome some of the obstacles, women involved in this trade needs skills training and heads up on how to get relevant documentation.

Editha Pascali

She has been in this business of crossing from Ngara, Tanzania through to Rusumo border into Rwanda for the past eight years. She also takes beans to Burundi and brings back avocados to Tanzania when there is fruit glut in Bujumbura.

The 49-year old woman also trades in grains, vegetables and fruits which she takes to Rwanda. She sells the products, which she grows in her own farm and fishpond. She says the East African Community (EAC) has helped her meet Rwandan and Ugandan traders and participates in entrepreneurship seminars in those countries. She has also been able to meet various leaders at the border and Tanzania Revenue Authority senior officials through the seminars thereby helping her know how to overcome the obstacles at the crossing points.

She calls for building of store at the order point to help the traders store their goods in case of rain. She also calls for financial institutions to ease access to loans for women who want to start business.

Dorothy Takwe

Her 50 years of age has not deterred her from crossing Kigoma border into Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to sell rice, fish and African print fabric (kitenge). She has been in the business for 18 years and has no regrets as she has now formed an association known as Domfrey where women come together to do business, they get tips of getting everything right while conducting cross-boarder business.

Her plea is for easy access of loans to women so that they can get capital to start up their businesses. She also called on the government to reintroduce one-year or six months passports to enable them have right documents while transiting to other nations. The centralized permit and licensing systems slows them down.

When she started, she had to deal with insecurity, harassment and poor basic infrastructure, which slowed her trade.

Furaha Ntanga

She has been involved in cross-border business for the past two years where she makes coconut oil in Tanga and takes it to Uganda through Namanga border into Kenya and cross through Busia into Uganda.

She says the prospects of business is good as costumers are embracing pure coconut oil and she brands them using Luganda thus making it easy to sell in Ugandan shops. She comes back with vanilla from Uganda as it is cheaper plus clothes and sells back in Tanzania. She decried tough custom procedures at Namanga border on the Tanzanian side and called on the deputy minister for Trade, Stella Manyanya who was present to step in so that good business environment can be established to improve services. She explained how at one point, the custom officials threw down her goods without caring that she needs them in a proper state to sell them. She also said that the bus conductors at times connive with custom officials to put punitive fees if they are not bribed while loading the goods into the bus.

And these women do not usually have anywhere to lodge their complains as they are not registered in any organisation which oversees this trade. At times, the goods get confiscated and documentation gets rather cumbersome.

Way forward

Going by the experiences of these few women, there is a need for gender sensitive intervention in the cross-border trade facilitation to promote growth and formalization of this trade.

According to UN Women Tanzania Representative Hodan Addou, high transactional costs and delays at the border points hinder the ability of women’s business to grow, corruption, cumbersome documentation insecurity and gender based violence, including sexual harassment, poor basic infrastructure and facilities; weak trade associations and lack of gender-disaggregated data hinder cross border business.

A recent study by UN Women on “Opportunities for women entrepreneurs in the context of the African Continental Free Trade area (AfCFTA),’’ found that women cross border traders are also vulnerable to violence, confiscation of their goods and sexual violence resulting from a lack of appropriate infrastructure such as lack of surveillance cameras, electricity and proper accommodation.

Despite the introduction of simplified Trade Regimes (STRs) and other related policies, within the EAC, most women traders still lack the information on provisions related to free movement of goods and services; and elimination of internal customs border controls.

According to 2018 Report by the United Nations conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on EAC regional integration, it was observed that the traditional gender division of labour, affects cross border women traders; constrain their mobility; and limit their access to market resources compared to men.

As women cross border traders wait for their issues to be addressed, the ministry of Trade and Industry on Sunday ordered that a hotline be established for cross-border traders to report any mistreatment at the border posts to Tanzania Trade Development Authority (TanTrade).