Women in Africa participate in trade in many ways. They are informal cross-border traders. They produce traded goods and services. They are rural farmers and they are professionals, providing legal and accountancy services. Many are also entrepreneurs with dominant ownership of exporting companies. Women are—and will be—essential to the continent’s success in the global marketplace.
But this promise is undermined by constraints. Certain non-tariff barriers to trade impinge particularly heavily on the trade-related activities of women and women-owned enterprises. These include discriminatory regulations, import bans, and corrupt customs procedures. These barriers often push women traders and producers into the informal economy. There, lack of access to finance, information, and networks jeopardizes their capacity to grow and develop their business. Such conditions prevent women from taking full advantage of the opportunities created by trade. These conditions challenge the aspirations of countries in Africa to use trade as a driver of growth, employment, and poverty reduction.
Policymakers typically overlook women’s contributions to trade and the challenges they face. This neglect reflects, in part, the lack of data and information on women and trade in Africa. It also reflects the under-representation of small traders and rural producers in trade and trade policy discussions. The latest volume from the World Bank's Africa Trade Practice—Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential—brings together a series of chapters that look at the ways that women participate in trade in Africa, the constraints they face, and the impact of those constraints. The aim of the book is to raise the profile of this public policy issue and to encourage more research and analysis that will expand the body of knowledge on gender-related constraints to trade.
An accompanying short film produced by the World Bank, Mind the Gap: Gender Equality and Trade in Africa, shares real-life stories from African women traders about the challenges they face in business—as textile producers, tourism service providers, and businesswomen.
Some of the key steps that governments in Africa can take to facilitate the participation of women in trade include:
- Recognize the role that women play in trade and ensure that this is communicated to officials at all levels;
- Ensure that the rules and regulations governing trade are clear, transparent, and widely available at the border;
- Simplify documents and regulatory requirements where possible;
- Design interventions to develop trade in ways that ensure that women benefit;
- Help women address the risks they face in their trade-related activities, acknowledging that they are typically more risk-averse than men and respond to risk in different ways.