Published on The Trade Post

Women traders in Africa’s Great Lakes

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On the northern tip of Lake Kivu, where eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) meets Rwanda, the pedestrian border crossing connecting the lush town of Gisenyi, Rwanda and the frenetic city of Goma in the DRC is called ‘’Petite Barrière’’. The name is misleading: the ‘’barrière’’ is in fact large and crowded, and features one of the highest daily flows of traders in Africa; between 20,000 and 30,000 traders cross it every day. For them, as for many others in the region, cross-border trade is a critical source of income.

A large portion of the trade in this Great Lakes region of Africa happens on a small scale. Traders most often exchange agricultural commodities, but also small electronics, household appliances, clothes, shoes and cosmetics, among others. In many cases, they are providers of services such as hairdressing, housekeeping, health and education. Such trade is essential for economic development: it creates jobs, supports livelihoods, and contributes to food security. World Bank Group (WBG) analysis conducted at four borders in the Great Lakes Region showed that cross-border trade was the main source of income for two-thirds of the respondents surveyed.

But the challenges faced by these traders are great. Infrastructure is poor, duties and taxes are high, and procedures can be complex and officials hostile. Traders regularly pay bribes, face harassment, and there is usually no place to report abuse. Mutual distrust between traders and officials, lack of awareness on their respective rights at the border, and limited transparency on cross-border trade regulations complete a dire scenario.

The situation is worse for women, who represent the vast majority of small-scale traders in the region – up to 80%, according to the World Bank study. These women are among the most vulnerable groups in the Great Lakes Region due to limited access to education, information, finance and markets. And they face the most challenges at the border: agencies tend to be largely male-dominated, inspection rooms are rarely found and searches are often conducted by men. The women are subject to beatings, strip searches and sexual harassment.
In an effort to increase the capacity for commerce and reduce the costs faced by traders, especially small-scale and women traders, at key borders between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, the World Bank is supporting the Great Lakes Trade Facilitation Project (GLTFP). With a strong gender component, the project will help address some of the challenges faced by small-scale traders, especially women. It puts emphasis on reducing harassment and improving a critical measure of trade: the time it takes to cross the border. Time is especially important for female traders: the longer they wait to be cleared at the border, the more they are exposed to potential abuses and lose business opportunities. And if they must remain at the border overnight, they may be at risk of forced prostitution, rape and related HIV/AIDS risks.
The GLTFP is groundbreaking in many ways: it is the first large-scale World Bank operation focusing on small-scale trade in a conflict area; it moves beyond a traditional focus on trade in goods, also targeting cross-border trade in services; and it is a collaborative effort across WBG’s Global Practices (GPs), including the Trade & Competitiveness and the Governance GP, designed with critical support from the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Group.
The project will address risks faced by (women) traders by improving access roads that they travel on – many on foot; add pedestrian lanes, improve lighting and security at border facilities and provide gender sensitivity training to border guards.
We know that when women increase their incomes, families and communities benefit too. It’s important for us then to support these Great Lakes traders so that incomes and businesses grow, livelihoods improve and the economies of communities and eventually countries expand to reduce poverty.


Cecile Fruman

Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

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