Women in Trade: Solving intra-African entrepreneurship puzzle

An African woman trader selling her products. PHOTO/Unsplash.
An African woman trader selling her products. PHOTO/Unsplash.
  • The event brought together women making a change in the business sector in Africa.
  • The women traders tabled lingering challenges and brainstormed on possible solutions.
  • Between 70 and 80% of African informal traders are women.

Intra-Africa and regional trade has brought economic empowerment and higher incomes, especially for women traders.

With a dire passion for creating a single continental market for goods and services, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA) asserts that Intra-African trade is estimated at 15%, compared to Europe, which dangles at 67%, North America at 48%, Asia at 58% and Latin America swinging at 20%.

Numerous women in Africa are engaged in one form of trade or another, either within their countries or across national borders. They are actively trading agricultural produce for manufactured products.  

The World Bank estimates that between 70% and 80% of African informal traders are women. 

Over the years, women traders’ contributions to national economies have become critical in boosting African trade. There have, however, been barriers that thwart them from their day-to-day cross-border trading.

In commemoration of International Women’s Day, Independent Continental Youth Advisory Council On AfCFTA (ICOYACA) and Women Empowerment Programme for Africa held a discussion on March 29, 2023, on how to effectively solve the challenges faced by women traders across African borders.

In the insightful webinar, ICOYACA Uganda Head of Programme, Joanita Nassuna, gave each speaker a chance to express the challenges women face while trading and the potential solutions that can be implemented.

Irene Byaruhanga, Chairperson of Goli Women Cross-border Traders Cooperative, recollected how she initiated an association of women traders.

Joanita Nassuna, ICOYACA Uganda Head of Programmes. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Joanita Nassuna, ICOYACA Uganda Head of Programmes. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Together with other women who shared the same dream, Byaruhanga trained other interested women traders on how to do business across the border and work as a group.

“We looked at this as a very good opportunity for us. We started as a team of 15 members in the association where we mainly did money saving and lending. We could lend money to informal traders who would give back with a small interest,” she said.

This motivated them to mobilize and sensitize other women traders who were facing challenges at the borders. Before they knew it, their numbers had grown from 15 to over 30 active members.

In 2020 amidst the growth of members in the association and the invasion of Covid-19, Byaruhanga affirmed that that’s when the thought of registering the association as a nationally known cooperative stroke.

Challenges at the border

She, however, pointed out that as they conduct trade at the Goli-Mahagi border, there are copious challenges that stare directly at them.

“It has not been easy to access information at the border on trade rules and procedures and as a result, many women remain informal because they don’t know exactly what to do,” Byaruhanga said.

Women’s lack of knowledge about their rights under trade treaties and protocols exposes them to major impediments in cross-border trading.

This has led to the majority of them choosing to bribe customs and immigration officials so that they can operate at the border.

She also pointed out that the language barrier has been a cul-de-sac for the majority of women traders. 

Traders who don’t understand the English language find it hard to communicate with fellow traders and customs officials at the border.

“Most of the border officials are people who are learned and speak mostly English. It is a challenge for women traders who can’t understand English,” she said in sympathy.

Webinar e-poster on solving challenges faced by women traders. E-POSTER/AfCFTA.
Webinar e-poster on solving challenges faced by women traders. E-POSTER/AfCFTA.

This, Byaruhanga noted, has made it hard for women traders to carry out their trading activities with ease. 

It’s not a walk in the park for the traders, especially when they experience any kind of obstacle and would like guidance from the customs officials.

Finances, a major blow

For cross-border trade to thrive, finances play a major role in propelling the process. Women traders have, however, found it hard to access the finances.

“It is not easy for women to access finances, especially from banks and financial institutions. This is because they ask for collateral in the form of property which is not easy for women to provide. Sometimes they have to involve their husbands so as to access the loans,” Byaruhanga explained.

In support of the financial challenges Nonhlanhla Mazibuko, a woman trader based in Eswatini, shared her sentiments on the red tapes involved when applying for finances.

Even though there are funding opportunities such as venture capital, grants and loans, Mazibuko stated that the majority of women traders lack the know-how to access the funds and the eligibility procedures.

“We really have a huge assignment of training these women so that they can be able to get into this financing criteria,” she spurred.

The Eswatini top 10 youth farmer of the year also hinted that there’s a huge gap in training women on standards law and food law, especially for women trading agricultural produce. 

She said that women need to be familiar with the standards that control the market so that they can be able to scale up their businesses.

“This really puts a strain on emerging women traders as the quality and safety standards implemented by the market are slightly more demanding and strict towards developing young women traders,” Mazibuko said.

Curbing financial debacle

To curb the financial challenges, John Walugembe, an economist and ICOYACA Uganda country champion, said there are some initiatives put in place.

“AfCFTA is working with commercial banks to ensure that sufficient finances are available to support SMEs, women and youth that want to trade across borders,” Walugembe confirmed.

John Walugembe, Economist, ICOYACA Uganda Country Champion. PHOTO/Courtesy.
John Walugembe, an economist and ICOYACA Uganda Country Champion. PHOTO/Courtesy.

He added that there’s also Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS), which will ease cross-border payment. This system will enable an efficient and secure flow of money across African borders.

Positioning women traders

Despite the challenges faced by the women traders, a silver lining still lingers.

 Dorothy Kimuli, Managing Director at D&M Group International Limited, said that broader business exchange programs within African countries would help increase knowledge and skill and improve value chains along the production and supply lines.

“Each time you venture into a new territory and experience what other people are doing it inspires you to want to be better. This exposure will help to increase value addition for fair competitiveness,” Kimuli said.

To effectively position women traders for opportunities, Kimuli stated that market research is important in identifying where a product’s market lies to accrue significant benefits.

She also urged women-support associations to establish solid linkages between the home and export countries.

“Women support associations,” Kimuli added, “should ensure institutional support to develop measurable programmes that build the relevant skills development, understanding of the requirements and conditions for scaling businesses for the international market.”

Digital trade

With the advancement in technology, most opportunities can easily be accessed online. Kimuli coaxed the need to train women in the art of digital trade.

Statistically, 70% of the continent’s poor live in rural areas. This portion of the population majorly depends on agriculture as their important economic activity. 

Dorothy Kimuli, Managing Director, D&M Group International Limited. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Dorothy Kimuli, Managing Director, D&M Group International Limited. PHOTO/Courtesy.

They are, however, lagging behind in matters of technology, thus missing out on many opportunities that could scale up their agricultural venture.

Language diversification

On the same note, Kimuli signified language diversification and willingness to learn other languages.

“Women in business should position themselves to appreciate other languages of the countries we are trading with so as to break that language barrier challenge,” she urged.

As women continue to spread their wings in the intra-African trade, AfCFTA Secretariat is envisioning to release the AfCFTA Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade. 

The Protocol is expected to address the specific constraints and barriers women face when trading on the continent. 

RELATED STORY: INVESTORS: For entrepreneurial breakthrough, Africa must go borderless

It will create an environment that allows women to utilize the AfCFTA by accessing broader markets, improving their competitiveness, and participating in regional value chains.

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Mr. Ogonji is a highly professional and talented science journalist with a solid experience in covering compelling stories in matters Environment, Climate Change, Health, Tech and Education. Contact: theogonji@gmail.com


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