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Barriers for Small-Scale Traders in Kenya: Exploring Women’s Challenges on International Women’s Day

Originally published on GI-ACE by Melissa Trimble, Alissa Krueger, Veronica Akaezuwa, and Shruti Manian

International Women’s Day on March 8 allows us the opportunity to reflect on the status of women’s rights across the globe. As a research team from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that is part of the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence  (GI-ACE) research programme, we in particular find the day poignant as we begin to collect data for our study that examines women’s roles as traders in East Africa and the impact of community reporting on understanding and addressing corruption challenges they face at borders.

Current research points to a majority of these traders being women, who work largely in small-scale and informal trading. On a daily basis, these traders leave their homes to cross into neighboring countries to make a living trading goods.  Conducting cross-border business presents several challenges to both female and male traders, but findings derived from our initial literature review and expert interviews conducted in Kampala and Nairobi in January 2020 indicate that many barriers arise particularly for women. As we begin data collection for our study, International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the motivations behind our work and our initial understanding of the environment in which female traders operate.

Bureaucratic and informational barriers at the border

One of the biggest barriers that women face, besides the overall gender inequality in wealth and access to capital,  surrounds the official process of crossing the border itself. A general lack of information—and presence of misinformation—makes the engagement with border officials complex. Many women seem unaware of the East African Community (EAC) tariff exemption for goods under $2,000 and believe that they are illegally avoiding tariffs.

Furthermore, the detailed paperwork required to cross often poses a challenge; women traders attain relatively low levels of education on average, which can make written, complex trading regulations intimidating. Even for those that are aware of the necessary paperwork, acquiring and completing the correct documents to border officials’ standards can be daunting and time-consuming. This often pushes women to use informal border-crossing routes (so-called Panya routes) that are fraught with risks. Since informal routes are not regulated by state bodies, women using these routes are more likely to experience harassment in the form of confiscation, bribes, and sexual harassment.

Non-trade related barriers

Beyond the difficulties at the border, female traders face additional stresses in conducting business in general. Caring for children remains primarily the responsibility of women, which influences their capacity to trade. Oftentimes women are faced with the choice of either leaving their children behind at home, or taking them along on the trade journey, as there are no daycare facilities. Furthermore, an issue that is seldom raised in the context of trading experiences is the availability of sanitation facilities. Washrooms are often inaccessible, which raises the level of discomfort for both women and men when crossing the border.

One way forward?

With these challenges in mind, we look forward to seeing if cellphone-based platforms like Sauti East Africa that provide women critical information can help overcome some of these barriers, including corruption that eats away at women’s earnings. Can this be a tool for women trader associations and civil society groups like the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI) that are advocating for women traders? As EASSI Executive Director Sheila Kawamara-Mishambi notes, it seems promising: “The women formerly thought that the revenue authorities are only in service of the big traders and that they are their enemies. Eventually with information, exposure, and confidence-building, women are now enabled to find the right information.

Using the Sauti platform, we hope to see what factors influence small-scale traders to work together to report their experiences, including around irregular payments when crossing the border, and if these small-scale traders benefit from learning about each others’ processes and decisions. In this way, we hope to find out if collective communication, facilitated by the growing numbers of cellphones, can help lower barriers to the traders’ critically important businesses.

Cross-border trade is an integral component of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and human wellbeing in Africa, and women are the primary drivers of this economic exchange. Ensuring that they are protected and able to conduct business with ease is essential to facilitating human development and growth that extends far beyond the women’s immediate communities to the continent as a whole.

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