Traders crossing the border from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many small-scale traders at the Rwanda-Congo border face challenges such as the haphazard levying of taxes, lack of appropriate infrastructure at the border, and a complicated administration. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When we think of people crossing borders, our minds jump to the tragedies of the millions of refugees who flee their homes to find safety and to build new lives.

But there are also millions of people who cross borders every single day, back and forth, to earn a living.

In the Great Lakes of Africa — in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda — these traders are mostly women. Their small trade not only provides much needed livelihoods, but it can also help build links between communities divided by borders, prevent flashpoints flaring up into full-scale conflict, and help build the economic underpinnings of peace.

In fact, these traders are a walking definition of the much-heralded “resilience” to conflict —  continuing trading even when security levels are dangerously high. Everyone knows that livelihoods are key to peace; but it is not so easy to create employment, especially in fragile situations. Perhaps it would be better instead to focus on those people already trading and support them to survive and scale up their enterprises.

Along the border of eastern Congo and Rwanda alone, thousands of small-scale traders cross the border every day, selling or purchasing goods, and facilitating access to goods and services unavailable in their own countries.

But too often they face obstacles every meter of the potholed roads across the borders.

That was the subject discussed at a unique conference in the Congo on March 19 that brought together government officials and women traders from the Great Lakes to consider how to improve their situation. At the conference, it was fascinating to hear from many of the traders themselves.

Redempta Tuyishemeze, a 45-year-old widow with two children from Burundi, who trades powdered milk, said: “There are so many roadblocks and people asking you to pay. I’ve been doing this risky business for 12 years and I’ve still only saved $100 capital after 12 years.”

It seems that these poor, small-scale traders are paying among the highest effective tax rates facing any business. Huge chunks of their small earnings go into the hands of the long queue of border control officials at the border, all claiming their cut. This makes it impossible for the women to do more than feed the family.

Research by International Alert, Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe and TradeMark East Africa shows that the main challenges for small traders at the Rwanda-Congo border are the haphazard levying of taxes, as well as the lack of appropriate infrastructure at the border, and a complicated administration.

These challenges have to be addressed rapidly if this business is to effectively contribute to the alleviation of poverty in these border areas. It’s clear that regional free-trade agreements are a vital first step, but many have not been ratified let alone implemented, or are undermined by the behavior of officials at the border posts.

Kisuba-Brigitte is the feisty president of the Association des commerçantes transfrontalières, or ACT, a network of women traders’ associations in Goma. She reels off their problems, with constant harassment top of the list: “One woman who was pregnant was beaten up by an official and she ended up in hospital.”

A close second is the huge number of different government agencies all asking for money: “As a woman, I pass the border and I am carrying a heavy load of vegetables and every meter I pay taxes, taxes, taxes. Always taxes without receipts.”

She is not shy to challenge the government representatives: “We Rwandan and Congolese women have built up platforms. We have been trained to work together and to solve our conflicts — we may not have fully fledged solutions but we sit together, discuss and find solutions. But when you in government have been trained, you should change. So, if we sign agreements, we should abide by them. So let’s not do good talking only, let’s do follow-up.”

To be fair, the challenge was taken up by the government representatives at this conference, organized by Alert together with the World Bank, whose Great Lakes Trade Facilitation Project will be its first one focused on small-scale women traders in a very fragile situation. Officials worked through identifying solutions they could implement to solve the women’s long list of problems. They committed, for example, to make information available about taxes; having “one-stop posts,” addressing corruption and denouncing harassment.

Also raised were the delicate issues of some countries not ratifying free-trade agreements, and others accused of using nontariff barriers to keep out goods.

It was an impressive to-do list that officials took home with them in their blue plastic folders. The women traders too folded up their hopes into their vibrant dresses, some proudly wrapped in bright Rien Sans Les Femmes (“nothing without women”) cloth, the brilliant campaign tool of a platform of 60 organizations fighting for women’s rights in Congo.

“We don’t need to start with billions of dollars; we can go step by step,” said one woman, inspired by all the strong women she had met and surprised to find that across the four countries, they all shared the same problems.

Long ago, working in grassroots social movements, I learned that you have to go where the energy already is. For example, in the United Kingdom the public loved campaigning to get supermarkets to stock fair trade goods, then schools took up the fair trade baton and drove forward fair trade schools — and we had to support these shifts.

So too, when people are wondering how to create livelihoods in fragile and conflict-affected states, we should go where the energy is, and these women traders are energetic and resilient. Rather than trying to start from scratch with whole new ideas, it is much easier and better to back them, and back their energy — and just take out of the way the men who harass and overcharge them, so they can fulfil their full potential.

Kisuba-Brigitte dreams that one day she can “make the change from being a small trader to becoming a big businesswoman.”

That’s a vision toward which a few small steps were made last week at the bustling border town of Bukavu. Governments across the world should take this vision and support women cross-border traders.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Harriet Lamb

    Harriet Lamb is CEO of climate charity Ashden. She is a former CEO of peace-building organization International Alert and spent 15 years leading Fairtrade in the U.K. and globally.

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