Crossing borders: Challenges of African women involved in informal cross-border trade


By Regina Laub,  Florence Tartanac and Cristina Scarpocchi


There are strong regional and continental level efforts towards formalizing trade within Africa. Despite these efforts, it is very common to see women crossing the borders with their heads and backs laden and arms overloaded with goods for sale. These traders are carrying goods that include industrial and agricultural commodities, they are engaged in what is known as “Informal Cross Border Trade (ICBT)”.

Many of the traders that are involved in ICBT are self-employed women.  Very often their engagement in  in informal trade gives them an entry point in selling their local produce. They would not be able to enter  the formal sector due to various reasons, including difficulties in getting access to traveling documents or trading licenses, long waiting times at borders, overcharging by customs officials, and lack of knowledge of official procedures. Moreover, due to the nature of this trade and the lack of an adequate legal framework, the informal women traders traders are often faced with challenges such as corruption, where officials solicit bribes in order to smuggle goods, sexual abuse and confiscation of goods.

The objective of this paper is to highlight the potential women small traders can have in poverty reduction in many African countries and the need for policy makers at national and regional level to take into account their specific role and economic contribution and include measures to address the challenges they face in their day-to-day life in the negotiation of trade policies and regulations. This note is based on the experience and lessons learned from the work carried out at field and policy level to support women informal traders in the Great Lakes region, and specifically in Rwanda, within the framework of the Cross-border Trade Support Initiative led – since 2013 – by FAO, UN Women and other development partners.

70% of informal cross border traders are women in the SADC region (East Africa Community 2006).In some African countries informal regional trade flows represent up to 90 percent of official flows (Hall 2013; UN Economic Commission for Africa).The contribution of women informal traders to national GDP amounts to 64 percent of value added in trade in Benin, 46 percent in Mali and 41 percent in Chad (Charmes 2000, quoted in ILO 2004).Trade is the most important source of employment among self-employed women of Sub-Saharan Africa providing 60% of non-agricultural self-employment (ILO 2004).

Informal cross-border trade and its economic importance

 ICBT refers to imports and exports of legitimately produced goods and services. The traded good or service does not pass formally through custom controls and therefore escapes the regulatory framework for taxation and other procedures set by the government. This form of trade is unrecorded and does not appear in official national statistics of the trading countries. It is complex and context-specific.

ICBT provides a significant contribution to national economies: In Africa, it is estimated that it represents 43 percent of official gross domestic product (GDP), this percentage is almost equivalent to the formal sector.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, ICBT features prominently among women’s individual strategies for self-employment, poverty reduction and wealth creation. Overall, trade provides 60 percent of non-agricultural self-employment to women in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, most of women’s small scale business between Rwanda and Burundi is informal. The types of goods these women trade include agricultural products mainly vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, traditional vegetable varieties, carrots, peas, cucumber, maize, sorghum, beans, rice and maize flour and cassava.

Strengthening Gender Equality in Land Ownership and Control


By Brave Ndisale

Image result for women and landIn October 2016, 50 women from Sub-Saharan Africa climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the Kilimanjaro Initiative Women’s Land Rights Campaign. Their objective was to lobby leaders to address challenges faced by African women in accessing land. In many sub-Saharan African countries, legal provisions supporting gender equality in land ownership and control have not led to women de facto enjoying secure and equal rights to land. Although women contribute substantially to the agriculture labour force, in many instances social norms discriminate against women’s ownership to land. In practice, this means that women rarely have decision-making power over land, with their rights heavily dependent on relations with their husbands or male relatives.

In many developing countries limited enforcement of statutory laws, gender biased social and cultural norms, and structural barriers undermine progress on women’s land rights. While land registration programs aimed at increasing tenure security have proliferated, these have not always led to an increase ownership by women. Family land is still frequently registered in the name of the male head of household. Indeed the results are telling, with estimates from FAO[1] (2011) indicating that women own less than a quarter of land holdings in the developing world. Such estimates should be interpreted with caution, given that many countries do not disaggregate land ownership by sex.

The inclusion of women’s land rights as a specific target within Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality underscores the importance of addressing the ongoing deficit in women’s land ownership and control. Target 5a provides that states “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.” (emphasis added). The inclusion of this target and its land-related indicators reflects the empirical evidence that secure land rights correlate with important gains in women’s welfare, productivity, equality and empowerment.

Yet the impact of gender equality in land ownership and control goes well-beyond SDG 5. There is evidence that gender equality in land matters is critical to poverty reduction, food security and rural development. Improved land ownership among women is also linked to reduced child malnutrition and increased school enrolment.

Through several interrelated initiatives, FAO is working with countries to realise target 5a on gender equality in land ownership and control by 2030.

First, as the custodian agency for the second indicator of target 5.a., “proportion of countries where the legal framework (including customary law) guarantees women’s equal rights to land ownership and/or control”, (indicator 5.a.2) FAO is currently finalizing a methodological guide and related instruments, to provide robust support to countries in the collection and submission of relevant information for the monitoring of progress under this SDG indicator.

Second, FAO is supporting countries in the collection of high quality sex-disaggregated data on land tenure. This is important as the absence of such data frequently impedes the design of effective gender-equitable land reform programs and can limit countries’ capacity to measure the impact of land tenure reforms on reducing gender inequalities. Such data also enables countries to report on indicator 5.a.1 of target 5a, on (a) the percentage of women or men with ownership or secure rights over agricultural land and (b) the share of women among owners or rights-bearers of agricultural land, by type of tenure.

Third, in 2010 FAO launched the Gender and Land Right Database (GLRD), an online platform that presents information on women’s land rights in more than 85 countries via country profiles, gender and land-related statistics and the recently-developed Legal Assessment Tool (LAT). The LAT uses 30 indicators to capture the extent to which national legal frameworks are conducive to gender-equitable land tenure. This data helps governments to identify gaps in the legal and policy framework, and to plan and prioritise key reforms necessary to improve women’s equal and secure access to land. FAO continues to work with countries and partners to scale-up the availability of the LAT information, using a country-driven and participatory approach. These efforts serve to prepare countries to report under target 5.a.2 of the SDG.

Fourth, FAO supports the development of gender-equitable land tenure systems through the provision of tailored policy support tools to national governments for specific sectors. One example of this is the Gender in Agricultural Policies Assessment tool, which offers practical and evidence-based guidance on how to facilitate gender equality and women’s empowerment in agricultural policies. The tool supports stakeholders involved in policy processes to analyse and assess existing agricultural policies with a view to identifying gaps and developing concrete solutions.

Finally, to encourage the development of gender sensitive and inclusive legal and policy land governance frameworks, FAO is providing capacity development support at the national and regional level to actors involved in the land sector through the program “Governing land for women and men”. The program involves an e-learning course combined with a mentoring and a face-to-face training program.

At FAO we are acutely aware that these initiatives alone will not guarantee women’s equal rights to land ownership and control. What we firmly believe, is that by raising awareness, supporting the collection of sex-disaggregated data on women’s land ownership, and providing hands-on and accessible support to policy makers, we can help to make important inroads on guaranteeing land rights for women, and tackle some of the barriers that women face in claiming these rights.

By working closely with national governments, development partners, academic institutions and civil society organisations, we are confident target 5a of the SDGs can be realised by 2030, without needing to climb any more mountains.

Brave Ndisale is the Director ad interim, Division of Social Policies and Rural Institutions, Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations

[1] FAO (2011). The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11. Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy.