Breaking down gender-specific barriers to trade in Africa


In many African countries, women are heavily engaged in trade. Often, female producers, traders and sellers have high aspirations. They want to increase their market or add more value to their products. However, women face specific barriers. For example, more women than men did not attend school as they were expected to do household chores. They find it difficult to read and fill out forms needed for transactions. Women also often face difficulties when trying to get a loan. They do not have collateral as they do not (co-)own the families’ assets. In other cases, it is socially unacceptable for women to travel alone to trade. Or they get sexually harassed by male officials.

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Image: Ayitey Hammond

Due to these gendered constraints, more women than men trade informally. You might think that ‘informal’ means small or irrelevant. But in Africa, most trade in basic necessities such as food and small consumer goods is informal. Females play major roles in these trade flows. The importance of women’s roles in trade in Africa can therefore not be overstated.

Developing countries’ economic potential will be fully unleashed if gender-specific barriers to trade are eliminated.

Local governments and donors develop trade facilitation policies to foster trade to catalyse economic development. For example, they eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and improve infrastructure. However, if they do not also target gender-specific barriers to trade and informal women traders, they are missing the point. A countries’ economic potential can only be fully unlocked if policies value the roles of women in trade and the informal economy. Moreover, economic development will only be socially sustainable if it is inclusive: if both women and men have equal opportunities to expand their trade.

The Netherlands is committed to inclusive, sustainable economic development worldwide. Hence, the goal to move beyond gender-specific barriers to trade is at the heart of our trade facilitation policies. We also pay special attention to informal trade. In East Africa, for example, we cooperate with local partners in the Trade Mark East Africa programme. Gender sensitisation programmes for officials and simplified trade regimes and information desks have been successfully introduced at borders. Women can now trade much more easily across borders. And women have better access to loans and trainings via cooperatives. Cooperative member Maria from Rwanda is enthusiastic: “Ever since we formed a cooperative, we have seen increased capital for our businesses. We have increased the quantities we sell and our market has increased”.

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Image: Anouk Baron
Fast lane for traders crossing the Busia border between Kenya and Uganda.

In West Africa, we also aim to facilitate trade in an inclusive way. A new regional trade facilitation programme will target and monitor progress on eliminating gender-specific barriers; both at borders and along key regional agricultural value chains. An example of an on-going successful initiative is the intercommunal public-private sector dialogue that was set up to facilitate informal cross-border trade between Benin and Nigeria. This initiative is complemented with a programme where buyers are connected to farmers, processors and traders. Women are now in a position to expand their trading activities, even across borders.

The road towards a world without gender-specific barriers to trade is long. But these initiatives offer great opportunities in support of Africa to be bold for change and break down barriers for women in trade.

Anouk Baron
Twitter: @AnoukBaron

Read more about the Dutch policy to promote trade facilitation and regional trade in developing countries.