The devastating combination of loss of homes and livelihoods could push many ICBT traders into extreme poverty – unless we act.

Women cross border traders face losing everything.

Life for women engaged in Informal Cross Border Trade (ICBT) was challenging even before the coronavirus pandemic reached East Africa. The margins between success and failure were very fine, and they had to deal with issues including harassment from border officials, corruption and gender-based violence (GBV).

Many of these cross-border traders were operating in a legal grey area, which left them vulnerable to extortion. They often had very little in the way of capital resources or savings, meaning that they were required to work every day in order to make the money needed to feed their families and provide other essentials such as medicine and school supplies.

In March 2020, the countries of the East African Community (EAC) announced a series of measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus throughout the region. These included a temporary restriction (yet to be lifted at the time of writing this article) on the movement of people across borders.

In recognition of the need to balance saving lives with allowing at least some economic activity to continue, the free flow of goods and services has been allowed to continue.

However, this does not give the complete picture. While trucks carrying goods can cross borders, smaller vehicles (including motorcycles) and pedestrians may not. The policy implemented by the EAC clearly did not take into account the needs of informal cross-border traders, who have now been placed in an even more parlous position.

As they can no longer use formal border crossing points, women engaged in ICBT are forced to operate “under the radar” and have no choice other than to contravene the new regulations. This exposes them to an increased risk of prosecution and harassment by the authorities. Measures such as the confiscation of their goods can have a disastrous effect.

While trucks obviously carry far more in the way of goods, ICBT actually provides a livelihood to many more people (not just the traders themselves, but motorcycle taxi owners, growers and producers.

A closer look at one community that depends on ICBT reveals their unique situation. In Gatumba, a village to the west of Bujumbura and close to the border with the DRC, at least 100 women depend on ICBT for their income. These women predominantly sell and distribute food, and earn around US$1.50 – US$3.00 per day. On average, they have capital of less than USD30, meaning that they are unable to afford truck transport for themselves and their goods. They essentially have a “hand to mouth” existence, meaning that the money that they earn each day is only sufficient to allow them to buy food for that day.

The decision by the EAC to close the borders has therefore denied them the means to earn a living and to provide for their families. Their loss of income has additional consequences: it affects their sense of self-worth and their autonomy. These would normally be key factors in reducing the risk of GBV.

Income from their micro-enterprises helps these women gain respect in the community, and allows them to match the financial contributions made by their husbands or partners, thereby helping them to establish themselves as equals. With no source of income, the women ICBT traders have little choice other than to consumer their business capital – their only real source of financial security.

Recent torrential rains in Burundi have exacerbated this situation, with the Ruzizi River having broken its banks in late April. An estimated 7 000 homes were flooded, leading to the displacement of around 40 000 people. The flooding has caused severe disruption to every aspect of life: schools have closed, and crops have been destroyed.

With further heavy rains forecast, some 10 000 learners are unable to attend lessons, while food insecurity is now a real threat. The stagnant water in many communities has provided ideal breeding conditions for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, while a deadly cholera outbreak is a distinct possibility.

The government of Burundi and NGOs have been assessing the flooding situation and providing temporary accommodation, food and essential supplies to families displaced by the flooding, but humanitarian resources are already overstretched due to the need to make provisions to counter the coronavirus pandemic.

The result is a “perfect storm” of circumstances which has had a significant impact of the wellbeing of women informal cross-border traders and their dependents.

Fondation Lance d’Afrique Burundi, in partnership with Smartly Social Entrepreneurship in SDGs, is actively and urgently seeking sponsorship partners to assist in our efforts to support the 150 women of the CEFECT Cooperative (Communauté Economique des Femmes Exerçant le Commerce Transfrontalier), a self-help group of female ICBT traders who are urgently requesting food and health supplies for their members.

If you can assist, please contact Dr Florence Nisabwe of Fondation-LAB.