PUBLISHED ON October 27th, 2023

In Rwanda, Female Cross-border Traders Find Solidarity in the Face of Adversity

Rusizi, 23 October 2023 – It is still dark when Verena, a mother of five, wakes up at the crack of dawn to start her day. She is part of a cross-border cooperative alongside other women with whom they purchase legumes and vegetables from wholesalers in Rwanda to resell at the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For women who form a majority of the traders at the border crossing, this is a major part of their livelihood.

The journey from Rusizi in Rwanda where they purchase their wares to the border is about 10 km. If they are unable to find a truck to transport everything across the border, they must carry the produce the last kilometer by themselves. This means spending a better part of the day on the road. “At times we carry products on our heads which in that case means going back and forth at least three times a day,” Verena explains.

On any given day, cross-border traders like Verena make roughly RFW 1,000 in profit (USD 0.85) which is well under the global poverty line of USD 2.15. Trade at the border is the sole source of income for her family.

Aside from slim profits, female cross-border traders like Verena face other obstacles to generating income on a daily basis. Among them, restrictions to mobility at the border brought by the global pandemic led to reliance on middlemen to sell their products at the Congolese markets at the expense of being shortchanged.

“Agents often cheat us by lying that they made losses,” Verena shares. “Others take products on credit and don’t pay, which exposes us to losses and hurts our trade.”

For Beatrice, a small-scale trader who has been selling vegetables across the border for over 15 years, the trade through middlemen has come with a cost to it. During this time, she has experienced firsthand the challenges faced by women in border communities.

“There are times we come across dubious agents or traders, who violently attack us after we give them our products, rather than pay us back,” she recounts. “They do this to scare us off. Ultimately, we have learned to choose to preserve our lives, even if it means returning home empty-handed.”

Women and porters carry cassava leaves across the border from Rusizi to Bukavu. Photo: IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs

To help facilitate mobility and promote cross-border trade, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and TradeMark Africa are constructing a one-stop border post (OSBP) at the Rusizi II/Ruzizi II border crossing between Rwanda and the DRC with financial support from the European Union. The initiative is designed to reduce the number of stops made at the border by bringing border officers from both countries under one roof.

By bringing border officers together and reducing the number of stops at the border, the one-stop border post makes it easier for women living in border communities to cross and continue trading, whilst securing the cross-border social, economic, and commercial activities not only between the two countries but for the Great Lakes region.

The Rusizi II border crossing between Rwanda and the DRC with Bukavu pictured in the distance. Photo: IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs

Cross-border traders like Verena say the new border post is a welcome relief.  “The one-stop border post that is starting to be constructed will come handy in helping us overcome the border crossing challenges we have been facing.” This initiative replicates several other OSBPs in the region with the purpose of enhancing regional integration and boosting the economies of countries in the East and Horn of Africa.

With the construction still underway, IOM along with its partners is turning to more immediate ways to empower border communities by providing mental health and psychosocial support services.

Beatrice is among the 210 female cross-border traders to participate in counseling sessions. Photo: IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs

Through the Rwanda Organization of Trauma Counselors (ARCT-RUHUKA), trainings were held for 210 female cross-border traders to help them improve their psychosocial well-being and develop coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma resulting from their encounters with nefarious trade brokers.

Group and individual counseling were organized within safe spaces for women to share their experiences, challenges and needs, and come together in solidarity. The counseling sessions have helped improve the confidence of the women to speak up for their rights.

“We need advocacy for the injustices we face as women involved in small informal cross-border trade,” Beatrice says.

“We need a place we can easily get redress for the injustices and harassment we have suffered.”

To mitigate the risk of gender-based violence while trading, they have found strength in numbers.  Francoise, a mother of six and breadwinner for her family, joined a cooperative where she works together with other female cross-border traders.

Francoise picks out vegetables to resell to the Congolese traders at the Elakat market in the DRC. Photo: IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs

Cooperatives allow the traders to pool their resources together and buy their products collectively in bulk where they can get a better price.

“We are working with our fellow women in these cooperatives,” Francoise shares. “Besides helping us form these cooperatives, they also supported us by adding working capital on to what we had.”

A total of 950 women in 13 cooperatives have since collectively received seed funding of USD 30,000, boosting their financial power to trade and eventually scale up their businesses.

In addition to financial support, trainings were also conducted for women in the cooperatives to help them work together better. “We leverage each other’s strength in the form of ideas and resources to speed up progress,” Francoise explains.

Claude, IOM’s Senior Project Assistant monitors the progress of the women’s collectives at the local market. Photo: IOM 2023/Robert Kovacs

Building on each other’s strength, women in border communities remain as resilient as ever with high hopes for the future.

“This trade is our lifeline. Despite the challenges, many of us have not given up,” Verena states with pride. “We hope to work even harder going forward to reach a point where we can afford to send our children to better schools.”

Story written by Robert Kovacs, IOM Rwanda’s Communications Officer.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TradeMark Africa.