For decades, improving pan-continental trade has been a critically important goal for African policymakers seeking to develop stronger economies and more collective global clout. On 30 May 2019, an ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement entered into force. In East Africa, Kenya and Uganda also have announced a new level of cooperation to facilitate trade between the two countries. As part of this initiative, important efforts have been made to simplify border procedures through integrated border management, including “one-stop” border posts at the important Kenyan border towns of Busia and Malaba.
One key question will be whether these policy and institutional changes will have an impact on the border experiences of small-scale traders who live in these towns. Often slipping through the cracks at policy levels, these poorer, predominantly female traders contribute substantially to the well-being of their families, communities, and economies. While making Pan-African integration and trade happen through their myriad of networks, transactions, and border crossings, many of these women face serious problems and risks crossing borders.
For instance, irregular extraction of “fees” negotiated with customs officials, police, and inspectors from two governments and the time lost in these diverse transactions, can take away from the benefits of trading, leaving fewer resources for families and communities and reduced reinvestment in local and regional economies. This is the every-day manifestation of corruption that deeply harms women in the border region and is detrimental to the well-being of their families and communities, writ-large. Depending on the challenges particular women face, they also may choose to try to avoid these costs, taking even higher-risk “panya,” or informal trading routes. These informal trading routes not only mean a possible loss of revenue for the government, but leave women even more vulnerable to gender-based violence, confiscation of goods, and tragedy such as in one case where a woman drowned trying to cross a river.
Overall, compelling reasons exist to ensure that women use formal routes and procedures. For this to happen, measures must be taken at the institutional political level to change incentives and processes at these borders to bring them more in line with the vision of Pan-African ideals. At the same time, direct measures can be undertaken to support small-scale traders who are women. The nonprofit company Trademark East Africa is working with the governments in both Kenya and Uganda to help improve processes at the border including one-stop border stops, reducing the number of transactions traders must go through, simplifying the transactions and reducing the time lost waiting to cross. An award-winning start up, Sauti Africa, is providing small-scale traders with access to critical business information including exchange rates and commodity prices at different markets, as well as information about border procedures, all through basic mobile phones. Besides improving their business decisions, with up-to-date, high-quality information, women can, in theory, navigate and negotiate numerous border transactions better.
Where these more macro- and individual-change strategies of border reform and information circulation merge is in feedback mechanisms traders might provide on their experiences crossing the border. With this in mind, the Sauti platform has a feature that allows women to report any issues they face at borders. However, Sauti users currently are not providing the volume and kinds of information needed to understand how to address some of the critical issues facing them. The hesitation users may feel in providing information is understandable. Reporting without redress could create risk with no clear benefit.
With support from GI-ACE, our work focuses on this problem, exploring how best to improve and leverage the enormously useful Sauti platform to help ongoing efforts to improve border management and the experiences of trade for everyone including the poorest and most vulnerable traders. Sauti means “voice,” and it aims to help include often forgotten, small-scale traders in wider policy and reforms.
One mechanism Sauti is exploring is how to offer more information about, and connection to, existing support services for traders who face issues at the border. The hope is that more protective social networks can be facilitated, which might enable more voice to be heard, including through the Sauti platform. In addition, Columbia Universityand the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics are teaming up to help think through and rigorously test some changes for Sauti users that can help contribute to the wider transformation needed for more seamless and integrated borders to become a Pan-African reality, rather than simply a dream.
Jacqueline Klopp’s research focuses at the intersection of sustainable land use, infrastructure, democratization, violence, displacement and corruption. Klopp is the author of numerous popular and scholarly and is taking an increasing interest in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and questions of public participation and transparency in policymaking and implementation.