woman in African market

Ethical border trading between Kenya and Uganda for small-scale businesses

This project explores how COVID-19 has impacted small-scale traders in East Africa and the resiliency of corruption at the border.

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To learn more about this project, contact Principal Investigator Jacqueline Klopp.

Project Summary

Small-scale trade between Kenya and Uganda is critical to livelihoods and well-being in border towns. Despite official efforts to promote more open and efficient borders, small-scale traders—most of whom are women—face serious challenges, including arbitrary extraction of payments and goods. This makes small-scale trading hazardous and reduces its socio-economic benefits which include poverty reduction and food security.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this project also uses phone surveys to explore how COVID-19 has impacted small-scale, cross-border trade at the Uganda and Kenya border at Busia and the Kenya and Tanzania border at Taveta. The project seeks to understand how corruption at the border changed during the pandemic with the different public health measures including closures at the border and how the dynamics are gendered.

Policy and Programming Implications

This work aims to encourage current policy and programming on border reform to look more carefully at the particular challenges of small-scale traders and the gendered aspects of their border interactions, especially during the post-COVID recovery period. A great deal of policy reform appears to focus on larger and more powerful cross-border traders. In contrast, this research aims to amplify the voices of small-scale traders in policy discussions and identify specific changes required to effectively address the particular challenges of these traders.

Research Questions

  • How do small-scale traders make journey choices that create more or less risk of extraction of bribes or goods, and what are the incentives and institutional dynamics that lead to vulnerabilities to corruption?
  • How has COVID-19 influenced the dynamics at the border including corruption, and how have traders responded to new border requirements or closures?
  • How must policy and programming change to address the specific problems with corruption faced by small-scale traders?


The project incorporated 6 phases.

In Phase 1 we conducted basic scoping fieldwork and produced a contextualization study. At the same time we engaged a policy workshop at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs to study the gendered elements of corruption facing small-scale border traders and review policy approaches. 

In Phase 2 we conducted a systematic review of the growing literature on corruption, gender and small-scale cross border trade (over 150 articles and publications from academic literature, theses and reports) to explore progress and gaps in the state of knowledge and assess whether anti-corruption programs currently draw on this research and address the needs of small-scale traders. Our review also examined the role of technology and ICT in corruption monitoring.

In Phase 3, we conducted a diagnostic survey with cross-border traders who were invited to the overall study pre-Covid in January of 2020. The research team designed the diagnostic survey to assess how traders have shifted their trade behaviors, preferences and attitudes during the Covid context. It aims to capture how traders experience the impacts of Covid on corruption, how they understand the bribes they pay to different actors and where they think money goes when they pay it. We are looking at gender differences and also are comparing three borders Busia, Malaba and Taveta to isolate dynamics  that are more general from those that are linked to border characteristics. Therefore, the diagnostic survey sets the foundation for the next phases of research.  

In Phase 4 we are  capturing longitudinal data on a monthly basis with all available traders (cross-border, local, and inactive traders). The purpose of this four month longitudinal activity is to capture trends in trader behaviors and their experiences with corruption, bribery and harassment as borders begin to slowly open up. We are also adding new questions to the survey each time which ask traders questions designed to expand on previous survey findings. This aims to get to the correct theoretical understanding of how corruption functions.

In Phase 5, researchers will run a two-month, small-scale randomized controlled trial on the Sauti platform which allows traders to report on experiences of bribery and corruption. This platform will collect trader experiences each time traders cross the border to assess the ease of their crossborder experience in terms of comfort and costs. The RCT will test different messaging strategies to understand which might encourage the most participation in bottom up data gathering and community monitoring which has been shown to have some. We will also conduct exit interviews to understand whether traders see this as a useful tool that should be continued on the platform.

In Phase 6 we have a final policy dialogue which will allow actors to discuss findings and draw on them for their work.

Ace Impact


The Securities Investor Protection Act (SIPA) Team’s findings revealed that, for a small-scale trader, formally crossing the border can be a very costly option. While paperwork is not complex, obtaining documents to cross the borders often requires bribing government officials. After obtaining the requisite paperwork, a trader must stand in line at the sole official border crossing, increasing the chances of spoilage of her often perishable goods.

Transportation is costly, and finding someone to split the fare with is a challenge. Once she reaches customs, she is at the mercy of the customs official who may or may not charge a small fee or gift for the goods to cross. With border crossings not even catering to basic needs, like ladies’ changing rooms and toilets, the burden of using the formal border only increases. In comparison, informal routes are porous, and while there are dangers to crossing them, women seem to prefer them due to fewer restrictions. They do often face sexual harassment or corruption at informal borders, but they can usually cross the border within a single day and return home, without having to stand in queues, and without their goods/paperwork being subject to scrutiny.

Corruption is targeted more towards women and takes various forms. Our interviews with experts from the field revealed that women faced corruption more often than men. Women traders are less literate and knowledgeable about border processes and their rights as compared to men. Border officials take advantage of this and threaten women with fines or other official penalties without cause. Eighty-one percent of women depend on CBT for their daily livelihood and often use it to support their families financially. Thus, the stakes for them are very high. Officials and the police take advantage of their vulnerability, fully aware that women would be willing to pay a small amount just to cross the border. Often, women are asked for sexual favors in return for permission to cross the border, with cases of rape also being reported.

Existing interventions are not gender sensitive There are many interventions, both at the national and local level, that aim to smooth cross-border trade, but they are not sensitive to the needs of women traders. As mentioned earlier, facilities for women such as child care, changing rooms, and washrooms are not available. Reporting mechanisms, such as using helpline numbers, reporting through the Non-Tariff Barrier (NTB) Tracker, or using the channels provided by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), all require evidence for any case to be taken forward. In providing evidence, a woman would have to reveal her identity, which may put her daily trade in peril.

Policy incoherence and absence of political will at the regional, national, and local levels are major concerns In order for Cross-Border Trade (CBT) to be seamless, policy coherence between countries is important. Many interviewees mentioned how language ambiguity in certain aspects of CBT leads to different interpretations and implementations of policy in participating countries. For example, Non-Tariff Barriers are now termed Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs), but they essentially mean the same thing, thus causing confusion between countries on what each term actually means. Similarly, lack of policy coherence between the national and local levels of government causes confusion regarding what the policies actually are. For example, the list of sensitive goods as decided by the Kenyan national government may not be passed on to the county government. As a result, a border official may withhold commodities as illegal despite them being legal. Finally, without the political will to implement policies like anti-corruption legislation, small-scale traders will continue to face issues like harassment and corruption at the borders.


We continue to dialogue with Dr. Alfred Sebahene, who serves as the Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies/Head (Ag), Unit for the Study of Corruption, at St. John’s University of Tanzania. Dr. Sebahene conducted a study on corruption and cross-border trade for the East African Community (EAC), and we are able to share and compare notes to support Dr. Sebahene’s conversation with the EAC. We may follow up to conduct a policy dialogue with him and his contacts at the EAC. We hope he will pick up our materials for both his teaching and his continued work with the EAC on corruption.

We continue to disseminate our work more widely and expect to engage with Trademark EA and Eastern Africa Sub-Regional Support Initiative (EASSI) in a final discussion once we have finalised our work. We are planning a final round of interviews with policy actors to disseminate the findings and get feedback, hoping this will increase the uptake of the research. We will then incorporate feedback into the final policy brief.

We continue to work with Sauti East Africa, and our final research may lead to lasting change on the platform to assist in reporting corruption and other problems at the border.


Research Team Members

  • Dr. Jacqueline M. Klopp, Research Scholar, Earth Institute Columbia University
  • Ruth Canagarajah, Program Associate, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
  • Melissa Trimble, Research Assistant, Earth Institute Columbia University
  • Lornah Wahome, Associate, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
  • Brian Baraza, Field Officer, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics


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