Over the past few months, the world has seen COVID-19 wreak havoc as fatalities rise and economies fall, setting in motion a global recession. Now spreading across Africa, the virus is finding its way into poor rural communities, neighborhoods of the urban poor, refugee camps, and middle and upper-class neighborhoods, where cosmopolitan travellers may have brought it to the continent. Hope exists that the experience of past public health crises, lockdown measures, and the younger population will help reduce the impacts.
As in other places, COVID is colliding with economic contraction, conflict, and climate-related disasters, bringing to the foredeep inequalities. In East Africa, the pandemic is aggravated by the simultaneous resurgence of one of the largest outbreaks of locusts in decades in the region, raising fears of devastating food shortages while countries are struggling to contain the pandemic.
To slow the spread of the virus, several countries have shut their borders; on March 23rd, Kenya and Uganda closed their two busiest border posts at Busia and Malaba, allowing only heavy commercial vehicles with a driver and assistant to cross and requiring them to pass a COVID 19 swab test. With these restrictions, Kenya and Uganda-bound trucks and fuel tankers on the border have been stuck for hours, one driver reporting he spent more than 12 hours waiting for Kenyan officials to let him through. Recently, drivers in Malaba went on strike to protest the conditions.
Increasingly, the concern is mounting that border delays which cause drivers to wait and interact with border communities may be exacerbating the spread of the virus. Delays also restrict the movement of traders carrying food from one part of the region to the other, having an unknown nutritional impact, especially with looming food security concerns. Restricting exports of critical medical supplies and food products may also increase the vulnerability of communities trying to fight the virus while also trying to feed families.
Small-scale cross border traders in East Africa, over 80% of whom are women, are suffering. They do not have access to larger vehicles, and hence are blocked from cross border trading and, if concerns about border delays spreading COVID in the region are correct, are increasingly vulnerable to exposure. In Africa as a whole, small-scale, cross border trade contributes to the income of about 43% of the population, and in countries like Uganda accounts for between 25-40% of formal intra-regional trade; thus, how borders are governed, including in a moment of crisis, has a serious impact specifically on the economic activity that helps sustain livelihoods.
The adverse impacts are also gendered. Small-scale women traders typically cross the border on foot, or on motorcycles (boda-bodas). The new restrictions only allow cargo vehicles to pass with a minimum of two people and a maximum of three and these are typically not women-run businesses. Thus, the rules, as is often the case, disadvantage small-scale women traders.
Traders appear to be responding in two ways. Data from the Sauti Africa platform that provides useful trade information, including on commodity prices, shows Kenyan traders are asking more questions about local markets. Thus, some cross-border trading may be moving inwards. Another response by the traders could be to evade formal borders and use less safe informal routes to continue trade. According to a trade association on the Kenyan side of the border, this may be happening. However, this puts traders at risk as the police have been heavy-handed and even violent in enforcing COVID rules.
While public health and protecting lives is critical, it is also important to explore how to support small-scale traders in this crisis and also ensure that rules are more fairly applied, given the profound economic importance of these small scale traders. Overall, our research supported by GI-ACE on small-scale traders and border corruption shows that much more work needs to be done to create women-friendly borders. This might include finding ways to support women’s public health and information needs in this pandemic and beyond. Our partner Sauti, for example, is working with the Kenyan Ministry of Health to use the platform to provide verified public health information to traders during the crisis.
While our GI-ACE funded research on cellphone-based community reporting and cross border corruption is on hold, we are now exploring what the COVID pandemic can teach us about the challenges facing small scale cross border traders and how we can support them better. We are also seeing how inclusively designed technology platforms like Sauti, by providing some critical continuous data from traders, may help us get a pulse on what is happening with trade when disruptions happen, and, by providing a critical means to sound information, help traders better protect their health. Overall, the COVID pandemic is drawing attention to how good management and governance of the borders can be a life and death matter.
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.