Trading across the border

A beautiful Bukoba sunrise

A beautiful Bukoba sunrise

My blogging in the last few months has been somewhat irregular.  The trip below I took quite some time ago.  However, it’s a really interesting project and I want to keep a record what I’m doing, so here’s what I got up to.

One of the main projects I am involved with is helping to address the issues that women face when they trade across borders.  UN Women and its predecessor, UNIFEM have undertaken studies to identify the main issues which are lack of information about the processes, regulations and tariffs involved (which leaves women vulnerable to harassment, bribery and violence by officials).  Paperwork is complex and mostly in English.,which is not a language most of them speak.  Also their ‘businesses’ are mostly informal, meaning they have no protection under the law because they are unregistered.

The majority of women primarily trade goods such as textiles, bags, alcohol and other beverages, soap, cooking oil and handicrafts, (batik, beads, baskets, mats and tailored garments). Some sell unprocessed agricultural goods such as maize, fruits and rice or meat and eggs.

In order to see these issues at close hand I took a trip to Bukoba in Kagera region, up in the far north west of Tanzania.  Kagera borders Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda.  Nestled on the shores of Lake Victoria, Bukoba is a pretty little town.

I was met by the consultants that I’ve been working with on this project and an official from the Ministry of Industry and Trade, which we are partnering with too.

Demonstrating the weaving process

Demonstrating the weaving process

We went to meet with some more established businesswomen.  We visited one of the founders of a weaving cooperative.  They make beautiful scarves and wraps out of locally grown cotton, which is all woven with large hand operated looms.  I was presented with one as a gift, which was very generous.  I did buy a couple as well for presents. The cooperative’s main trading across the borders was to buy wool with which they knit sweaters.  I was disappointed to see that the wool was acrylic (and made in China) but natural wool is expensive and hard to get hold of as sheep are not widely kept here.

Chalk entrepreneur with her product drying

Chalk entrepreneur with her product drying

Our next stop was to a family chalk making businesses.  Founded by a former nurse who relocated from Dar es Salaam, she spotted a gap in the market, so taught herself how to make it.  The most expensive piece of equipment she owned was the mould for the chalk.  The china clay comes from another region of Tanzania and she’s perfected her formula so that the chalk is dust free.  Once the chalk has hardened in the mould, which makes up to 500 pieces at a time it is dried on racks out the open air.  Her husband and daughters are part of the business and they were busy packing the chalk into boxes when we were there.  The main cross border trade she does is into Uganda twice a year to buy packaging material and have promotional leaflets made, which she explained was cheaper and better quality in Uganda.

Elizabeth, the fish scraps entrepreneur with the raw ingredients

Elizabeth, the fish scraps entrepreneur with the raw ingredients

The final stop of the day was to the largest and most inspiring of the business enterprises.  Lake Victoria is known for its fish – mainly Nile Perch and Tilapia – and there are a number of fish filleting factories in Bukoba.  Previously, the waste products (skin, bones, sub-quality fillets) were just dumped on the shores of the lake causing a rather smelly and potential hazardous waste problem.  Having worked in one of these fish filleting factories, Mary hit upon the idea of using this waste.  Her business has three elements to it.  The off-cut fillets together with the skin and bones are soaked in brine for a couple of days and then left to dry on large racks.

The finished product ready for transport to DRC

The finished product ready for transport to DRC

They are then packed into big sacks and taken across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where they are reconstituted and used in soup.  The poorer quality skin and bones are steamed and ground and used in chicken feed.  She’s also just started making fish sausages from the off-cut fillets.  It was an impressive operation indeed.  Her main issues are losses from currency exchanges.  Her trucks have to go through Uganda into the DRC so she has to change money twice – from DRC Francs into Ugandan Shillings and then into Tanzanian Shillings.

It was fascinating talking to all three women, finding out the motivation and idea for starting their businesses, what support they received and how they are developing their businesses.

Meeting officials at the Mutukula border

Meeting officials at the Mutukula border

The following day we drove up to the Ugandan border at Mutukula (about an hours drive) to meet with some of the informal traders.  The scenery up there was stunning and on a grand scale.  We went through wide valleys with fascinating rock formations.  Once at Mutukula we set up in the offices for the market, which was a basic room that opened out into the main market and was flanked on either side by two local bars full of men.

We met with the official for the market and the Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce to get their help notifying the women, in spite of having tried to set this up in advance.

'No man's land' between Tanzania and Uganda

‘No man’s land’ between Tanzania and Uganda

Whilst we waited for the women to come, two of us went across the border into no mans land, a strip of land about a kilometre long.  Here, right by the Ugandan border we found a little office set up as a resource centre for women cross border traders.  Funded by the International Trade Centre, Uganda Export Promotion Board and the Uganda Chamber of Commerce, the Mutukula Women Trader’s Information and Resource Centre provides materials and advice to guide women traders through the complex process of doing business across borders.  Even with Uganda and Tanzania being part of the East African Community, which includes a customs protocol to enable goods up to $2,000 in value being exempt of duty, traders that don’t know the rules are being taken advantage of by corrupt officials, who will confiscate goods if they don’t get payment.

Jane from the Ministry of Industry and Trade with the women traders

Jane from the Ministry of Industry and Trade with the women traders

During our visit we got word that the Tanzanian women traders were starting to gather, so returned to get interviewing.  The consultants had produced questionnaires for the women to answer seeking details about their personal circumstances, their businesses, their support networks and their main issues when trading across borders.

As our interviews commenced the men from the bars either side hassled and heckled the women traders.  They either ignored it or gave back as good as they got.

Interestingly whilst most of the women understood Kiswahili as the national language of Tanzania, the majority of them spoke Kihaya, a local tribal language.  This made it more difficult for the consultants and the Ministry official.  Luckily, one of the women from the resource centre came to act as translator and to help the women fill in their questionnaires.

More discussions in the market place

More discussions in the market place

The lack of information and knowledge of the procedures and regulations was an issue raised by just about every woman we interviewed.  Also, a number were telling us that corrupt officials were guilty of sextortion – requiring women to pay bribes with sex instead of money.

It was good to hear from the women themselves what their major barriers were.  The consultants visited quite a number of other borders too – with Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda.  All of these went into a comprehensive final report, which resulted in a great partnership between UN Women and Tanzania Women Chambers of Commerce and the Small Industries Development Organisation.  Thanks to them, women traders are getting training on their rights; international trade requirements and procedures; they are being supported to set up organisations to give them more collective ‘voice’ and the documentation they need to bring with them has been simplified and translated into Kiswahili.  I am about to go to Rwanda and Uganda with them, together with representatives from the Ministry of Industry and Trade to learn from best practice there, supporting women in cross border trade.  More on that upon my return…

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7 thoughts on “Trading across the border

  1. What a fascinating insight into the work you are doing Lesley, and the challenges that women face every day. We have no idea how lucky we are in the UK!

    Keep up your inspiring work, you are making a real difference in these women’s lives.

  2. Thanks for your lovely comment James. It’s great that this project is making an impact. Phase II will reach out directly to many more women in the border areas.

  3. I don’t know how I missed this be fore,maybe I didn’t find your blog but rea ding it now fills. In all the gaps. I can see why you get such fulfilment because anything you do for the villagers is so worthwhile. More blogs please from your proud dad.

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