Article by Maria Immanuel, International Trade expert, Namibia.
Africa has the most women entrepreneurs in the world. Female entrepreneurship in Sub-Sahara Africa is estimated to be the highest in the world at 25.9%, while globally is 10%. As many women entrepreneurs emerge, they provide a powerful tool to drive economic development and unlock an untapped segment of many African economies.
A country can only create opportunities through policies and legislation. However, if these policies and legislation are not crafted and implemented to accommodate the needs of women in trade, then they can equally deny them opportunities to grow which further undermines their contributions to the growth of the economy.
So how can African governments unlock the economic value held by women in trade?
One has to look at the landscape in which women in trade participate and identify opportunities for growth. Generally, women in trade are mainly participating in the informal economy, whether in the domestic market or cross border trade. In Namibia, a recent study by the Ministry of Labour, revealed that, 70% of women are employed in the informal sector. The challenge faced by many African countries is the lack of timely and up to date data on the informal economy and since policies are crafted based mainly on formal data which is available, this inherently disadvantage African economies to derive maximum value from the larger population of women in trade.
At the continental level, we speak of the informal cross border trade. Again, much of the informal cross border trade in Africa is driven by women. For Namibia, the informal cross border trade is happening mainly with Angola, Zambia and South Africa. According to the Namibia Statistics Agency (NSA) a study on Informal Cross Border Trade was conducted in 2015 and revealed that the informal export value was recorded to be US 916 000 while the informal import value was US 108 00.
While market dynamics are changing every day, the NSA has not released any follow up study on the informal cross border trade ever since. It then becomes difficult for one to analyze the growth trend of the informal cross border trade and this undermines the economic value contribution by this important segment of the economy in formal reporting and decision making. This indirectly affects the growth of women in trade.
Some of the commodities traded in the informal cross border trade by Namibia includes, exporting of fish, clothing and textiles, building materials, meat, vehicle parts and bicycles and food staffs such as dairy products, maize and mahangu flour and toiletries. On the other hand, imports include, alcoholic beverages and tobacco, clothing, jewelry, and vegetables.
In domestic market, the informal sector is characterized mainly by the food services, textile manufacturing, retailers (boutique owners), art and craft as well as Agriculture. Those in production like textile manufacturing and agriculture requires special assistance to scale up production and supply the formal market. Boutique owners who are largely women, are participating in international trade as they fly to countries like China to source their stock. Governments need to recognize them as such and empower them with international trade rules so they move their products with ease.
Often women boutique owners are losing because African custom and excise rules are stringent to small businesses and don’t recognize them as formal traders to move products across the globe. Access to movement permits and trading licenses is partly what is hindering the growth of the African boutique industry which is employing many other young women.
With eyes on the African Union to promote Intra-Africa trade to boost African economies, African countries have to find practical ways to upscale production in the informal market and also boost informal cross –border trade. by prioritizing the development and growth of the informal economy, this directly addresses challenges and bottlenecks experience by women in trade.
It is therefore important that deliberate measures are implemented to assist informal businesses graduate to formal trading. This can only be achieved if more money is spent in research and development of the informal economy. Regional integration will remain stagnant if it does not promote regional informal cross-border trade. Ideally, this is the entry point of gender mainstreaming and addressing gender equality from an economic perspective.