BUSIA, Kenya – It’s 9 a.m. at Sophia Market in Busia, on the border of Kenya and Uganda, and Hasina Naikaka Senga is already chatting with customers at her kiosk, where she sells oranges, avocados, pineapples and watermelons.
Sophia Market is a busy meeting point for informal traders from Uganda and Kenya, and Senga is optimistic, expecting to make a healthy profit as her customers are preparing for the Easter holiday.
Only two years ago, she had little cause for optimism. Like the other women who make up the majority of the traders at the market, Senga, 33, used to go to work every day worrying that she wouldn’t make enough or, worse, would be assaulted.
“As women, we used to work under very dangerous conditions, vulnerable to all abuses like rape, robbery and physical and verbal harassment,” she says. Often men driving “boda boda” motorcycle taxis would approach them, offering to help them bypass customs officials, only for the women to find they were being conned.
Senga recounts one of the many times she has been robbed. “After I had purchased my goods [to sell at market], the security officer stopped me and as I was talking to him, the boda boda man disappeared with my stuff worth 2,000 Kenyan shillings ($20). I had to go back home with nothing to take back to my family. I had to ask my friends for help.”
Then in February 2018, Uganda and Kenya coordinated to open a One Stop Border Post (OSBP) at Busia, one of the busiest borders in east Africa. The post, which was first announced in 2011, brought all border-crossing procedures and customs clearances under one roof, making it easier, cheaper and safer for traders to move back and forth.
As a result, women traders find they are bringing home more money and facing less exploitation. For many, the new border post has also opened up the opportunity to move their businesses from the informal economy to formal trade.
‘We Are Empowered’
The old system of border crossing was very unfriendly to women traders, says Miriam Babu, chairwoman of the Busia Cross-Border Women Association, an organization that champions the rights of women in informal trade. Often women would come up against complicated procedures to access travel documents and trading licenses, as well as having to wait for long periods of time at the borders. She says women would have to endure harassment by customs officials and couldn’t protect themselves due to a lack of knowledge of official procedures.
“Due to the nature of this trade and the lack of an adequate legal framework, the informal women traders often faced challenges such as sexual abuse, confiscation of goods and corruption, where officials solicit bribes in order to smuggle goods,” Babu says.
Now Senga and other women traders can come to work every day without having to look for alternative and illegal cross-border routes – which they call short cuts – to avoid being checked by customs officials. “Even if have to I pay any money, I know it’s official,” she says. “The officers at the border post are friendly, and there is no need for taking a shortcut.”
“Due to the nature of this trade and the lack of an adequate legal framework, the informal women traders often faced challenges such as sexual abuse, confiscation of goods and corruption, where officials solicit bribes in order to smuggle goods.”
Over the past 10 years, the East African Community of six member states has implemented trade policies aimed at helping informal traders, over 74 percent of whom are women. One new policy was the Simplified Trade Regime, which allowed traders to buy and sell goods worth less than $2,000 duty-free. Another resulted in Kenya and Uganda launching a joint effort to help formalize informal trade and opening the One-Stop Border Post.
Babu says the opening of the border post has created an opportunity for women traders to tap into long-term and sustained support on customs regulations. With help from the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI), Babu and her colleagues have been able to teach women how to negotiate the customs procedures and inform them of their rights if they are ever stopped by officials.
“Many of us are now fully informed on customs regulations, we are empowered,” Babu says. “We know our rights at border crossings, there is an organized system of complaints and a friendly working environment.”
Transparency and Respect
The new system of engagement between the women traders and customs officials has also raised the profile of the Busia Cross-Border Women’s Association, earning its members a new level of respect among border officers. One member of the association, Rehema Jagwe, recalls a day when one of the new members was having trouble getting through the customs clearance office; Jagwe only had to put on a T-shirt bearing the name of the association to accompany her colleague through the office.
“My colleague was taken through a formal clearance without any difficulty,” she says. “We save money which before [would have] been taken by the clearance agent.”
Ruth Warutere, project officer for EASSI’s Gender and Trade Project, says the main challenge facing women traders who want to move into formal trading is a lack of information. So they established desks at the OSBP where traders can find out about products and the kinds of documents they need to show customs officials.
The increasing number of women trading formally across the border has created a gender-responsive trading sphere, Warutere says. “We have seen more women using formal routes, increasing the values and volumes of their goods. Border officials are handling women well, supporting them through custom-clearance procedures, unlike before when women would fear them,” she says.
By streamlining the border-crossing process and creating an environment where women felt comfortable working, the new border post has not only increased the amount of money women traders can make, but also the time they can spend with their families. Senga, at Sophie Market, remembers when she would spend the whole day queuing at the customs office – and sometimes much of her income renting a place to sleep if she couldn’t cross before the border closed.
“These days, I can wake at home very early knowing I will get to the market to sell my goods, and come home early. I can see my profits increasing and I even have time for my family,” she says.