Women in Trade: A Zimbabwean Perspective


Kimberley Wadzanai Nyajeka

Of late, the discourse surrounding international trade has been focused on the US-China Trade war, as well as the deal the UK is likely to get following Brexit. At face value, it would seem that international trade is only something more developed and diverse economies would be concerned with. After all, Africa states are ‘passive participants’ in international trade patterns existing at the periphery of the global economy; with intra-African trade contributing less that 20% of the global trade share. International trade regulations should thus have little to no bearing on the life of an ordinary African, let alone the average Zimbabwean struggling to make ends meet in our ailing economy.

Despite what appears at face value, international trade has had a substantial impact on shaping of our continent since the wave of de-colonisation throughout the 20th Century.

In 1963, 32 Heads of independent African States signed the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Charter, articulating the vision of a politically and economically independent Africa- full independence from colonial rule could not be achieved without continental economic integration to erase all social and economic ties to the former colonial powers. As more countries gained independence, states formed regional economic communities (RECs), promoting commercial, political and social co-operation between member states. Such RECs include the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) and the Community of Central African States (ECCAS) to name a few. There are currently 14 RECs established and operating in Africa, each existing as a free-trade area or containing a free trade protocol or agreement in their constituting documents.

The idea behind free trade is to ensure the ease of movement of goods, services, money and labour between states through lowering tariffs (a tax or duty placed on imports or exports), streamlining cross-border regulations (e.g. creating universal licences and permits), ensuring the easy movement of persons between states, and removing other non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g. labelling requirements or import bans/restrictions on certain goods). Better trade facilitation provides greater market access for businesses, diverse product selection for consumers and a wide range of social and economic opportunities for individuals. With so many free trade agreements in operation, theoretically speaking, it should be easy to trade and ‘do business’ in Africa. However, we are aware that this is not the reality. Importing and exporting goods and services within Africa is unreasonably expensive and a logistical nightmare. African governments, despite freely signing and ratifying agreements to the contrary, view revenue gained for charging exorbitant import and export duties as major source of revenue and foreign currency. The REC agreements create legally binding trade facilitation regulations for the signatory states. However, these tend to be met with half-hearted or no compliance what so ever by individual states; which fail to promulgate domestic laws to ensure the envisioned trade facilitation are actually put in place. As such, imports are met ridiculous duties and customs officials taking full advantage of the gaps in regulation demand bribes from importers trying to get their goods through a port or across a border.

While the lack of compliance with REC trade agreements has a very detrimental impact on large commercial companies and wholesale traders in Zimbabwe, this is devasting on the informal cross-border trading sector. Informal cross- border trade is hailed as the enterprise that kept Zimbabwe afloat during the 2008 economic crisis and continues to be a vital to the survival of millions of Zimbabweans in the current economic crisis. It is estimated that informal cross border trade accounts 40% of intra-SADC trade, with 30% of this being from imports brought into Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Cross Border Traders Association estimates that 80% of informal cross-border traders are women, whose activities provide about 60% of the non-agricultural informal employment opportunities in the country. According the African Development Bank, some 65% of Zimbabwe’s population rely directly or indirectly on this informal form of international trade to survive.

Despite the vital role informal cross border trade has played in the Zimbabwean economy, government has done very little to ensure the promotion and protection of the industry, from which over 3 million Zimbabweans, most of whom are women, make a living. Such cross-border trade is a high-risk venture, involving corruption, sexual abuse, robbery and harassment by criminals, police customs officials alike. Traders try by all means to cut costs, thus taking unregulated forms of public transportation to and from their destination and opting to sleep over in shanty campsites outside border towns. In addition to the exorbitant duties charged to informal traders, because of the current expense and inefficiency of the issuing of passports, many women opt to cross the borders by illegal means by making deals with bus drivers to smuggle them across a border post, or crossing crocodile invested rivers and untamed forests- risking their lives and goods just to make ends meet. The Alternative Business Alliance: Cross Border Trade (ABA) has noted that women remain vulnerable, regardless of whether or not they have adequate travel documentation. Drivers and border officials sexually abuse these women in order the facilitate their smooth passage, resulting the engendered perception that women cross-border traders are of loose moral behaviour. This leaves them vulnerable to the aforementioned violations on either side of a border.

While the bodies of Zimbabwean women have been found, many reported missing and cases of rape opened against customs officials, little has been done to ensure the protection of informal cross border traders, despite the acknowledgment of their invaluable role in Zimbabwe and many other African states alike. In SADC, informal cross-border traders are not recognised as ‘business persons’ for visa purposes, but as holiday makers. Thus they are subject to high customs duties and are disqualified from the benefits of having a formal trading license, which include fast tracking the import process, and the option of insurance in case of the theft or destruction of goods. While the government of Zimbabwe has relaxed regulations on the import of second-hand clothes, and has repealed Statutory Instrument 64.2016 (banning the import of foodstuffs and other commodities), no policies have been put forward to better facilitate informal cross border trade for the protection of these traders. Once more, these traders also have to deal with the local police chasing them out of the Central Business District where they sell the goods they risked their lives to import- regardless of whether they are licensed to sell or at situated as a designated selling point. Seeking justice for these gross violations will continue to be a painstaking process for these women.

Zimbabwe has signed and ratified both the African Union (AU) African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement- committing to improve the facilitation of trade in goods and services across its borders. Likewise, as a member of SADC and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Zimbabwe has committed to undertaking the various trade facilitation initiatives that will faster licensing and payment options for traders. While these agreements and initiatives are are important, they stand to only benefit the formal trade sector, still leaving participants in the informal sector vulnerable to continued abuse. It is vital that policy be put forward recognising the commercial status of all members of the informal sector, as this what will continue to bolster the economy for the foreseeable future; the revitalisation of local industries will not readily remove the need for informal trade. The survival of large portion of the population is carried in the plastic bags these women- they are providing affordable access to basic commodities at the expense of their dignity, and in many cases their lives.