Today, the 31st of July, we celebrate the women of Africa and their critical role in building the continent. Women are a vital part of intra-African trade, especially informal small-scale cross-border trade which accounts for 40% of trade within the region. Research has shown that women make up over 70% of informal cross-border trade in Africa. In West and Central Africa, women account for more than 60% of informal cross-border trade and contribute between 40 and 60% of the GDP of the affected nations.
Informal cross-border trade has become a major source of employment and livelihood for women, especially due to the difficulties in obtaining formal jobs. Recent studies in sub-Saharan Africa reveal that the income gained from informal trade is used by the majority of these women to provide for the basic needs of their families. The result is a reduction in poverty and an improvement in human development.
The AfCFTA and Women
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a landmark trade agreement that has the potential to boost intra-African trade, can also serve as a catalyst to promote gender equality and advance the participation of women in trade. The AfCFTA is the largest free trade area by participating countries, combines a total GDP of US$3.4 trillion, and has the potential to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty. The World Bank, in a report, estimates that the AfCFTA will increase Africa’s income by US$450 billion by 2035 and intra-African exports by more than 81%. Under the AfCFTA, Women traders have the opportunity to expand their businesses, diversify their customer base, and access larger markets within the African continent, leading to higher sales and revenues. In addition, the AfCFTA’s promotion of intra-African trade can lead to increased economic activity and investment, which, in turn, can create more job opportunities for women across various sectors, including manufacturing, agriculture, and services.
Despite the obvious economic benefits of the AfCFTA, the AfCFTA Agreement transcends beyond its primary goal of promoting trade and economic integration across the African continent. The preamble of the Agreement recognises the importance of gender equality for the development of international trade and economic cooperation. Further, one of the objectives of the AfCFTA is to promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality, and structural transformation of the State Parties (Art.3(e), AfCFTA Agreement).
References to gender equality and women can also be found in the provisions of some of the protocols to the Agreement. Article 27(2)(d) of the Protocol on Trade in Services provides that State Parties shall work towards improving the export capacity of women and youth service suppliers. Article 6 of the Protocol on Investment mandates State Parties to promote investments that contribute to gender equality, and the empowerment of women, youth, and people with disabilities. Likewise, investors also, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility, are to promote gender equality and inclusiveness in their activities (Article 38, Protocol on Investment). The Protocol on Intellectual Property Rights, in Article 13, allows for State Parties to (depending on their capabilities) offer technical help in effectively utilising utility models to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, especially women.
The benefits of the AfCFTA for women will not however be automatic. This is because trade is not gender-neutral and unlike their male counterparts, women face significant barriers when engaging in trade. These challenges range from border issues to cultural and social barriers that hinder the participation of women in the economy to the difficulties women face in accessing the finance needed to expand their businesses or enter formal trade channels. At the border posts, women face significant barriers such as lack of access to information on trade rules and customs procedures; discrimination, abuse, and intimidation; delays due to complex customs procedures, multiple border agencies and inadequate infrastructure, and unfriendly border officials. Other challenges include limited knowledge of opportunities in export markets and ways to integrate into regional value chains, lack of capacity to produce value-added products, and problems of compliance with regulatory requirements and safety and quality standards.
Understanding the need to create an enabling environment that promotes equal opportunities for women to participate in and benefit from trade and economic activities, the 35th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in February 2022 decided to include a Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade (the “Protocol”). In line with this decision, the AfCFTA Secretariat has embarked on significant preparatory work towards the negotiations and development of the Protocol. This work, which is in collaboration with several development partners has featured over 26 national consultations on women in trade. These consultations provide a forum for women in trade to voice their concerns and needs, thereby actively contributing to the development of the Protocol. Other efforts as part of the preparatory work include regional consultations on women and youth in trade, the inaugural Women and Youth in Trade conference which was held in Tanzania in September 2022, and the launching of HERAfCFTA, an initiative of the UNDP and the AfCFTA Secretariat to mobilise partnerships and advance initiatives to unlock opportunities for women in the AfCFTA.
The Protocol is expected to address the specific constraints and barriers women face when trading on the continent. Upon adoption by the AU Assembly, it will become part of the AfCFTA Agreement. In addressing these constraints and barriers, it is anticipated that the Protocol will take into account measures to improve access to finance and credit for women traders. This might entail, for instance, creating a dedicated fund for women traders. Banks like the African Export-Import Bank (Afrexim Bank) and the African Development Bank can also develop financial services specifically suited to the needs of African women traders. As many women traders struggle to meet the stiff collateral requirements from commercial banks in accessing credit, concessional loans and laxer collateral requirements should be considered. Another important area the Protocol is expected to address is trade facilitation and border procedures. Considering the numerous barriers women face at the border, innovations must be undertaken to reduce the constraints of women in navigating border posts. This includes translating border procedures, regulations, and other relevant trade information to indigenous languages; implementing a one-stop border post to simplify and harmonise border procedures; investing in border infrastructure and basic amenities for women; gender-inclusive policies that provide a safe working environment for women traders at the borders amongst others.
In addition, targeted capacity-building programmes and training workshops can be established to enhance the skills and knowledge of women entrepreneurs in the rudiments of the AfCFTA and other trade-related areas like understanding rules of origin, standardisation, packaging and labelling, value addition, and integrating into regional value chains. There can also be networking events and mentorship programs to facilitate connections between experienced traders and aspiring women entrepreneurs, fostering knowledge exchange and business opportunities.
Other strategies involve strengthening trade institutions and leveraging digital technologies and e-commerce platforms. The overarching approach in advancing the participation of women in intra-African trade is mainstreaming gender issues throughout the implementation of the Agreement. By ensuring that women’s perspectives are integrated into trade policies, negotiations, and decision-making processes, the AfCFTA can create an inclusive and empowering trade ecosystem. African governments and regional bodies must therefore prioritise gender-responsive trade policies that foster a supportive environment for women-owned businesses.
Advancing the participation of women in intra-African trade is not only a matter of social justice but also a strategic move for sustainable economic development. By addressing the challenges of women in intra-African trade, African nations can unlock the full potential of their economies and foster more inclusive and prosperous societies. The AfCFTA represents a monumental step towards fostering economic growth and integration within Africa. By harnessing the potential of the AfCFTA to empower women entrepreneurs and traders, the continent can tap into a vast reservoir of talent and innovation. Breaking down barriers through efficient border procedures, improved access to finance, information, and gender-inclusive policies will unleash the potential of women in trade.
About the Author
Eberechukwu Ezike is an intra-African trade advocate and corporate and commercial lawyer at G. Elias, a leading business law firm in Nigeria. She is the founder of AfCFTA Dialogues; a platform dedicated to promoting better understanding of the AfCFTA. Through meaningful discussions and knowledge sharing, she aims to drive the successful adoption and exploitation of the AfCFTA by industries and businesses in Africa.
She graduated with First Class honours in Law from the University of Ibadan and the Nigerian Law School. She is a member of the AfCFTA Youth Advisory Council.