ACFTA: Women, youth part of solutions to trade across Africa Women have always played a vital role in trade across Africa from time immemorial, with their roles changing intermittently depending on the situation

Ruth Butaumocho Africa Agenda

Women have always played a vital role in trade across Africa from time immemorial, with their roles changing intermittently depending on the situation.

Because of the robust roles they play in trade, one day they are workers, entrepreneurs, service providers and the next minute they are consumers of traded goods, whether informal or formal.

Apart from working in less paying jobs, trade, mostly informal, is one area which has proved that it can bring an absolute income gain to women in most African countries and beyond.

This probably explains why there is a huge turn out of women involved in movement of goods across borders as well as inter-trading.

Informal trade also allows easy entry as one does not require any professional qualifications.

Because women tend to have a decisive voice when choosing goods and services for their household, they become the strategic partners to influence more sustainable, responsible and better-informed choices in trade.

That role will further be strengthened once women benefit from education and information initiatives that seek to promote and formalise all forms of informal trade taking place in several African countries.

Africa therefore welcomes the decision by the African Free Continental Trade (AfCTA) to hold an inaugural AfCFTA Conference on Women and Youth in Trade next week in Tanzania.

The AfCFTA secretariat, under the auspices of the United Republic of Tanzania, will be convening the conference from April 12 to September 14 in Dar es Salaam.

Dubbed “Women and Youth: The engine of the AfCFTA Trade in Africa”, the conference is aimed at promoting the participation of women and youth in trade, as they are the heart of trade on the continent, and need to have a stake on issues around trade in the recently launched trade agreement.

During the conference, several panellists are expected to present reports, several sessions and fireside chats with key personalities including Heads of States, political and business leaders across the continent.

The sessions will be streamed live for online participants.

The conference comes at a time when the AfCFTA is trying to consolidate manpower and expertise to push the continental trade instrument, after decades of playing to the whims of global institutions, whose objectives were not in tandem with the aspirations of the majority of Africans.

It is heartening to note that AfCFTA, has decided not to go solo, but wants women and youth aboard, whose numerical significance cannot be ignored as well as their contribution, in trade through their activities which have become a major source of their livelihoods.

A cursory walk in any part of the city from Cape to Cairo, one is confronted by hordes of women, selling all sorts of wares from food to toothpicks of any size.

A visit to any cross border bus termini will show that most of the passengers are women, who would be visiting neighbouring countries to sell their wares or buy goods for resale back home.

Latest figures from various research institutions show that about 70 percent of informal trade in Africa is carried out by women.

In addition, the small to medium enterprises (SMEs) run by women account for close to 60 per cent of Africa’s GDP, creating about 450 million jobs.

When their efforts are combined by millions of young Africans, who have shown to be at the cutting edge of technological advancements, it becomes a positive and encouraging narrative, which the AfCTA is ready to pursue and grow for the benefit of the continent.

In a recent interview, AfCFTA secretary, Mr Wamkele Mene, said Africa would be making a “catastrophic” mistake, if it does not include these important continental constituencies in the implementation of the trade agreement.

“I believe that if we want to move away from the old models of trade agreements, trade agreements that were criticised as benefiting only the big corporations, we need to focus on young people and women-run SMEs,” he recently said.

Given the character of Africa’s economy and demographics, it would be ill-advised to have a traditional trade agreement, which focuses on trade in goods, trade in services and intellectual property rights, without specifying how women and youth would benefit and be presented in this continental legal instrument.

Without taking away the major tenets of the AfCFTA, challenges that both women and youth are unique, and would therefore need to be looked into in their totality, so that they will not continue to be sidelined, which has been the case previously.

Some of the challenges that women and youth have traditionally faced include lack of finances to venture into formal trade, huge trade tariffs that push them out of formal trading, illiteracy on border controls and governance issues, as well as failure to secure good trading deals.

It is hoped that the conference will thrash out some of the difficulties faced by women involved in cross-border trade and provide solutions in terms of better border governance and trade facilitation.

It should also bring together continental and national institutions to implement obligations, remove general malfunctioning, and monitor compliance.

The constraints do impede on their ability to thrive and grow their businesses, hence the need to create dialogue between them and the institutions that facilitate their access to trade, or denial thereof.

In 2013, the World Bank published a study showing that women feature significantly in trade in Africa.

It showed that they trade across borders, produce products, including food that can be exported, and own and manage trade-oriented firms.

The reported, however, highlighted that they face specific constraints that undermine their economic activities, access to technical information and finances, and are often subject to harassment and extortion at the border.

“Women are more readily denied access to key trader networks and information about the relevant procedures. Time-consuming trade measures and documentary requirements impinge more heavily on women.

“They are less able than men to get the inputs and materials that would raise their productivity and allow them to compete better in overseas markets,” read snippets of the report.

Nearly 10 years after the findings of the World Report, women still face more or less the same challenges, a sad development which needs to be corrected if they are to progress economically.

Failure to address the challenges has resulted in a stagnant in their economic activities, which should not be the case, considering that there are a litany of legal provisions, which encourage the economic participation and growth of women.

If the challenges are not addressed, it simply means that women will continue to suffer, yet there are a lot of window of opportunities under which women can thrive and grow their various ventures.

There can never be a better opportunity than now for Africa to support women and youth through such vehicles as the AfCFTA, to push for women’s economic ascendancy.

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