Source: The Observer
Hajjat Halima Nasuuna is one of many women who make a living from cross-border trade. Often, she travels from one country to another in the region vending crafts such as baskets, mats, and belts.

For easier passage across the border, Nasuuna hires her male friends to help her secure customs documents at a price she thinks is fair.

"I think they help me in good faith. I don't know whether they cheat me or not," she said.

Similar stories were told at a recent workshop organised by women entrepreneurs at Sheraton hotel in Kampala to chart a way forward on how to help female traders benefit from cross-border trade, especially in East Africa.

Themed "Enhancing Participation and Amplifying Voices of Uganda Women in Business and Trade in the East African Integration Process", the workshop was organised by TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) and iCON Uganda, a women's social enterprise that trains entrepreneurship and leadership skills.

Many women told of how they had been cheated at the border, including by clearing agents, because they did not know what to do. Allen Asiimwe, the Uganda country director for TMEA, said it was high time government addressed these issues.

"Our voice can influence policy and decisions to be taken," Asiimwe said. "But because our voices remain muted or we are using other people to represent us, our benefits from cross-border trade are minimal."

Asiimwe said women were reluctant to take up opportunities to grow their businesses in the region. For instance, TMEA and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) came up with the Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) programme to give preferential treatment to compliant traders while clearing their goods at certain borders.

Only one woman, Sarah Mulwana, wife to the late industrious James Mulwana, applied for the opportunity, according to TMEA. Asiimwe said that TMEA was finalising plans to give $165m to women in partner states engaged in cross-border trade. The money will be channelled through the East African Development Bank, with recipients getting through women groups.

Three quarters of informal cross-border trade in EAC is carried out by women, according to the Uganda Export Promotion Board. The East African region has a combined market of about 146m people. The board says that in 2009 alone, cross-border trade earned Uganda about $200m, the latest figures available.

Dr Maggie Kigozi, the iCON chairperson, said women's biggest challenge was low access to affordable finance. She said the TMEA funds could come in handy and ease the burden women face. A 2013 World Bank report, Women and Trade in Africa: Realising the Potential, said women were more prone to risks than men, and that an enabling environment would see them participate in trade fully.

The WB conducted the study in Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it noted that bribes, fines, violence, and confiscation of merchandise were risks women faced.

"Because of these risks, women traders appear more likely to operate in the informal economy," the report says.

Trade Minister Amelia Kyambadde said there was need for dissemination of information to women on how they can get their goods easily to another country.

"A woman on the back of a truck carrying cabbages to South Sudan does not need to read all the jargons in the EAC protocols; give them information, which is simplified at that," Kyambadde advised.

"Women take too many risks. They lose a lot of money because they don't know the policy," she added.

Kyambadde implored the already successful women to consider encouraging and advising those who might be struggling.

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