Coming of age: East Africa’s women in export business learn the hard way
The budding exporter had moved her produce to the border without two key documents — a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certificate and a certificate of origin (CoO) — issued by the Uganda Export Promotion Board and the Ministry of Agriculture respectively.
For Ms Kabakyenga and her group Manyakabi Area Co-operative Enterprise, the first trip in export business returned a loss of Ush8 million ($2,205) but they stayed on. The irony of it all is that the majority of cross-border traders in East Africa are women with goods valued under $1,000.
But the pile of documents involved, the codes and jargon are a minefield. Because of this, TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) started a women and trade pilot programme in 2011 to train women exporters at three border points of Katuna, Mutukula and Busia.
By 2014, the programme had expanded to cover seven borders. By the end of 2017, the programme was covering all East African Community partner states, with some 25,000 beneficiaries — some 4,776 of these in Uganda.
Although the majority of the women exporters are in grain trade, Gloria Atuheirwe, the women and trade programme manager at TMEA said that the most successful are in the coffee and textile sectors.
“Some started with less than $10,000 inventory, but in short time have struck deals of $300,000” exporting beyond East Africa,” said Ms Atuheirwe. “We connected them to better markets and buyers in Malaysia, Japan and the US, which take a lot of apparel.”
For the first time in the history of the WTO, 118 countries at the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires last December endorsed a declaration to increase participation of women in trade by removing barriers to, and fostering women’s empowerment.
Nowhere in East Africa is the collective to empower women in trade more pronounced than in Rwanda — one of the top five countries in the world with the highest gender parity indicators along with Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden.
While addressing the 11th WTO Ministerial in Buenos Aires last December, the director general Roberto Azevêdo observed that in Rwanda, 74 per cent of people engaged in cross-border trade are women. Ninety per cent of those rely solely on cross-border trade as their income source.
Mr Azevêdo added that countries that export employ more women than those that don’t: For instance, in Cambodia, 86 per cent of employees in the silk industry are women, while in China, 55 per cent of digital entrepreneurs are women.
Customs officer Ssozi Kawere said that for a while, Uganda Revenue Authority has used a deliberate method to “listen, engage and train” women traders in order to bring more into the mainstream and to use gazetted border points.
Because of this raining, “a cross-border woman trader is cleared within 20 minutes” at Busia one stop border post.
Ms Kabakyenga said the group joined the trainings after TMEA came in in 2015.
“It’s then that we understood export processes, the codes, the EAC requirements and where to get the documents,” she said.
Individually, her earnings from selling maize jumped from Ush800,000 ($224) per season in 2015 to Ush70 million ($19,600) currently. At group level, in the space of two years, the earnings have risen from Ush9.2 million ($2,535) in 2015 to Ush603 million ($166,140) in 2017.
According to the last audited accounts at end of 2017, the turnover of her co-operative, which has 8,105 farmers — 89 per cent of whom are women, was Ush2 billion ($551,046).