Almost 20 years ago whilst travelling in South America, I witnessed a strange and unusual sight for me:
I was waiting to catch a flight from São Paulo in Brazil to Cape Town, when suddenly there were scores of African women in the airport. From the way they were dressed I knew they were from West Africa. And they had lots and lots of goods.
Those who know me will always tell you I’m a very curious person; I always want answers:
Who were these women?
Where were they going?
Soon I engaged a cheerful middle-aged woman from Ghana. She told me they were from different countries in West Africa, including Angola. They were traders, she explained. They brought goods from Africa on a circuit that took them from West Africa, to Angola and onto Brazil. Then they travelled from Brazil to South Korea and other places in Asia, from where they emerged with cheap electronics goods, and then headed back to Africa!
It was a truly amazing journey of thousands of kilometres, by women who did not have much academic education, and yet they were highly sophisticated entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of international trade.
Many had regular customers on both ends of the supply chain, who placed orders with them, including highly bespoke requirements.
They understood currencies and knew everything you need to know about inflation and exchange rates!
As more women joined in our conversation some even told me they had sons and daughters studying in places like Harvard!
“So you make money?!” I asked.
“Yes!” They chorused back, laughing cheerfully.
They told me that they also did regional trade between African countries.
“We supply all the goods in our countries!” one boasted.
By now I was enjoying some wonderful food, which they had gladly offered… Apart from being curious, I also enjoy good African food!
“Wow!” I kept repeating to myself, even as I imagined the true possibilities of the future.
If you speak to any serious economist today, they will tell you that one of the most urgent development issues in Africa is “intra-African trade”. Africa as a continent has the lowest intra-regional trade flows in the world. Just look at these figures from the WTO on official merchandise trade (2013):
Trade between Asian nations: $3,1Tn and accounts for 53% of their total trade;
Trade between European nations: $4,6Tn which is 69% of their total trade;
Trade between the U.S. and its closest neighbours (Canada, Mexico): $1,2Tn and 49% of their total trade;
Trade between African nations? $97B and 16% of their total trade. We trade more with European nations (over 35%) and with Asian nations (over 27%) than among ourselves.
Unless we increase trade between African countries, the development we all want to see will never happen.
When we talk about trade between African nations, you may have an image of men in smart suits selling manufactured goods and services. This is not really the case.
In fact, regional integration on the continent is being led by resourceful African women crossing the borders in droves to open up trade routes for their products – in East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa. Some of these trade routes are generations old!
Just imagine what would happen if we recognized intra-African trade as a major priority, and acknowledged the vital role that is played by tens of thousands of lionesses of Africa who trade in agricultural products, textiles and consumables as micro-entrepreneurs! Yet they are generally invisible to our policy-makers, and are often even derided and harassed. As with the informal sector in general, there is more substance there than we often want to accept.
What if, instead of harassment, these intrepid women were given market training, and even financial support and guidance to formalise and grow their businesses? This is starting to happen but much more is needed, especially at the policy level to harmonize taxes and make it easier for African businesses at all levels to work with each other.
One regional expert has called cross-border traders “the ignition key to transform our communities”! If these traders are the ignition key, can you name a few other parts required to spark prosperity through intra-regional trade on the African continent?
# Respect for all women traders across Africa!
By: Strive Masiyiwa