Women in Sierra Leone, particularly women entrepreneurs, continue to face a number of challenges, including low literacy rates and a lack of business and technical skills, as well as limited access to business development, financial services and profitable markets. They experience difficulties in accessing outside markets through cross-border trade with neighbouring countries, particularly Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia, which are also fragile States and members of the Mano River Union (MRU). Women entrepreneurs in these countries risk crossing the river for their livelihood. On each of the market days within travelling distance of the river border, women leave their homes early in the morning. They may have to cross the river multiple times to bring all their market goods across, before loading up a truck for a long, rough road journey that is sometimes too long to return home by nightfall.
Women cross-border traders in the East African Community (EAC) face similar challenges but have developed a simplified guide on customs tariffs and immigration procedures to facilitate trade across borders with minimal challenges. This is a good practice from which to learn.
Towards a Solution
The development objective of the project was to contribute to women’s economic empowerment and resilience in Sierra Leone by promoting interregional trade and economic cooperation within the MRU. The project built on evidence-based learning from the EAC, with the aim of accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural advancement.
A study tour to the EAC Secretariat in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania and the Namanga One-Stop Border Post on the border between Tanzania and Kenya was organized for MRU officials and women cross-border traders. The tour was designed to promote peer learning and knowledge-sharing on fragile-to-fragile, cross-border trade among women entrepreneurs within the EAC economic community and to establish a network of women cross-border traders from both regional economic communities. The MRU team met with women entrepreneurs in Tanzania, who shared their experience on managing cross-border trade and establishing their network. Additional exchanges between the MRU team and the EAC explored possibilities to develop an instrument to share information on cross-border trade, especially for women entrepreneurs, and to identify good practices on its effective implementation from both a regional and country perspective.
During the study tour, participants recognized the positive results of the communication and training tools developed by the EAC, particularly the Simplified Guide for women entrepreneurs. The International Labour Organization (ILO) supported the MRU in replicating this guide. In collaboration with experts from the East African Women in Business Platform, the MRU conducted a situational analysis during a technical cooperation visit, which examined the legal, regulatory, institutional and social conditions affecting Sierra Leonean women engaged in cross-border trade within the MRU subregion. The ‘Simplified Guide for Micro and Small-Scale Women Cross-Border Traders and Service Providers within the East African Community’ was adapted to the MRU context and piloted in Sierra Leone. The guide built on the conclusions of the situational analysis and was based on the lessons learned during the study tour.
ILO provided information on improving and formalizing cross-border trade, capacity-building activities and access to diversified and adapted financial services for women cross-border traders, which was of great value in complementing the activities of other development actors. Technical and financial partnerships among stakeholders promoted cross-border trade. At the end of the project, a mobile application was developed to allow women to access all the necessary information from anywhere and in a simplified format that is easy to use.
The MRU women cross-border traders now have a better understanding of ways to strengthen their businesses. They know the right prices, laws and tariffs, so they are less likely to be cheated. The guide also assists them in accessing a wider range of financial services, which will facilitate additional technical and financial partnerships with other stakeholders. Even more impactful, the collaboration between the MRU women traders and their colleagues in Tanzania and Kenya has inspired additional countries to take part in South-South and triangular cooperation.
The project developed a mobile application as an innovative solution adapted to the needs of the women cross-border traders. This format was easier to use than traditional printed booklets or informational sessions.
Sustainability is guaranteed through the East African Women in Business Platform, which will support a continued database of the good practices of women traders. The connection made between the EAC and the MRU is another aspect of interregional sustainability.
The project encouraged the inclusion of additional countries under the South-South and triangular cooperation modality through its engagement with stakeholders in Sierra Leone, the MRU and the EAC. It included reflections on innovative and easily accessible dissemination channels for women, such as mobile applications that might be more convenient and useful than printed booklets. Information sessions with service providers were held to discuss how to channel information on trade rules and regulations to women cross-border traders. Although these traders face similar challenges in other countries, replicating the guide requires a contextual analysis to tailor solutions to their particular situation. Ensuring social dialogue by encouraging women traders to organize and participate actively in developing the guide is also a key step in adapting it to different contexts.