Women, migration, and cross-border trade in Africa

6 November 2018
  • African women are frequently over-represented in cross-border trade; however, their specific needs are insufficiently addressed.
  • The migration aspect of cross-border trade requires greater prominence, including attention to the gendered characteristics of migration.
  • Female traders require greater security to conduct trade and more information regarding their rights.
  • Training and capacity building would be beneficial for business development.


The significance of cross-border trade for many African economies is increasingly recognised by governments. Cross-border trade refers to goods that are traded, typically informally, across international borders. It reflects both long-established trading patterns on the continent and growth in the sector in response to economic and political challenges. Over 85 percent of employment in Africa, for example, is in the informal economy.

Amongst other things, cross-border trade contributes to food security, poverty alleviation, and employment creation. Of particular significance is the high incidence of women involved in the sector. For example, it has been estimated that 70 percent of cross-border traders in the South Africa Development Community (SADC) are women and similarly high rates have been reported for other regions on the continent. Despite widespread acknowledgement of this gender imbalance, the full implications of this disparity remain understated and policy proposals put forward to facilitate this trade still lack sufficient gender sensitivity.

The migratory dimension of women’s cross-border trade also deserves more consideration. Cross-border trade is not only a trading activity but is also an act of migration, with traders crossing national and regional borders within economic communities as well as international borders outside the continent. More attention to the migratory aspects of cross-border trade and the specific characteristics of women’s migration can enhance the scope of female traders’ cross-border economic activity.

In 2017, international female migrants in Africa accounted for 47 percent of continental migration. The absolute number of international female migrants increased from 6.9 million in 2000 to 11.6 million in 2017. International female migration in Eastern Africa, at 50 percent, exceeded the continental average.

The fact that women are over-represented in informal cross-border trade reflects their exclusion from other sectors of the economy, a consequence of long-established patterns of gender inequality. Two-thirds of illiterate African adults are women and more women than men are employed in the informal sector. In Ghana, for example, under 5 percent of women are in professional, managerial, or technical positions.

Although some female traders are very successful, the dominant profile of a cross-border trader is that of a relatively poor woman, with a low level of education, trading in low-value goods. Women trade in a variety of goods, including food products, cosmetics, cloth, and handicrafts. Despite many women trading in low-value goods, cross-border trade contributed to approximately 40 percent of all trade within SADC, and an initiative to monitor food trade in SADC incontrovertibly revealed the important contribution of this type of trade for food security in the region. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also acknowledged that informal cross-border trade is a major component of regional trade.

Although migration is an essential aspect of cross-border trade, it is often insufficiently highlighted. Cross-border trade is effectively a form of short-term migration that can vary in time and distance.  Female traders may cross a border daily, bi-weekly, bi-monthly or monthly, for example. They may cross several borders within a regional economic community, taking two or three days to reach their trading destination.

What happens at borders is therefore critical for the facilitation of their trade. Women’s ability to legally cross a border is determined by immigration laws and border arrangements, which need to be fit for purpose to eliminate unnecessary hindrances to the smooth functioning of their business. Excessive delays at the border adversely affects business and can limit the expansion of women’s trade.

What is particularly noteworthy is that even where traders are moving within regional economic communities where freedom of movement is permitted, they still encounter unreasonable delays at borders. Moreover, provisions in some protocols on free movement such as in the East Africa Community, tend to favour the mobility of highly skilled professionals over unskilled migrants. Poorer women are more affected by these impediments as they are less able to buy their way out of the difficulties of crossing the border.

In addition to bribes, which are especially financially cumbersome for women trading in low-value goods, women face gender-specific security difficulties at the border, including sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual violence. Indeed, the harassment and exploitation that female traders face from immigration officers, police authorities, and other officials is frequently cited as a major challenge to the smooth operation of their trade and thus requires urgent action.

Moreover, poor trade facilitation not only creates incentives for traders to circumvent formal procedures, but also to remain in the informal sector. Given the low levels of education observed among many female traders, attention to training and capacity building are important policy tools that could enable them to access their legal rights to migrate and trade.

When women migrate they typically remain responsible for organising the care of dependents. Thus, another migratory aspect of women’s cross-border trading concerns their ability to manage caring responsibilities while they engage in short-term migration.

The quinquennial ECOWAS plan of action on gender and trade views the sector as offering flexible hours compatible with reproductive care. However, while daily cross-border trade may be easier to deal with, longer intermittent absences may be more difficult to manage in the absence of suitable child-care options in countries of origin. Policy intervention may be needed in this area to ensure that gains made through women’s cross-border trade to household economies are not to the detriment of quality care and supervision of dependents.

A focus on women’s security, training, and capacity building, and more consideration to the gendered characteristics of migration, are therefore important areas for policy intervention. It is in fact at the border that migration and trade intersect as the visa dimension of migration and the customs dimension of trade are key to cross-border trade. Female traders need to get their goods as well as themselves across the border and it is this intertwined dynamic that is often the basis of their exploitation.

A crucial policy priority must therefore be to ensure that what is already a legal entitlement, for example, the ECOWAS free movement of persons, is implemented in practice. The simplified trade regimes put in place by some regional economic communities constitute an important policy innovation that could be expanded further to benefit women crossing borders for trade.

Promoting greater synergies between migration and trade policy that positively influence cross-border trade could improve gender inequality indicators and contribute further to household well-being. Indeed, improving trade facilitation, besides improving outcomes for women traders, could potentially boost intra-African trade and contribute to the continent’s growth.


Jacqueline Andall is Associate Professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo.

The post is part of the ICTSD blog series on Understanding Trade and Migration in the Global Economy.