Businesswomen creating a united front in Rwanda and the DRC
It’s 9:00 am on a Monday and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) market town of Goma is bustling with activity. Simire Cibolonza greets a group of women traders who have travelled from the bordering Rwandan town of Gisenyi to provide her with the cabbages she will be selling that week. Theirs is a relationship built on trust; Cibolonza doesn’t have the money to pay them for the cabbages up front so they have arranged for her to pay after she makes sales.
“We are very united,” Cibolonza said.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Despite Goma and Gisenyi being less than ten kilometers apart, decades of conflict had meant relationships between Rwandan and Congolese people have been more often characterized by mistrust, suspicion and outright hostility. Women, who make up 70% of cross border traders, are often the ones impacted most significantly by such tensions.
“Before, we suffered from harassment while crossing to Goma,” said one of the Rwandese women traders.
“And we [the Rwandan and DRC traders] could not help each other because we did not even know each other.”
“This is particularly important when you consider that 64% of women small-scale cross border traders surveyed at border crossing points reported that they rely on cross border trade as their primary means of subsistence,” said International Alert Rwanda Country Manager Betty Mutesi, who has been working alongside the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF), the World Bank and TradeMark East Africa to implement a cross border trade agreement that provides a safe environment for small-scale cross-border traders between Rwanda and the DRC.
To ensure their safety, the women traders from Rwanda organized themselves into a cooperative. This, plus investments in safer market infrastructure and trader training on customs procedures has helped Rwandese traders to establish and strengthen relationships with DRC traders such as Cibolonza.
“We invite each other to family celebrations, we visit each other in hospital when we are sick…. we are no longer afraid of each other,” Cibolonza said.
Mutesi sees these everyday trade relationships as key to what she calls ‘sustainable peace’.
“First and foremost, it creates economic inter-dependencies between communities and, as more people are involved in this trade, increases the cost of conflict. Secondly, when people have trade relationships and trust each other, they are more able to navigate challenges together without resorting to violence. Countries that trade are at minimum risk of war,” she said.
Rwanda and the DRC are not the only countries to be affected by conflict – of the 178 countries analysed in the 2018 Fragile States Index, 32 are considered to be on ‘alert’ or ‘high alert’. Of these, 63% are also classified as Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
Many LDCs depend on primary commodities such as mineral extraction and basic food production. This makes them particularly vulnerable to global market shocks, such as volatile prices or exports drying up.
According to Luisa Bernal, Policy Specialist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), all countries are exposed to multidimensional risks, but some are less able to manage certain risks and less prepared to respond to shocks, making them fragile.
“Many countries facing fragility are highly dependent on trade, so any shock in trade flows can have a devastating effect,” she said.
“South Sudan, for example, is highly dependent on oil, which represents more than 50% of GDP and almost all exports. Oil price fluctuations interact with other vulnerabilities such as high levels of poverty and inequality and low capacity of state institutions, increasing fragility,” Bernal said.
Panellists discussed how trade creates employment that can alleviate social tensions and unrest, and how efforts to diversify a country’s economy can have a peace-building effect.
“Empowering youth and women to access economic opportunities is particularly important in peace building,” Bernal said.
With its focus on empowering women and young people, Rwanda’s approach to developing an inclusive cross trade border strategy through engaging with all sectors of society to both understand the strategy and give input during the development process, has been key to ongoing peace in Rwanda.