You are here

Women in informal cross-border trade in Sub-Saharan Africa: an untapped potential to feed, integrate and industrialize Africa


Regional integration, a pivotal element of Africa’s transformation agenda, is one of the five key priorities of the African Development Bank. As part of this, regional communities have increased harmonization efforts, including the reduction of customs and tariff barriers. However, there are still a considerable level of non-tariff barriers, affecting activities of traders and the potential for inclusive growth. Despite these challenges, hundreds of thousands of people, largely women, cross borders in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to a study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2017[1], 70 per cent of the informal traders[2] in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region are women. In West and Central Africa, informal cross-border trade among women represents more than 60% and generates about 40 to 60%[3] of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the countries concerned[4]. This cross-border trade, which is driven by increasing population, growing urbanisation and agriculture, provides the foundation for a diversified and globally competitive economy.

Cross-border trade in Sub-Saharan Africa

The baseline studies conducted in recent years in Sub-Saharan regional economic communities have demonstrated the positive impact of informal trade at both the macro and micro levels. Due to the constraints of access to formal jobs for women, many are turning to informal trade as an opportunity to meet the needs of their families. Informal trade is thus not simply an alternative to the limited number of formal jobs. But it is actually an employment and income-generating activity that helps to combat the concentration of poverty among women in Africa and a means of supporting families and to improve human development.

According to a United Nations for Women (UN Women) Survey  conducted in 2011, women working in informal commerce employ more than one person in their businesses and support the needs of at least six people (children and parents)[5]. Revenues from this trade are a source of social safety, provide basic needs (like health, education, nutrition, and housing) for families and improve the resilience of communities.

Women, individual and collective forms, have established themselves as key players in trade on the continent and are real levers for the regional economy. In terms of supply, they play an important dual role. On the one hand, they supply remote and isolated areas through out-of-village trade. They also allow these regions to sell their stocks of agricultural products, on the other. These commercial activities ensure a certain price regulation (through stock management), making it possible to guarantee access to basic food products to economically disadvantaged communities. It is indeed customary to find women displaying fruits, vegetables and seafood at the edge of roads and main roads that cut across different countries. Women play a significant role at the macroeconomic level, driving the free movement of products, guarantee to a certain extent the exchange of agricultural products between deficit areas and surplus areas.

National and regional spillovers: traders as a lever for integration and industrialization

To ensure the stability of revenues, cross-border trade has emerged as a solution to counter the difficulties of supply and access to new suppliers and customers. Gradually, the studies identified a plethora of elements that are key to transitioning Sub-Saharan Africa to agro-industrialization. Among these elements, increased productivity and regional integration are fundamental.

Women have a comparative advantage in the production and regional trade of high-consumption goods such as cassava, cotton, maize or rice. This activity has significant potential not only for strengthening regional integration, due to strong demand, but also provides a platform for accelerating industrialization in Africa. Indeed, the demographic shifts experienced by African countries, in terms of urbanization, the proportion of young people and the burgeoning middle class, are changing consumption choices towards an increased demand for products with higher added value. Basic food products remain a larger portion of demand, but there is growing demand for semi-processed, manufactured, ready-made products.

To achieve sustainable development and a structural transformation of its economy, Africa must go beyond the simple production/export of agricultural products to their transformation into finished food products ready for distribution and consumption. To make this happen, the agricultural value chain needs to be strengthened. This must be linked to the diverse actors operating along the chain.

Addressing the challenges of gender equality in regional infrastructure

The African Development Bank has established its five strategic and operational priorities: encapsulated in Feed Africa, integrate Africa, industrialize Africa, light up Africa and improve the lives of people in Africa. Gender has been identified as a cross-cutting theme, systematically integrated into each of these priorities. Thus, through a gender perspective applied to the different priorities, the African Development Bank places women at the heart of development. This brings to the fore the important role that women play in the agricultural value chain. The women traders are at the heart of this agricultural value chain and thus constitute an essential link in the structural transformation of African economies.

Through its Food Cuisine initiative, the African Development Bank responds to the fundamental need to explore the opportunities and challenges of strengthening an agricultural value chain based on African cultures and traditions. This implies a holistic approach in the agriculture sector, which will require diversifying the economy by raising awareness of the different career opportunities offered by the agricultural sector.

By working together with governments, regional economic communities, private sector, civil society, the African Development Bank supports the improvement of both physical and soft infrastructure.

On one hand, reforms related to non-tariff policies, transparency and governance issues have significant impact on boosting intra-regional trade and quality of business environment in a comprehensive manner. On the other hand, the modernization of customs and road corridors, through the establishment of adapted infrastructures that incorporate the specific needs of women, is one of the Bank's transformative projects. The Nacala road corridor in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia[6], the Arusha-Namanga-Athi[7] multinational road, and the Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis Ababa[8] road project, which include one-stop border posts, are concrete solutions to responding to challenges relating to border security and governance.

Aïssatou Aïda Dosso is a Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist. She is a consultant in the Department of Gender, Women and Civil Society at the African Development Bank.


[2] Cross-border trade is described as informal because it mainly involves small entrepreneurs and traders who do not have access to financing, networks, markets and formal trading platforms.


[4], p.17

[5] p. 14