It’s 8 o’clock on a Monday morning. Benine Maribori, 33, watches as three men load her merchandise on bicycles ready for the hour-long journey to the border market in Burundi-Rwanda via Namba border post in Bugesera District.
Nemba is about 60km south-east of Kigali.
Maribori, who deals in potatoes, beans and cassava, boards a moto taxi once her goods are loaded on bicycles and heads towards the Burundi border with the cyclists following closely behind. Today, it’s market day on the Burundian side of the border, and Maribori expects to earn handsomely from her merchandise.
Maribori says she spends three days in Burundi on average before she makes the journey back home to look for more goods.
On her way back, she uses part of the profits to buy goods from Burundian market that aren’t readily available in Rwanda like silver fish (dagaa in Swahili) and the big bottles of Amstel beer.
“I buy a crate of Amstel beer at Rwf10,000 in Burundi and sell it at between Rwf14,000 and Rwf16,000 here,” she explains.
The mother of three started practising cross-border trade in 1998 when she was still a secondary school student.
However, she and other women involved in cross-border trade faced dozens of challenges at the time. Maribori says when the government intervened and organised them in co-operatives things changed.
“Our merchandise would be stolen by thugs in the forests since we used short-cut routes to avoid being detected by security agencies,” said Jacqueline Mukandayisenga, another cross-border woman entrepreneur.
She notes that she had tried out farming before she joined informal cross-border trade.
Mukandayisenga says that besides losing capital in stolen goods traders also faced other life-threatening risks in the forests.
But that was then; Mukandayisenga and other traders now pass through the right border crossing to Burundi, which also means safety of their goods is assured.
Because the women traders used to transact their illegal businesses at night it often brought misunderstandings with their husbands, giving rise to cases of domestic violence.
“My husband was a drunkard and we always fought each time I came back home,” says Mukandayisenga, who joined the trade in 2010.
The women cross-border trade has helped pay school fees for their children, support their husbands, pay for medical care, as well as building better houses for their families and providing food.
Mukandayisenga says as time went on, her husband started appreciating her contribution to the family welfare and became more supportive.
“Before I depended on him for everything since I had no source of income, but now he even respects me and listens to my ideas,” she notes.
Though they trade in small quantities of goods, the women have seen their incomes rise steadily over the past few years.
According to the National Bank of Rwanda bi-annual monetary policy and financial stability statement released a fortnight ago, informal cross-border exports of industrial products recorded good performance in the first six months of 2014.
Dominating products were maize flour which increased by 15.7 per cent, plastic products by 53.9 per cent, sugar 25.4 per cent, shoes and articles of leather by 99.1 per cent and textile products by 2.9 per cent.
In terms of destination, exports to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) decreased by 9.5 per cent due to trade barriers introduced by the country on products from Rwanda.
In spite of the impositions leading to a 6.6 per cent decline in total informal exports in the first half of this year, amounting to $52.5 million (Rwf35.8 billion) from $56.1 million (Rwf38.3 billion), informal imports decreased by 4.3 per cent from $9.3 million (Rwf6.3 billion) to $8.9 million (Rwf6.1 billion).
Agriculture products and livestock are the major commodities traded in informal cross-border exports. While the main imported products from neighbouring countries are coffee, Irish potatoes, rice, sorghum, bananas, poultry, manufactured and recycled products.
Annonciata Bagirinka, one of the members of Imbereheza Mucuruzi Co-operative at Nemba border, says access to finance, better transport facilities and access to market information can enable them increase their trade volumes.
“People in Burundi usually call to tell us what is lacking in their market so that we supply the commodity in larger quantities,” she says.
Their co-operative is one of the beneficiaries of the Rwf220 million loan the Ministry of Trade and Industry recently extended to Umurenge Saccos countrywide to facilitate entrepreneurs.
“We got Rwf5 million loan from our Sacco which we have been using in business,” says Maribori.
The government through the Ministry of Trade and other organisations like Profemme Twese Hamwe have been working together to organise people involved in cross-border trade in cooperatives.
As of today, Profemme Twese Hamwe works with 360 women from nine co-operatives across five border points in the country.
The Nemba business women represent the hundreds of other women involved in lawful cross-border trade, who are contributing greatly to the country’s development and that of their families and communities.
That’s why it’s important to help those still involved in illegal cross-border business to join co-operatives like Maribori and Mukandayisenga did so they benefit from government support to grow their enterprises.
In an email to The New Times, permanent secretary at the ministry of trade and industry (MINICOM), Emmanuel Hategeka said given that 74 per cent of Rwanda’s informal trade is conducted by women, the ministry is developing a number of interventions aimed at improving their socio-economic well.
“These interventions include access to finance, organisation of women in informal cross border trade into trade cooperatives and capacity building programmes on entrepreneurship, using a simplified trade regime, cooperative management, and taxation and customs procedures,” he stated.
He said a total of 1600 women involved in informal cross border trade from bordering districts have been trained in gaining the entrepreneurship skills and also sensitised to form or join cooperatives that help them to scale up their business and eventually formalise.
To address the access to financial challenge, Hategeka said MINICOM through a NEPAD project had provided the cooperatives loans of up to Rwf 133 million together with a grant equivalent to Rwf 66.5 million.
“Borrowers are obliged to repay 50 percent of the credit they request for. So far, 960 women involved in cross border trade in districts adjacent to the border like Rubavu, Rusizi, Nyaruguru and Bugesera have received this support,” said Hategeka.
Head of Imbereheza Mucuruzi cooperative, Maribori confirmed that they got a Rwf 5 million loan from their Umurenge SACCO which they have been using to facilitate them in business and that they are slowly paying it back.