Cross-border traders finding strength in co-operatives

The co-op model offers protection and chance to pool resources for women trading between Rwanda and DR Congo

For many Rwandan women living near the country’s boundary with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), cross-border trade is a major part of their livelihoods.

For Verena, a mother of five who regularly makes the 10km journey from the Rwandan wholesalers to the Rusizi II border to sell produce, this is her family’s sole source of income. 

If she is unable to find a truck to transport everything across the border, Verena must carry the produce the last kilometre by herself, which means spending most of the day on the road. 

“At times we carry products on our heads, which in that case means going back and forth at least three times a day,” Verena tells Robert Kovacs, whwho visited Rusizi last May with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Cross-border traders like Verena can expect to make a profit of around 1,000 RFW a day – well below the global poverty line of US$2.15. 

What’s more, Covid-related restrictions at the border now mean Rwandan traders have to rely on brokers to sell their products in Congolese markets, which can be costly.

“Agents often cheat us by lying that they made losses,” says Verena. “Others take products on credit and don’t pay, which exposes us to losses and hurts our trade.”

In the face of these challenges, women like Verena who trade across the Rwanda-DRC border have turned to the co-op model for protection, and to pool their resources. 

For the past three years, the IOM has been working with a number of partners to support these co-ops in securing cross-border trade.  Kovacs explains that “by working together, [the traders] are able to purchase more goods at a lower cost. When you’re making 1000 Rwandan francs a day in profit, literally every cent counts.”

A large part of the IOM’s work at the Rusizi II border involves the construction of a one-stop border post (OSBP). Funded by the EU and delivered in collaboration with Trademark Africa, the aim of the OSBP is to reduce the number of stops made at the crossing by bringing border officers from both countries under one roof. This will streamline the process for the women and reduce their exposure to agents who may exploit or physically abuse them.

Related: Researchers meet in Johannesburg to discuss co-ops and the solidarity economy

Verena looks forward to the completion of the OSBP, saying it will “help us overcome the border crossing challenges we have been facing”.

Describing trade as a “lifeline”, she adds: “Despite the challenges, many of us have not given up. We hope to work even harder going forward to reach a point where we can afford to send our children to better schools.”

Verena’s co-operative was one of 13 to receive financial support and capacity-building training via the IOM project. The project distributed a total of $30,000 USD across women’s co-operatives, reaching a total of 950 members.

Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe (PFTH) is one of the implementing partners on this project, working directly to establish and support women’s co-ops. This is just one of many projects PFTH is delivering: to date it has worked with 14,000 women across 250 co-ops. 

“We really appreciate this co-operative movement of women – this is what we support,” says Marie Mediatrice Umubyeyi, deputy executive director at PFTH. 

“In our practice, we work with vulnerable women, less educated, with low income, who are not supported by other partners.” 

Umubyeyi describes the issues affecting these traders as “an intersectionality of many factors that are hindering their businesses”.

“Those women were always victims of abuse and exploitation, and most of these women were not even aware of existing opportunities, like the simplified regimes that exist between Rwanda and DRC to facilitate their trade,” she explains.

Related: Co-ops used to formalise economy in Senegal

“Because they are working informally, they’re prone to many issues that have an effect on them … So what we do to help them first of all is to formalise their businesses.”

To start this process, Umubyeyi explains, “the first thing to do is to put them together”.

“They form groups according to their location, so they are able to support mutual aid through small savings, and then they formalise.”

This process of certifying as a co-op can be a lengthy one. Throughout this period, PFTH supports the groups in building their capacity around business development, including linking them with financial institutions.

“When they don’t have savings or enough capital, they can’t work with the financial institutions, even the microfinance institutions,” says Umubyeyi. “We link them to those, because at least if they work with the financial institutions, they can improve or even increase their capital through their savings.”

In addition to business development, co-op members have access to support in dealing with gender-based violence they face in their work, including trauma counselling, as well as wider personal development.

Umubyeyi explains: “We are capacitating them on advocacy, on public speaking, articulating their needs, creating their spaces with the local leaders [and] the border officials, so even beyond the project they can make demands to local leaders about growing their businesses.”

Support from initiatives such as this is instrumental in the development of cross-border traders, but it is the strength of the co-op that will provide lasting support for these women to become agents of their own development.

“The co-operative is like an avenue that helps these women to grow their leadership skills, their business skills, their life skills even, because they learn from each other, they can exchange, they can support each other,” says Umubyeyi.

“We are seeing testimonies, showing women felt lonely, but through their co-op can now  support each other both in times of sorrow and good moments.” 

Francoise, a mother of six and cross-border trade co-op member, who also spoke with Kovacs during his visit, put it like this: “We leverage each other’s strength in the form of ideas and resources to speed up progress.”

Umubyeyi says that through participation in a co-operative, the women also gain the confidence of their families, including husbands and partners. This family support is crucial for the co-op members and a key part of the work PFTH does, helping to bring partners along on the journey with the traders.

The wider impact of these women’s co-ops is significant – for their families, their wider communities, and even for international relations between the bordering countries. 

Umubyeyi explains the value of the relationship between Rwandan co-ops and their counterparts in the DRC.

“When there is some kind of crisis, where women from here cannot cross, the women in DRC say, don’t come here today, [stay there and we will come to you].

“That is really important…because it is creating this kind of relationship.

“We know that when it comes to war and conflict, women don’t have many spaces for negotiation. But if we can at least mention how the war and conflict is affecting the women’s businesses, this voice can be heard at least. That is what we want also, to influence the peace negotiation through the women co-operatives”.

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