Boosting Trade in Africa: Why Women Are the Key

November 20, 2013

  • Women make a major contribution to trade in most African countries
  • Women will be essential to the continent’s success in exploiting its trade potential
  • A new World Bank report outlines simple steps to help increase and ease women’s participation in trade

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2013—In many countries in Africa, the majority of small farmers are women.  They produce crops such as maize, cassava, cotton, and rice that have enormous potential for increased trade between African countries and with the global market.

Women are also involved in providing services across borders, such as education, health, and professional services like accountancy and law.

“Every day in Africa, hundreds of thousands of women cross borders to deliver goods and services from areas where they are relatively cheap to areas in which they are in shorter supply,” says Paul Brenton, Africa Trade Practice Leader for the World Bank.

However, Africa’s trade potential is undermined by constraints that women face. The contribution of women to trade is much less than it could be because of nontariff barriers that impinge particularly heavily on the trade activities of women and women-owned enterprises. These barriers often push women traders and producers into the informal economy where a lack of access to finance, information, and networks jeopardizes their capacity to grow and develop businesses.

Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential, a new report from the World Bank Group’s Africa Trade Practice, demonstrates how women play a key role in trade in Africa and will be essential to the continent’s success in exploiting its trade potential.

The report calls for African governments to recognize the role that women play in trade and ensure this is communicated to officials at all levels. It asks governments to ensure that the rules and regulations governing trade are clear, transparent and widely available at borders, and encourages policy makers to simplify documents and regulatory requirements where possible. 

“Removing the obstacles to regional trade integration in Africa would be particularly beneficial for poor women, as they literally carry most of the small-scale, cross-border commerce that happens within the Region,” says Marcelo M. Giugale, Director of the Department of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs in the World Bank’s Africa Region. “The potential benefits are huge and obvious: better food security, faster job creation, more poverty reduction, and less gender discrimination. This is a win-win-win-win reform agenda that is ready for action.”

Women and Trade in Africa highlights the need to design interventions that develop trade in ways that benefit women. According to the report, governments and donors are making concerted efforts to facilitate trade, increase productivity in export-oriented sectors, and improve competitiveness, but these need to be better targeted to ensure that not only men benefit. Finally, it calls for governments to help women--who are generally more risk-averse than men-to more effectively address risks like physical harassment at the border and confiscation of goods, lack of access to stable trade networks and buyer relationships, risks to business arising from the need to provide family care, and constraints on access to finance which limited capacity to diversify.

“The aim of this book is to make available to a wide audience new analysis on the participation of women in trade in Africa,” said Brenton. “In addition to raising the profile of this public policy issue, we also hope that it will encourage more research and analysis over a wider range of African countries to extend the knowledge base.”

According to Brenton, policy makers typically overlook women’s contribution to trade and the challenges they face. This neglect reflects, in part, the lack of data and information on women and trade in Africa and also the underrepresentation of small traders and rural producers in trade and trade policy discussions.

“African countries have enormous potential for trade with the global market and for more intensive trade among themselves,” Brenton said. “Regional trade in Africa can play a vital role in diversifying economies and reducing dependence on the export of a few mineral products, in delivering food and energy security, in generating jobs for the increasing numbers of young people, and in alleviating poverty and promoting a shared prosperity.”