FELIX NKINKE, Lusaka
THERESA Mulenga is a 31-year-old peanut butter trader at the sprawling COMESA market right in the heart of Lusaka. On a busy Monday morning, Ms Mulenga and other traders are chatting about the harsh realities of doing business as women, not only in Zambia but throughout the African continent.
One woman said governments need to do much to ensure that her kind get a fair stake in the development processes.
“It has always been said that if you empower a woman, you are empowering a nation, and if you educate a woman, then you are educating a nation too. This is what has always been said… we need our governments to actualise this by empowering us so that we contribute towards the well-being of our families, communities and the whole nation,” Ms Mulenga said to her colleagues.
True to Ms Mulenga’s sentiments, women’s contribution towards socio-economic growth in whatever set-up is well documented in the development literature and widely acknowledged in practice.
The United Nations Women and its predecessor, the UN entity, UNIFEM, agree with Ms Mulenga and note that increased women’s income is an investment in the next generation, as women who have more control over household resources tend to spend more on food, better health and schooling for their children.
Indeed women play an important role in the matrixes of business activities. This could be within their households, at national or regional levels either through formal trade or through informal and small-scale undertakings.
According to a survey conducted by UNIFEM on women cross-border traders in countries across Africa, a great majority said the proceeds from their trading activities are a main source of income for the families to pay for their children’s school, health care services and rent.
Thus, the coming of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which opened the continent’s trade borders on January 1, 2021, might provide a significant opportunity for women, giving them a head-start towards increasing their economic empowerment.
However, for women like Ms Mulenga to best exploit this opportunity, care must be exercised to ensure that the African Union (AU)’s programming priorities for the AfCFTA do not divert away from domains where women are traditionally central by highlighting the activities of large multinational firms and their businesses
According to a study commissioned by the UN Women East and Southern Africa (ESARO), in collaboration with the Lusaka-based COMESA Secretariat and the AU Commission, significant opportunities for women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses have been identified within the AfCFTA framework, notably in cross-border trade, value chains and public procurement.
It is quite clear in the AfCFTA provisions under the Protocol on Rules of Origin that the charter permits women access to cheaper raw materials and intermediate inputs, a plus for women entrepreneurs seeking to boost their businesses through the free trade area.
Thus, women like Ms Mulenga, participating in value chains, would be able to produce goods and services with significant African content in terms of raw materials and value addition in line with the preferential trade regime of the free trade area.
Also, the AfCFTA’s criteria for describing sensitive products and exclusion lists take into consideration restrictive trade liberalisation measures on specific products deemed essential for women’s needs, such as reproductive health products and agro-processing.
These are essential products most women entrepreneurs engage in across the continent and could be beneficial if well explored and undertaken by women traders within the boundaries of the free market zone.
Also under the AfCFTA, women in informal cross-border trade will have greater opportunities due to the tariff reductions promised under the protocol on trade in goods within the bloc.
According to a recent study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2019, 70 percent of the informal traders 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 percent and generates about 40 to 60 percent of the gross domestic product of the countries concerned.
Given this statistic picture, cross-border trade, which is driven by increasing population, growing urbanisation and agriculture, could provide the foundation for a diversified and globally competitive economy in which women entrepreneurs could thrive.
UNIFEM observes that women informal cross-border traders still suffer from invisibility, stigmatisation, violence, harassment, poor working conditions and lack of recognition of their economic contribution.
However, by ignoring women’s informal trading activities under the new Africa trade landscape, African countries would be neglecting a significant proportion of trade that would be operated across borders under the AfCFTA to profit the continent.
And by increasing their participation in public procurement at national level, with the impetus of AfCFTA preferential regimes, women will realise increased revenue gains and be better positioned to play a larger role in AfCFTA intra-regional trade opportunities now that borders are open.
While the AfCFTA will create new opportunities for women’s employment and entrepreneurship, it won’t automatically benefit women. There is another side of the coin that suggests that women entrepreneurs will have to fight for productive space within the confines of the free trade zones.
“As we progress with the implementation of women in this historical agreement, we must continue to advocate for the equal representation of women in all aspects of the free trade area, including the technical committees that are responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Agreement,” says Treasure Maphanga director AeTrade Group and former director for trade and industry at the AU Commission.
She further notes that there is a need for member states to have a broader representation of women in various sectors or in larger, medium or small-scale enterprises to widen the chance of promoting more women’s participation within the AfCFTA walls.
“There is an opportunity with the establishment of national AfCFTA committees to ensure that the gender dimension is taken into account so as to ensure inclusive policymaking where it matters most,” she said.
Indeed, while there is a call for women inclusiveness, evidence also suggests that the pervasive gender gap in access to finance, productive resources and assets will limit the ability of women to seize opportunities created by the AfCFTA.
FELIX NKINKE, Lusaka