Disrupting traditional Informal Cross-border Trade (ICBT) in Africa's borderlands

October 8, 2021

The Crossborder Traders Association office in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

“We need sanduk savings to bring us together economically,this is the thing that needs support,” expressed Bakhita Ghedai, a member of the Peace Market Women’s Co-operative in Warawa in South Sudan. Bakhita participated in the co-creation phase activities of the Africa Borderlands Centre 2021 Innovation Challenge conducted by the UNDP AccLabs of Sudan and South Sudan.

Africa’s borderland communities rely on informal cross-border trade for their livelihoods but Covid-19, climate change and conflict have been make it difficult. Access to finance is a central component to unlocking the economic potential of borderland regions and UNDP has set out to find ways to support and empower these communities.

UNDP country Accelerator Labs (AccLabs) from ten countries paired and grouped together to offer innovative solutions across the borders of Zambia-Zimbabwe, Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso, Sudan-South Sudan and Togo-Ghana-Benin. The innovation challenge themed ‘Improving Livelihoods for Informal Cross-Border Traders and Borderlands Trading Communities’, seeks to provide solutions to access to finance among borderland trading communities.

The grouped & paired winning UNDP AccLabs were selected following a competitive process by a Grant Award Committee (GAC). Paramount to the GAC was an insistence that AccLabs complete a thorough co-creation process with borderland community stakeholders to ensure full community buy-in. 

The co-creation, baseline and solutions mapping phase, brought the UNDP AccLabs together with local actors along the border to better understand the on the ground context and lived experiences of these communities. This phase was critical to establishing a deep connection with the border communities and to ensuring community ownership of the innovation solution to be piloted.

The findings from the completed co-creation process by paired & grouped UNDP AccLabs had points of convergence; they revealed common downward trends of trade vibrancy in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic.  For instance, travel restrictions resulted in extremely low levels of economic activity, leaving many border communities without a continuous source of income. Informal cross border traders who attempt to smuggle goods through the illegal routes often suffer harassment from border police; delays in transporting goods affects the quality of goods, especially those that are perishable, and an increase in overall cost of goods. In addition, there was generally a low level of access to revised COVID-19 information on cross-border trading and customs regulations.

Innovation from AccLabs to enable ICBT in the Co-Creation Phase

Traditional meets Digital: The Sanduk Savings Scheme – Sudan and South Sudan

Sanduk is utilized as a communal means of savings and borrowing among the South Sudanese and Sudanese women. Sanduk was created out of necessity by women living in the border areas to scale up small businesses and help to provide supplementary income. Sanduk is a savings scheme popular with women in Sudan and South Sudan that allows each member to deposit money periodically and the collective disperses the pooled savings to one recipient per iteration. This system has helped women across both countries plan savings as well as raise start-up capital at an interest free rate. The AccLabs of Sudan and South Sudan innovation proposal is working to ‘digitize’ this traditional practice of savings into a financial service offering and an avenue to formalize groups into credit cooperatives (SACCOs).

Digitizing trade and financing for women and youth - Zambia and Zimbabwe

During the pandemic, transporting goods relied on middlemen and runners, which exacerbated insecurity for informal traders. One solution would be to digitize trade and cut out the runners. However, while these communities have limited access to internet, low computer literacy and high data costs for mobile phones, the potential to leverage technology will have great impact on trade between the countries. 

Initial analysis indicated the need to embrace new technologies to overcome the challenges brought about by Covid-19 movement restrictions and arising episodes of insecurity among informal border traders. To leverage technology, participants noted that rolling out computer literacy opportunities for traders is key to actualizing digitization of trade and exploring platforms that would not require traders to use complex technologies or require constant internet connectivity yet still serve traders' needs of tracking goods, making payments and accessing financing.

Digitizing Trade with an eID  - Benin, Togo and Ghana

Similar to the Zambia -Zimbabwe border, the impact of Covid -19 on informal cross border trade in Ghana, Togo, and Benin borders are a challenge to informal traders. The team utilized an ethnographic research approach (interactions, observations, walk-throughs) and informal trader interviews at the border communities of Aflao, Nyekonakpoe and Kodjoviakope (Ghana-Togo border) and Hillacondji, Djoda and Agouè (Togo-Benin border).  They noted that high border crossings makes it difficult to track trade actitives. The Ghana-Togo-Benin Team propose a simple electronic identification (eID) system to ease border crossings for informal traders and offer a trade tracking tool.

Enhancing Trade in Small Ruminants - Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger

A  joint ‘trade platform’ is proposed with the aim of promoting informal cross-border trade in small ruminants (sheep and goats) in the Liptako-Gourma cross-border area. The Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger AccLab team believe that an online commerce platform can offer solutions for informal traders in the small ruminant market chain in view of the prevailing insecurity in the sub-region.

Stakeholders consulted support digitization of the commercialization of small ruminants and feel this will strengthen public and private investments to modernize trade and processing infrastructure; improve the management system of market infrastructures through establishment of management committees; building the capacities of actors on the use of the e-commerce platform on smartphones.

Next steps

Community Immersion Phase is the next stage of towards exploring how innovation can enable ICBT in borderland regions. In this phase, AccLabs are expected to intimately understand the community, traders, and other stakeholders need; draw inspiration from within the communities on how they remain trade resiliant and to test the scalability of their proposals. This will present an opportunity to include a community-perspective, so implementers of the Innovation Challenge can reflect on the validity of their assumptions, attitudes and gain cultural-sensitive competences.