29 September 2020

Women at the Rwanda border

by Michelle Kovacevic / in Op-ed

Country's cross border traders persevere despite COVID-19 challenges

On the northern side of Lake Kivu, where the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) meets Rwanda, the border crossing connecting DRC’s bustling city of Goma and the small Rwandan town of Gisenyi is called ‘Petite Barrière’ (Little Barrier). But there’s nothing little about this crossing – in fact, up to 30,000 traders cross it each day to sell all manner of goods at the border markets.

Or at least they did, until 22 March 2020.

Just a week earlier, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed to have reached Rwanda and, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the Rwandan Ministry of Health announced the closure of borders as part of its lockdown measures.

“All cross-border activities were closed so the majority of cross-border traders have been basically stuck at home,” said David Butera, programme manager at TradeMark East Africa, which supports cross border traders to access finance, markets and training.

Given that informal cross border trade is estimated to make up 40% of Rwanda’s total trade, the government introduced measures to try and keep trade flowing – requiring traders to consolidate their products and pay for transportation on border crossing cargo trucks.

“Unfortunately not many have been able to supply the minimum volumes. We estimate that only 20% of the cross-border traders we support have been able to continue trading during COVID-19,” Butera said.

Another challenge with the truck transportation has been lack of trust. Will the buyers across the border pay a good price? Will the truck drivers bring back the money?

“It’s a risky system,” said Betty Mutesi, country director of Rwanda at International Alert.

“When you depend on border trading for 100% of your livelihood – you get your food, your kids are able to go to school because of this – it makes you not trust anybody with your money,” she said.


Most of Rwanda’s cross border traders are women and rely on cross-border trade as their sole source of income. According to a recent assessment by Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, the Rwandan umbrella organisation for women’s associations, most cross border traders have experienced not only a large loss in revenue due to border closures but also a complete depletion of their savings.

“Many traders now have no funds to resume their businesses,” said Claude Kabutware, Project Coordinator at Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe.

This has lead to significant psychosocial stress, Mutesi said.

“We have a lot of cases of women saying: ‘I don’t mind if I end up dying from COVID-19 because if I don’t work, I am going to die from hunger.”

For women traders who have long been the family breadwinners in border communities, being home with no money has also led to an increase in gender-based violence.

“Gender based violence existed before COVID-19 – men have long held assumptions that their wives don’t tell them exactly how much they earn and what they use the money for. They have also accused women of promiscuity due to their late working hours,” Mutesi said.

“When COVID-19 meant that women weren’t able to do business and earn money, tensions started to flare because men have a tendency around these border communities to believe that it’s a woman’s role to care for them,” Mutesi said.

International Alert have been reaching out to families that are struggling to navigate these uncertain times, providing them with counseling and psychological support.

“We have three sets of dialogues – first with the woman alone, then the man alone, and then the couple together, to understand where the issues could be and how easily they could be solved,” Mutesi said.

“We’ve found that through creating channels for open communication, for example around sales and losses, many couples have been able to rebuild trust and have a healthy relationship.”

Prior to COVID-19, Julienne received training from International Alert, which helped her challenge gender norms and overcome gender-based violence to grow a vegetable selling business.

“I joined a saving group, opened a bank account and expanded my savings to 60,000 Rwandan francs (RWF),” she said.

However when lockdown was announced, she was unable to work and her husband chose to leave her and her four children.

Through this difficult time, Juliette was supported by International Alert to find opportunities to grow and diversify her business. She has been able to save enough money to help her daughter Manuelle to start and operate a small shop of her own.

" I have seen [my mother] struggling since I was a baby," Manuelle said.

“I have learned [from her] that through determination, patience and hard work one can achieve the best. In this shop that she set up for me during COVID-19, I aim to make enough profit to expand the business and also to meet my school fees.”


In Rwanda, roughly half of cross border traders are members of a cooperative, enabling them to receive financial backing, training, advice and information.

“Cooperatives can do many things – they own property, they can access bank loans. So, if you’re part of a cooperative it’s easier for you to access finance and markets, and also you have a higher negotiating power,” Butera said.

Florence Mykashema is a member of Gisenyi’s Kotiheza cooperative and through this has experienced a strong sense of community.

“If someone gets sick, gives birth to a baby, has a wedding or lost a relative, we are always there to help one another. If a member needs money to run their own business, the cooperative provides them with a [low interest] loan,” she said.

During COVID-19, cooperatives have provided emergency loans, food and medical items and shared dividends with their members. For Florence, this has meant being able to feed her family and keep her business running.

“[Our cooperative managed to give] 50,000RWF (approx. US$50) to each member [so I was] able to buy rice, maize flour and beans. I have been able to do my own business although there are no many customers as they used to be,” she said.

Cooperatives have also been an important tool for disseminating information about COVID-19, Kabutware said.

“Most of the women traders don’t have social media…they mostly get their information from the radio and television. This also means they are not easily able to apply for online authorization to leave the house to go to the pharmacy, hospital or market,” he said.

“To overcome this we have been working with the chairperson of the cooperatives to communicate information to their fellow members.”


There are still a large number of women who, prior to COVID-19, were not interested in joining a cooperative due to high membership costs, bureaucratic procedures or wariness of mismanagement.

“Actually prior to COVID-19, more women were successful in informal volunteer savings and loans mechanisms, which made it easier to access money quickly. Unfortunately with social distancing and loss of income due to COVID-19 these are no longer possible,” Mutesi said.

“We have also seen a lot of mismanagement by men who are appointed as the president of cooperatives even though 90% of the members are women. We need to work on women’s mindsets so that they understand that they could be presidents, especially in the situation where they are the ones who are actually driving the cooperative,” she said.

Icyerekezo Cyiza Matimba cooperative located close to Rwanda’s border with Uganda and it is one of the few cooperatives to have a female chairperson. Jeannette Mucurire has overseen the cooperative grow tremendously since its beginnings in 2016 with 15 women and capital of 600,000RWF (US$616).

“We received investment to start a factory where we produce juices and wine locally, and have been able to employ 18 staff members,” she said.

Despite the COVID-19 lockdown making raw materials and transport more expensive and harder to find, the cooperative has been committed to supporting its members, most of whom work in farming, small-scale enterprises and private and government institutions.

“Two of our members lost their jobs during lockdown. [They struggled to receive] government aid, but because of the trust [we have built] in the cooperative, they came to [us for help]. We provided money, which was used to buy food, hygienic products and other basic needs. We also provided an advance to one of our staff members who was really in need,” she said.

“We hope our other members will not be affected because they are involved in farming, which is the sole productive sector that has been active during lockdown period.”

Due to the impacts of COVID-19, there has been greater interest among solo women cross-border traders to form or join cooperatives.

“A lot of women who were not part of the cooperatives are really getting interested, not because they love the cooperative setting but because it’s the only option available at the moment for them to sell their goods,” Mutesi said.

“COVID-19 has taught us that actually nobody could work alone. People are interdependent.”


The current priority is to try to get cross border trade happening safely by ensuring traders have access to finance, markets and produce.

“Funds are needed to support women cross-border trade cooperatives to resume, develop recovery plan and boost their businesses,” Kabutware said.

To this end, Trademark East Africa is developing safe trade zones as part of a broader Safe Trade Initiative.

“These are zones around borders where we are planning to implement COVID-19 safety guidelines that would allow these zones to operate as safely as possible. Once border lockdown measures are relaxed, this should allow trade to resume,” Butera said.

They are also putting in place measures to revamp broken supply chains, Butera said.

“You’re not going to fix broken supply chains at the cross-border trade level, you need to fix that at a national level. So we are working with government partners to ensure produce can move from one corner of the country to another and improve transparency in these supply chains,” he said.

Pro Femmes/Twese Hamwe is focusing on increasing ICT knowledge of women cross border traders.

“We’re putting more effort into ensuring traders use mobile platforms, social media as the main channels for selling and buying their products, communicating with their customers and in their daily activities of their businesses. This will not only help them during COVID-19, but also in running their businesses,” Kabutware said.

Supporting the Ministry of Commerce to develop a database of all cross-border traders will also ensure that support reaches everyone on the ground, Butera said.

“We have a cooperative database, but we don’t have much information on those who are not in cooperatives. This makes it hard for us to support them,” he said.

In addition to easing of business conditions, Mutesi sees a need for a center for psychosocial support.

“These women have gone through a lot of uncertainties and depression and this critically impacts how they trade and how they’re going to trade in the future. Making sure we have psychosocial support embedded in any intervention is essential,” she said.

Despite the immense challenges, COVID-19 has put life in perspective for many cross-border communities, Mutesi said.

“Even though the trust has been impacted, people can see that COVID-19 is our shared enemy. Regardless of whether we are Congolese or Rwandans, all of us we need to work together to get through this challenging time.”

Any views and opinions expressed on Trade for Development News are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect those of EIF.