Creating a gender-sensitive trade environment through trade facilitation

How can trade facilitation reforms help to create a more conducive environment for women traders in Africa? Mucha Mlingo, President of OWIT Nairobi, explains.

At the Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT) Nairobi, we work with women business-owners every day with ambitions to grow their businesses through trade. Yet gender biases remain a significant barrier to women’s participation in international trade: women traders often face greater risks and more unfavourable conditions than their male counterparts, which can discourage them from engaging in cross-border commerce.

Some of these barriers are practical. Firstly, many of the women we work with find it difficult to acquire the information they need. If they are interested in exporting to Botswana, for example, they need to know what documents they will need, what duties may apply and how to comply with all the necessary border procedures. Secondly, the existing trade environment across the African continent is not women-friendly. Administrative processes are not streamlined and women traders report having to interact with multiple entities, which creates more opportunities for gender-based discrimination.

How can we create a more gender-sensitive trade environment?

When it comes to solving the practical barriers, trade facilitation reforms can serve as an effective tool for creating a more predictable and inclusive environment. To put it simply, reforms that automate and digitise processes increase predictability, reduce time spent at the border and remove opportunities for gender-based discrimination and harassment. In order to create a gender-sensitive trade environment, it is crucial to streamline as many processes as possible.  The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) helps to do that with its provisions for improving transparency and the availability of information (Article 1: Publication and Availability of Information), fostering cooperation between border agencies (Article 8: Border Agency Cooperation), making use of Single Window systems (Article 10.4: Single Window) and introducing advanced rulings so women are less likely to spend time at the border with delayed goods (Article 3: Advance Rulings), to name a few.

While the TFA can go a long way to breaking down barriers to international trade, civil society also has an important role to play in ensuring that women benefit from the TFA. Often part of what holds us back as women are societal constraints, and these are felt particularly keenly here in Kenya. Women traditionally have caretaking responsibilities which mean that they can miss out on opportunities to network. They are less likely than men to belong to business networks that offer training, peer support, and facilitate access to information and trade opportunities. Women-run businesses also tend to be small, and sometimes women lack the confidence to set their growth ambitions.

At OWIT, we promote the advancement of women in international trade. All our activities are aimed at better integrating women into the international trading system and helping them grow their businesses. We try to mitigate the challenges women traders face on a day-to-day basis through information sharing and capacity building activities. For example, we work closely with different public and private sector partners to ensure that the women we work with get timely and correct information on trade-related opportunities and requirements. We regularly invite subject-matter experts on trade-related topics to share their professional tips and tricks with the members of our network. We have also partnered with embassies that can provide first-hand information about the trading opportunities in their respective countries. We champion practical tools to help women traders but we also focus on empowering women to grasp those opportunities and realise their potential.

Empowerment is only one part of the equation, however. If we are to truly create a gender-sensitive trade environment, we need to see governments, their agencies, and the wider business community taking action by challenging the biases they see in every day trade processes and talking about how we can guard against them. After all, the full benefits of international trade, for women and men alike, can only be reaped if they are evenly spread.

Mucha Mlingo, President of OWIT Nairobi, will speak at the Alliance community session on inclusive trade in Africa at the World Economic Forum on Africa on September 5th 2019. OWIT Nairobi is a non-profit, professional organisation that supports the advancement of women in international trade and business by providing networking and educational opportunities.