Celebrating women in trade
Sarah Robinson, Operations Director of South Africa-based Bean There Coffee Company, has three words tattooed on the inside of her left wrist that sum up the way she runs her business and her life: ‘Be the change’.
‘Had I done the tattoo 10 years ago, it would be “save the world”,’ says Robinson, who has had the tattoo for almost two years. ‘Over the years, a lot happens and you realize it’s not about changing the world but about people along the way and being the change.’
Her ‘be the change’ mindset led Robinson to leave Canada in September 2005 to join her brother, Jonathan, in South Africa to build up a coffee company. She made the move armed with a desire to ‘make a difference in a lot of people’s lives’.
They had big plans for their business from the start: Bean There is the first Fairtrade-certified coffee roaster in South Africa. As such, the company pays the producers they partner with fair wages, a step towards creating a sustainable difference in their lives.
In August 2012, Robinson attended a leadership training course coordinated by ITC and the International Women’s Coffee Association in Nairobi, Kenya, where she met women entrepreneurs from all over Africa, Guatemala, Japan and the United States of America.
‘One of the most amazing things for me there was that it really brought into focus the challenges faced by women in coffee, and particularly in African coffee,’ says Robinson. ‘I’ve never been a big feminist, but learning about it, and the options and the hardships, really got me thinking about how we do trade. Even though we’re doing it fairly, we haven’t been checking on the women’s side.’
The training course propelled Robinson to work towards the empowerment of women in the coffee industry by providing them with job opportunities, doing business with them, and equipping them to take on leadership roles in their communities.
At its core, Bean There was formed to create jobs. Robinson says the ultimate goal is to make a sustainable difference in the lives of African coffee producers by providing them with the opportunity to eventually own their own businesses. ‘I think the potential for African coffee is huge,’ Robinson says.
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Hand-woven textiles and natural dyes from Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, two of the poorest countries on Earth, are finding their way into the global fashion industry through the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI). The initiative has expanded into West Africa, linking micro-producers with fashion buyers in Europe.
The EFI works to improve the livelihoods of micro-entrepreneurs and marginalized community groups in East Africa, West Africa and Haiti by connecting them with large fashion houses and providing assistance for the creation of handcrafted treasures that consumers crave. Some of the world’s top fashion designers, such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Ilaria Venturini Fendi and Sass & Bide, support the initiative, which at its peak involved more than 7,000 artisans, most of them women.
The EFI began as a pilot project in 2007 in Kenya and Uganda. The ‘informal sector' – which includes people who are excluded from the mainstream economy and usually do not have access to banking or savings facilities – is estimated to account for more than one-third of Kenya’s gross domestic product. Since the project began, the EFI has been assisting artisans to gain a formal income and access to banking services.
In Kenya, women involved in the EFI produce accessories, mostly bags, as well as jewellery and shoes. In Burkina Faso and Mali, women process, dye and weave cotton into fabrics that command high prices on international markets. In Ghana, where almost 30% of the population survives on less than US$ 1.25 a day, the EFI is assisting design talent to establish their brands and build their businesses, providing work for a wide range of people, from seamstresses to accountants.
The EFI, which is funded by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), as well as Germany, Norway and Japan, uses fashion as a vehicle out of poverty, connecting marginalized communities, organized into business cooperatives, to international value chains in the fashion industry. The initiative empowers women, allowing them to earn a regular income, improve the circumstances of their families and their communities, grow in confidence, and gain respect.
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E. Nduwimana exports rice from Burundi to Rwanda and, like many other women in informal cross-border trade (WICBT) in sub-Saharan Africa, she avoids official border crossings. ‘I face many problems clearing goods across our borders. For this reason, some of us have been exporting goods using unlisted border routes,’ she said.
Exporting through official border crossings is challenging, leading to major delays: export regulations are opaque, exporters are often charged high processing fees, transport conditions are poor, and women traders are sometimes subject to harassment by border guards, leading to violence. Due to such obstacles and dangers and a general level of ignorance about customs formalities such as required documentation, the majority of WICBTs choose to operate outside existing formal systems. This can lead to problems and lower prices at the point of sale, since they cannot prove the origin of their goods.
It is estimated that 70% of informal cross-border trade in sub-Saharan Africa is undertaken by women and youth (United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2009). At the Nemba border crossing between Rwanda and Burundi, for example, many women transport their commodities, mainly clothing and shoes, in their handbags, while youth transport soft drinks and beer on wooden carts and bicycles.
While all parties agree on the benefits of formal over informal trade, making the actual transition is not easy.
In a seminar organized by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the Association des femmes d’affaires du Burundi, Nduwimana and her fellow traders were provided with information on border formalities. The training was part of a project to build the capacity of WICBTs in the EAC and South Sudan. This project was implemented in 2012 in cooperation with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa following the successful running of a pilot programme that ended in 2012 and that moved 200 Ugandan WICBTs from informal to formal trade.
WICBT associations are setting up trade hubs at several border crossings. As a member of an association, Nduwimana is entitled to free access to all the services provided by the project, including the hub. Membership also serves as a means of networking, speaking to the government with one voice, and mobilizing resources, including loans and financial services.
Staff at the hub facilitate trade by making it easier for traders to complete all border processes at one centre. WICBTs benefit from a reduction in export times and costs, increased levels of compliance with cross-border procedures, and an efficient and transparent fast-track clearance system.
This one-stop, single-window approach makes exporting much smoother for WICBTs. The hub also offers training, advice on export business issues, and information on investment and growth opportunities, and advocates for a reduction of non-tariff barriers that affect their business. Hubs have been set up at the Kobero, Gasenyi and Mutukala border crossings since December 2012, and will be rolled out to all official border points among the five EAC countries and South Sudan over the next few years, contributing to regional integration towards both trade and women’s empowerment.
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The International Trade Centre (ITC) and UN Women will scale up their cooperation to facilitate the creation of more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for women.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women and Arancha González, Executive Director of ITC met in Geneva in January 2014, looking to find ways to deepen collaboration between the two United Nations organizations.
In particular, the leaders of the two agencies want to increase efforts to ensure that more services and goods are sourced from women-owned businesses. Women entrepreneurs are a growing economic force with 34% of firms worldwide having female participation in ownership, and yet women access a limited share of procurement opportunities.
In addition, they want to increase assistance to women in post-conflict countries, to empower them to participate in trade and achieve economic independence.
‘For UN Women to help create greater economic empowerment for women, it is important to work together with other UN agencies such as ITC,’ said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. ‘This, as well as greater cooperation with the private sector and civil society, will better enable us to create opportunities for women to become economic citizens, for women to become entrepreneurs, for women to create jobs for themselves and as such alleviate poverty.’
Both agencies share the view that economic empowerment is important in a post-2015 development context.
‘From now until 2030, up to 80% of jobs globally will be created by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs),’ Ms. González said. ‘Most women will be employed by SMEs or actually own SMEs. This has to be reflected in the shaping of the post-2015 development agenda.’
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said that a closer partnership with ITC and other United Nations agencies would allow UN Women to take advantage of their business and trade-related expertise, thereby enabling UN Women to expand work in sectors ‘in which destiny-changing economic growth … is possible’.
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