We at TradeMark East Africa were pleased to recently launch a series of annual events we call Sustainable and Inclusive Aid for Trade (SIAT) symposia. Our first event, organised in partnership with the University of Portsmouth, brought together over 300 delegates from around the world to learn and share practical experiences and policy approaches to the Inclusive Participation of Women in Trade for Sustainable Development.
One of our communications team members shared the experience on social media, calling it “a fruit bowl of research, policy and practice.’’ That phrase stuck with me as an apt way to describe what we had hoped to achieve in designing the symposium. Plenary sessions provided a platform for high-level discussions focusing on emerging issues, building new ideas and sharing lived experiences. Break-out sessions were interactive, where presenters engaged with a small group of participants in discussing evidence on the conference sub-themes. On the day before the main conference, a Master Class comprised practical, hands-on knowledge sessions hosted by subject matter experts to a select audience of practitioners and policy makers.
My enviable task at the end of the programme was to sum-up this amazing fruit bowl! It was a challenge to do so. We had covered so many interesting topics and we had traversed from macro-level ideas—from the opportunities demonstrated globally to the potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and regional economic integration—to national level experiences in policy and practical experiences on the ground from individual cross-border traders. Throughout the event, academicians and practitioners presented robust research and experience giving concrete examples of all the themes we had come together to address.
After listening over the course of the event, I realised that some common threads had emerged across the diverse presentations and experiences shared. These threads came together for me in four words—Potential, Power, Diversity and Data.
AfCFTA loomed large in our discussions with its potential of increasing intra-African trade by US$34.6 billion, with a further US$85 billion if trade facilitation, rather than just tariff liberalisation, were addressed. Boosting trade in services was also a hot topic, seen as largely untapped potential. We discussed digital opportunities—both eCommerce for trade and use of ICT to facilitate trade, for example digital corridors—as providing more ways to enable women’s participation in business and enhanced ways to share and collect data. And we talked about the great potential of the individual trader when on a level playing field. Participants highlighted that women are likely to latch on to opportunities and make them work if they are exposed to them. One great strength of discussions during this symposium was a sense of realism. Participants highlighted that in the face of this great potential, we must be realistic. If something has the potential to succeed, it also has potential to fail.
Delegates were passionate about highlighting the sources of real power to make a difference. First, the power of good policy came through, for example gender chapters in trade agreements, and the necessity of good legal framework as a critical first step. Delegates acknowledged, however, that power to put policies into practice is critical. Where there are good policies, but lack of implementation on the ground, we must analyse more deeply why they are not implemented, and address the root causes. We highlighted the power of participation in the economy and of increased incomes for women. We resoundingly agreed on the power of knowledge. We discussed women traders knowing their rights at the border, including a call to action for TMEA to continue to support women’s business associations in East Africa. We discussed the great power of small businesses knowing the market opportunities under trade agreements. We were reminded that real power cannot only come from outside, but that self-empowerment is critical for any businessperson to succeed. These messages were resoundingly delivered by the women traders who participated symposium.
Did you know that not all women-owned businesses or businesswomen are the same? This message seems self-evident, yet speakers and participants noted that there can be the tendency to create one-size-fits-all approaches to promote women in trade. While there were some commonalities of issues, we heard incredible diversity of experiences and the many different ways women cross-border traders and women business owners in trade had adapted to the constraints confronting them. This is a challenge to practitioners in how to address different sizes of traders, different sizes of businesses, and different levels of progress on the path to growing their businesses.
Early in the conference, a slide presented by a speaker read: “Data is Queen.” The phrase was greeted with enthusiasm by attendees. A key message of the event was the importance of data to influence policies and to design better programmes. Here, we were not talking only about simple gender disaggregation in quantifiable data about numbers of women doing this or that. We also discussed the critical role of qualitative data about what works and what doesn’t. We learned about innovative tools that are helping to “start with where we are and measure progress” in women’s economic empowerment.
Where we go from here
I was also asked to share reflections on the “way forward.” It was clear to me that the outstanding attendees from many different perspectives, and the rich discussions, had certainly produced many ways forward. I would simply not be able to summarise each delegate’s best way forward from their individual views. For TMEA, though, we have a few take-aways to share. We will continue to inform our Women in Trade programmes through the experiences we have learned about during the SIAT event, and through our existing and potential new partnerships. We will continue to explore gender angles in our other programmes—for example, in trade policy, and in improving port processes. We will continue our support to the fruit bowl of research, policy and practice in our work, including through hosting a second annual SIAT event in 2020 with a focus on ICT for Trade Facilitation.
Perhaps for all participants, TMEA’s Board Chair Ambassador Erastus Mwencha provided a way forward that each could apply in their own setting. He said, “We must seek to remove the non-tariff barriers in our heads.” Thanks for that reminder, Chair. And thanks to all co-organisers, researchers, speakers and participants for committing your time and energy to create such a rich experience to enhance all of our work!