They sneak across the border back to Burundi, putting one foot quietly in front of the other on unmarked forest trails and secret tracks. The enemy is the authority. The goal is tax evasion. And the reason is ignorance.
These are the women traders of Burundi who risk the wrath of the law to escape paying taxes on the food and small goods they carry in their nylon baskets from Uganda or Rwanda to sell to ready customers in border villages and further afield.
It is much the same story across much the East African Community (EAC) – women traders running needless risks because of rumour and misinformation about punitive border taxes, expensive permits and baffling bureaucracy.
“Women traders are the ones who face, every day, the problems of not knowing what their rights are in today’s EAC,” said Burundi’s minister for East African Community Affairs Hafsa Mossi. “Most of them haven’t a clue about their rights or their obligations.”
With support from TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) that situation is changing. Partnering with NGOs, the government and the media, the borderline informal sector is learning that much of what they feared held no threat, and that clarity on tax obligations and paperwork can make their lives, and their profits much better.
“Women traders are at the front line in disputes with the authorities at the borders,” said Floride Ahintungiye, Programme Director of the International NGO Search for Common Ground (SFCG).
“With help from TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) our staff went to the borders and asked the key questions: we asked the authorities how they viewed small-scale traders, and how they viewed the authorities. We charted their perceptions and prejudices.”
“Then we brought them together and started to dispel some of the myths they both held about each other. One woman trader said she never greeted officials because she was scared of them. Many said that they would rather bribe an official than pay any tax.”
SFCG, radio broadcasts and government-backed information meetings have helped clear the air not just on how taxes can actually cost less than bribes, but on what documents are needed and how to get them.
“Some countries insist on a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate but you can get around that with a bribe of 1,000 BF (about $0.75). But the certificate itself only costs 3,500 BF (about $2.40). So if you are bribing an official three times a week, you might just as well get the vaccination and the certificate. They didn’t know that” Ahintungiye explained.
As Burundi modernizes its small economy, there are huge gaps in knowledge not just between Arusha, where the EAC Secretariat is based and Bujumbura, but also between Bujumbura and the far-flung 117 communities or districts.
In March 2011, the Burundi Women’s Journalists Association (AFOJ) put together a radio programme with TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) support that explained tax registration, registering companies and tax requirements. These are all steps designed to make business more competitive in today’s EAC.
As a result, five women traders turned up at the AFOJ office in Bujumbura, got more information and guidance, and promptly registered their businesses.
The programme has been so successful that its voicemail is saturated with enquiries within 24 hours of its transmission.
“I didn’t know women were so advanced in doing business. They know a lot and they do a lot. Another thing I learned from the programme was how to start a business in a way that if I decided to do so, nobody could give me false information. I’d know exactly where to go,” said Alexis Havyarimana of AFOJ.
Her plaudit was backed up by official statistics showing that 20 small-scale women traders registered their businesses with the API Investment agency within a month of the programme being broadcast.
“Our programme is called Trading for Peace,” said Ahintungiye of Search for Common Ground. “It’s about conflict resolution between small-scale traders, women mostly, and border police, immigration and customs officials they come into contact with.”
“By bringing the two sides together we can work out what is true and what is false and transform the situation from one of conflict to harmony. This has to be done. Women play key roles, not just on the borders, but all over Africa. Less conflict about trade can only be a good thing for all.”