Helping women with small businesses to compete in the East African market

October 30, 2014

Helping women with small businesses to compete in the East African market


One of TradeMark East Africa’s (TMEA) objectives, towards its ultimate goal of reducing poverty by increasing trade in East Africa, is improved cross border processes for small traders, especially women. Empowering women in the East African Community as part of the regional integration process is essential to TMEA’s goal of improving business competitiveness. Its long-term aim is, through policy change, to eliminate barriers that affect women in trade. In Uganda, TMEA is contributing to this by advocating for policy change that will assist women cross border traders and by building capacity, specifically through women’s organisations.

“Women need help because of their historic marginalisation”, said iCON Programme Director, Ben Matsiko Kahunga. “They need both confidence and means. If a woman is processing and packaging juice what does she need to cross borders? How does she access quality certification? How can she get advice about packaging, branding and standards?” That is a question that had never occurred to Esther Kabengano, a 37 year old mother of two, living in the Ugandan capital Kampala, where she runs a small business processing and selling fruit juice. She was just too busy trying to survive.

By any standards, Kabengano’s business is small, operating from her home where she makes 10 litres of juice at a time (10 litres being the size of the container she uses to hold it) and which she sells on the streets of Kampala by the cupful. Her profit is Ush 4,000 per day – about US$1.5. The profits are not enough to feed herself and her children as well as send them to school, so Esther also makes candles using wax she buys in bulk, and for the mould, discarded plastic water bottles with the tops cut off. To make them more attractive to buyers she adds a brightly coloured dye to each candle and includes citronella essence to keep mosquitoes at bay. From her candle business Esther makes, after costs, Ush 50,000 per month (about US$18).

With an income of just less than US$50 per month, Esther is still operating at subsistence level, making just enough to survive, but not enough to move herself out of poverty. However, since encountering the Africa Women’s Economic Policy Network (AWEPON), which has an office in Kampala, Esther’s prospects are looking better.
Teaching economic literacy to women traders.

AWEPON, established in 1993, is one of the women’s organisations that TMEA supports in Uganda. TMEA aims to increase women’s understanding of EAC export procedures through training and mentorship. It does this by supporting organisations like AWEPON to teach women economic literacy and how trade works, especially across borders.
AWEPON arranges workshops that target women traders and aims to move them up a few notches on the business ladder. The programme starts from the ground up, teaching women economic literacy and advancing into the workings of East African treaties and trade protocols.

“We want women to understand East African treaties and protocols and the opportunities they offer so that they can come in and start participating,” explained Florence Kasule, Executive Director of AWEPON based at the regional secretariat in Kampala.

Many women, said Kasule, were suspicious of the integration process and sceptical that it would work. But with training from AWEPON, which not only teaches the benefits of East African integrated trade but also includes lessons on banking, marketing, branding, standards, taxes and policies, they are now ready for the opportunities that integration brings. In addition, AWEPON has translated the simplified Common Market Protocol into commonly used vernacular languages and made copies available, so that women can refer to it at any time.

Esther Kabengano has also been encouraged to work with other women in small groups, guaranteeing each other’s credit, and thus allowing her to borrow more easily. Eventually, she hopes to buy a juice extractor (currently she squeezes all the fruit by hand), a blender and packaging materials – equipment that will assist her business to grow. She will also be learning about the official standards that she must meet to trade on such a scale. In three years, she stated, radiating confidence, she would like to be managing a bigger business and providing employment for others.

“Without AWEPON,” Kabengano said, “I wouldn’t have understood what I would be in the future. My thinking was really narrow. They’ve told me that I can go across borders, make friends, improve my knowledge and grow my business”.

Partnership with TMEA enhances UWEAL and iCON’s capacity to serve women.
TMEA Uganda is expanding support to women urban informal traders and producers through a partnership with the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association (UWEAL) and the iCON Enterprise Foundation to enhance the voice of women, eliminate trade impediments affecting women producers and traders and enhance their capacities to export and trade.

The project will target the following issues: the impact of both high and low Common External Tariff (CETs) especially on goods traded by women, including textiles and foodstuffs;a draft national policy on promoting women in business focusing on the lack of a bar code system in Uganda and non-tariff barriers affecting women producers and traders; an increase in understanding of East Africa Community export procedures; the creation of business advisory hubs where women will be able to find the information they need to expand their businesses; and implementation of a fellowship programme whereby fellows mentor and train other women.

The project’s aim is to reach 10,000 urban women (and youth) traders in Kikuubo (the biggest trading centre in Kampala) and 5000 producers engaged in produce and value addition, who already have a product that they are trading in or exporting (notably products from staples).

“Poverty,” said Deborah Serwadda from iCON, “has a female face,” in that women, she explained, have been subject to economic abuse since the day they were born. This is illustrated, she added, by lower financial investment in girls when compared to boys, the socialisation of girls, which makes them less prepared for life outside the home, and, then, when they leave formal education, limited access to finance. Thus, iCON also aims to create women-friendly financial services that can help businesses to grow.

“Through our partnership with TMEA,” continued Serwadda, “iCON and UWEAL will be able to amplify the voices of such women through the project”.

Ben Kahunga of iCON has no doubt that with the right support women with small businesses can benefit greatly from East African integration. “There is a lot in the treaties and protocols that have been written,” he said, “but how do you translate that into practical reality? How does it touch the ordinary person, who is supposed to be the final beneficiary of this integration? The heads of state move and write and sign the protocols but the reality is supposed to be on the ground. That’s where TradeMark is making an impact,” he concluded.

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