You take your life in your hands when you cross the Makona River. Winding through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the river is deep, wide and long. I’ve made it across, in the dugout canoes that ferry passengers back and forth over the borders and it’s scary. Up to ten people squeezed in, alongside sacks of flour, rice, palm oil, handicrafts and other goods. No life jackets.
For women entrepreneurs in these three countries, such risks are their livelihood. It’s a tough trade. On each of the market days within travelling distance of the river border the women leave their homes early in the morning. To get their market goods over they may have to cross the river multiple times, before loading up a truck, ready for a long, rough road journey. Sometimes the journey is too long to return home by nightfall.
Despite such obstacles these women are an economically important group, they make up 70 per cent of Sierra Leone’s cross-border traders. Yet, it’s hard for them to access to business development and financial services that could help them assess and reach potentially profitable markets. Many are barely literate, or not at all, and they also lack business and technical skills.
I work in the Secretariat of the Mano River Union (MRU) – an international association bringing together representatives from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with the aim of accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural advancement.
This role brought me face-to-face with the challenges these cross-border women traders face. We decided one way to help would be to link them up with other women in similar situations – in other words, ‘South-South cooperation’.
We took our group of women entrepreneurs to the secretariat of the East African Community (EAC) in Arusha, northern Tanzania, and then to the Namanga One Stop Border Post on the border between Tanzania and Kenya. We found that the local women entrepreneurs were more organized. Thanks to a guide that had been developed in collaboration with the ILO, the women knew everything they needed to know about costs, customs tariffs, immigration laws and procedures, and more.
So, we took the EAC’s tried-and-tested EAC approach and applied it to the MRU area, helped by the ILO and experts from the East African Women in Business Platform.
The ILO’s contribution included helping to train the entrepreneurs (for example, in the use of the guide), providing information on the economic, legal and social aspects of cross-border trade, and advising on how to formalize businesses.
We’re even developing a mobile app which will allow the women to access all the information they need, on-the-go and in a simplified, easy-to-use format.
Now the MRU’s women cross-border traders know much more about ways to strengthen their businesses. They know the right prices, the laws, the correct tariffs, meaning they are less likely to be cheated. The guide is also helping them access a wider range of financial services, which will open the way to more technical and financial partnerships with other stakeholders.
Another, more far-reaching benefit is that the collaboration between the MRU women traders and their colleagues in Tanzania and Kenya has led to more countries taking part in South-South and triangular cooperation (where a developed country or multilateral organization supports cooperation programmes and projects).
I’m happy to say that this week I’ll be on a longer journey – to the 2018 Global South-South Development Expo at the United Nations in New York, where the project will be showcased in the ILO Solution Forum. This will give me the chance to tell an international audience how, by building on ideas from other developing economies, our project has empowered the MRU women, strengthened their local communities and opened the way to more development opportunities.
This work shows how South-South and triangular cooperation can make a real, practical difference, and I hope that many other countries and projects will learn from what we have done and apply it to their own issues.