The role of women in informal trade in Africa

Section extract from this ARIA chapter “Informal Trade in Africa”:

Women play a prominent role in informal trade, and in informal business activities in particular. These few figures are proof enough: four to five million women in West Africa are involved in collecting, processing and marketing shea nuts and butter, bringing in an estimated 80 per cent of their income (Plunked and Stryker, 2002). In Benin, women are 80 per cent of those involved in informal trade, and the figure rises to 95 per cent for informal marketing of unprocessed goods.

These figures can be explained by the share women represent in the informal sector in general. In sub-Saharan Africa, where three out of four people are unofficially employed, the non-agricultural informal sector creates employment opportunities for 91.5 per cent of women, compared with 70.7 per cent of the men (FAO, 2008). Out of those who work in the informal sector, 60 per cent are women. In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, 70 per cent of the active population is engaged in the informal sector. The majority are women. In Lagos, Nigeria, that figure is 80 per cent (FAO, 2008). These data confirm the ancient tradition of women dominating West Africa’s nonagricultural sector.
[…]
Madam Tinubu’s fame has no doubt been surpassed by the rich merchant women of contemporary Togo, known as the “Nana-Benz.” While these women have followed varying routes to success, they share several characteristics. Then, as now, these women conduct their businesses on the regional, and even international, stage, drawing on a long history of trading experience as informal actors. This results in their economic success, rather than initiating it. The volume of trade that passes through their hands enables them to regularly increase their economic and social capital (Humarau, 1999) even if their absence from or minimal institutional representation in formal political decision-making tends to minimize the crucial role that they could play in the development of intra-African trade. The factors that bring them together also separate them from most of the small-scale West African traders operating daily, who barely succeed in breaking even with their investments. All these groups constitute the major trading agents of both the formal and informal sectors.

Undoubtedly, women control the most efficient and dominant forms of the economy— the informal sector—and in the final analysis they are best-suited to coping with economic crises and making contributions that far exceed their share of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2008). All the women in the informal sector in Africa go beyond the purely economic requirements of their trade when it comes to strategies adopted to initiate, control or strengthen their trading activities (Humarau, 1999), for they also ensure household food security and mitigate harmful economic and social effects.

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