Borderland Biashara: East Africa’s Informal Trade Ecosystem

Trade Mark East Africa (TMEA) was established with the aim of growing sustainable, inclusive prosperity in East Africa through trade. They believe that this will require significant investments in working to expand, and potentially formalise, informal trade. We were requested to deliver insights to support the design of their second phase of operations, viz.

To better understand the particular issues affecting informal trade in key borders within the EAC Region, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

To also understand how TMEA could position itself to develop structured programmes aimed at growing and formalising informal trade in tandem with their objective of inclusive, sustainable prosperity through increased trade.

The informal economy of East Africa must be addressed strategically for the sustainable impact of trade related growth initiatives in the region to take root and flourish. Recognized for its size, reach and importance to livelihoods, it is still nonentheless considered terra incognita by both institutional and market researchers as well as business analysts.

We approached the borderland as an ecosystem in its own right, distinct from the more agriculture dominated economy across rural East Africa, with greater emphasis on trade and services. The vast majority of this activity falls within the informal sector, as is the case with the bulk of the region’s economy. Considering it an ecosystem allowed us to take a holistic view of the entire operating environment of the borderland economy.

Our second decision was to step back from the labels of informal economy and informal trade with all their contradictory definitions, categorization and implications of illegality to consider only what is colloquially known as biashara. The kiSwahili word biashara can mean business, commerce, trade, the business enterprise itself as well as barter. This choice included a far greater range of activities being conducted at the border than just the conventional meaning of the English word “trade”.

At the same time, it excluded tax evasion by formal firms, smuggling, and other illicit activities at the border, since these are not considered biashara per se. They are commonly referred to as magendo, meaning contraband.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015 - Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016 - Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016 - Final Report, General Public - Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab

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