The untold realities of women cross-border traders

The untold realities of women cross-border traders

14 March, 2024    

A diagnostic study on women cross-border traders between South Africa and Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique​ 

Informal cross-border trade plays a significant economic role in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), making up an estimated 30-40% of total intra-regional trade. It is valued at an estimated USD (United States Dollar) 17.6 billion in the region (UN, 2010).

A key and consistent reality is the substantial presence of women, who make up a large proportion of informal cross-border traders in SADC. Despite their important contribution, the challenges, experiences and needs of women in trade and trade-related payments are not well understood.

Cenfri and Behave Consulting carried out a study commissioned by Finmark Trust to understand the state and dynamics of informal cross-border trade by women between South Africa and Lesotho, Mozambique, and Malawi.

The study aimed to fill the gap in knowledge by developing evidence on the realities, needs and transactions of female cross-border traders operating in the South Africa to Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique corridors.

In each market, 50 semi-structured in-depth-interviews were conducted with cross-border traders.

Cross-cutting findings

The study delved into the behaviour and profile of women traders in the three corridors to give context to the trade-offs that they face between their family and business lives. Whilst bespoke findings emerged for each corridor, there were some overarching insights:

An important role in livelihoods.

Cross-border trade plays a vital role in livelihoods for women who engage in it, be it for aspirational, survivalist or opportunistic reasons. Women, much more than men in the sample, juggle business expenses and household finances daily.

Impact of household dynamics on business life.

Women cross-border traders are mostly aspirational, can make decisions in the household, and are empowered as businesspeople. Yet family trade-offs are real and mean that women need to make more plans/arrangements for childcare than men. There is also a mingling of household and business expenses where children’s welfare and education take precedence over reinvestment in the business.

Strong social support structures.

Linkages with female mentors, as well as social and business networks are especially important to women traders – to help them establish their business, get access to suppliers and clients, and facilitate cross-border transport.

Digitally connected.

Women traders are digitally connected, have smartphones and are active on social media. They are willing to experiment with ordering stock online, especially if that means obtaining goods easier. However, they have so far been let down by mostly inferior quality of the goods they order. There is a distinct move to digital payments already, though cash remains important for defined use cases (e.g., paying bribes, to meet customer demand). Suppliers are often paid by bank transfers or via money transfer operators in South Africa, and mobile money is popular for transactions in Mozambique and, to some extent, Malawi. Service interruptions or delays due to connectivity issues are flagged as challenging certainty of payments in Lesotho and Mozambique.

Braving the risks.

Informal cross-border trade is risky: there is a risk of theft, corruption is widespread, and traders face the risk that goods that they order will be of inferior quality. Women cross-border traders are dealing with the safety risks by travelling in groups or using border-crossing agents, or by using public transport for the border crossing. This adds travel costs. Corruption adds further cost. The informal nature of their business and their supply relationships mean that they are locked into the need to travel cross border to conduct quality control – at a substantive price.

Need for more formalised trading without in-person travel.

These risks and associated costs create an imperative to find a way to allow women to trade across the border without having to be present in person, because they are disproportionately more vulnerable to the risks.


​You can read the detailed findings on each of the three corridors below.

Click the links to read insights from our Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi reports.



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