Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and DR Congo officials have committed to work together in addressing challenges hindering cross-border trade in the region.
The commitment, which is expected to help thousands of small-scale cross-border traders - especially women - to carry out their daily business smoothly, was made on Monday in Kigali during a regional advocacy meeting on cross-border trade.
The meeting brought together regional public institution representatives whose mandates relate to cross-border trade.
It aimed to discuss challenges and the progress made in addressing them in line with enhancing regional integration that enables cross-border traders to contribute to sustainable economic development.
It was organised by Pro-femme Twese Hamwe, a civil society umbrella of 57 women advocacy groups in Rwanda.
The cross-border trade features small businesses, like selling fish, tomatoes, milk, and fruits.
It was noted that, despite its vital contribution to food security, providing employment as well as allowing people access to goods and services unavailable in their own countries at affordable prices, cross-border trade remains under developed.
The major challenges faced by cross-border traders include limited access to credit, lack of information on regional trading protocols and services, robbery, gender based violence and confiscation.
According to Rwanda's Ministry of Trade and Industry, cross-border trade contributes over $ 170 million annually to GDP.
Robert Opirah, the director-general of trade and investment at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, said the Government has been creating a friendly operating environment for cross-border traders.
The Government has been constructing markets at the borders to support the traders. Three markets have been completed in Burera, Akanyaru and Karongi districts.
Opirah said the construction activities for more markets are underway on the Kagitumba, Gatunda, and Rusizi and Rusumo borders.
He added that the facilities will also have early childhood development centres to support women traders once they are at work.
"It is better that traders get commodities near instead of travelling to other cities like Kigali. Cross-border trade plays a crucial role in the economic development of countries," Opirah said.
Emma Marie Bugingo, the executive secretary of Pro-femme Twese Hamwe, said the next step is to tackle challenges such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment, among others.
"We will keep on educating and sensitising all stakeholders, including police, immigration officers, and revenue authorities, among other border agencies, on the laws and regulations regarding cross-border trade as well as encouraging them to support the sector instead of harassing practitioners. There are many women small-scale cross-border traders and their rights should be respected in all countries," Bugingo said.
She said that all the partner countries will work together to harmonise working hours because some of the borders close earlier than others.
Thierry Habyarimana, a participant from Burundi, said that collaboration among countries plays a big role in securing cross-border traders.
Jennifer Mubirigi, from Tanzania, who uses Rusumo border, said her business will grow since the countries are committed to eliminate all challenges cross-border traders face.
According to 2012 baseline study conducted by Pro-femme Twese Hamwe, gender-based violence accounts for 60 per cent, robbery 22.1 per cent, while sex based corruption stands at 15.4 per cent.