DRC: COVID-19 pandemic changes cross-border trade

| January 18, 2021

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For farmers and vendors living along the Rwanda-DRC border, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare. Border closures have slowed cross-border trade, which has particularly affected young people who often import products from Rwanda to sell in DRC. But some innovative youth, including Benjamin Bahati, have turned to mobile phones and social media to connect with buyers and suppliers. Before the pandemic, Mr. Bahati typically crossed the border twice a week to purchase eggs, chickens, flour, and milk. Now, he places an order by phone and relies on a Rwandan driver to deliver the goods to a designated place. This means he doesn’t have to travel, but he needs to have good connections and plenty of trust with his clients and suppliers.

Benjamin Bahati is a Congolese businessman who has been selling eggs and chickens imported from Rwanda for the past nine years. The thirty-four-year-old trader sells eggs in the Nyawera market in Bukavu, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. He imports the eggs from the Kamambe market, about five kilometres from Bukavu, in western Rwanda.

Like Mr. Bahati, many youth in eastern DRC trade across the border to earn an income. Indeed, the provinces of North and South Kivu have developed close relations with Rwanda through cross-border trade. Youth account for the majority of people who cross borders to obtain basic necessities and foods such as chickens, eggs, flour, and milk. These exchanges represent a good opportunity for Congolese youth, who are affected by high rates of unemployment.

But unfortunately, since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, border closures have slowed cross-border business. Young people in Bukavu have experienced a significant drop in their income since the Ruzizi I and II borders between South Kivu and Rwanda closed. Some young businessmen have had to suspend their activities.

But others have developed online businesses, connecting with clients by mobile phone. They have bought and sold via telephone, without meeting to discuss prices or check merchandise. With a simple phone call, SMS message, or through WhatsApp or Facebook, the supplier shares product details. Price and quality are discussed on the phone, and when the sale is finalized, the order is made and funds are transferred by mobile money. Goods are then delivered by Rwandan drivers to a designated place.

Before the crisis, Mr. Bahati typically crossed the border twice a week to purchase products. For 600,000 Congolese francs (about $301 US), he could import 50 chickens and some eggs to DRC. By selling them, he could earn more than 60,000 Congolese francs ($30 US) in three or four days.

But today, a week can pass without travel for Mr. Bahati. He says: “Since the border closures, we have had trouble finding products for our business. Before, with $100 US or 200,000 Congolese francs, I could easily cross and pay for the goods myself. I just needed to have the money and present my voter card.”

But business today is not nearly as easy. Nearly all Mr. Bahati’s business is done by mobile phone. For mobile phone transactions, he must know and trust his clients. He says, “Some of us have been forced to give up our activities. Despite the risk of losses, others like me keep going.”

The majority of those who have abandoned their businesses are young women with young children. Business conducted via mobile phone requires a certain process and knowledge of new technologies. Cross-border trade is further complicated by new government measures to fight the spread of coronavirus. Anyone crossing the border must now have a negative COVID test.

With these travel restrictions, youth in Rwanda and DRC have had to forge new business relationships to coordinate with clients on both sides of the border. Everyone has an interest in the survival of cross-border business. Yet to succeed, it was necessary to restore a climate of trust and collaboration, explains Pascal Munganga, another trader.

Mr. Munganga says that this unfortunate situation has allowed youth in both countries to innovate and trust each other to run their business, and there have been some advantages. He argues: “Today you can trade while at home and you don’t get tired at all like when I cross the border. With the online trade, I am spared all the harassment of which we are often victims at the borders by certain agents of the state.”

Fabien Binja is the vice-president of the federation of urban markets in Bukavu and the president of Nyawera market in Ibanda. He says the pandemic has had a negative impact on life for importers. But he recognizes that the new situation is an opportunity to restore, consolidate, and maintain trust between traders. He explains: “In past years, there was no trust between our young traders and their customers from Rwanda. It was difficult to trade via mobile phone. But now, as the whole world is shaken, we see them collaborating to restore a climate of trust and deepen relations.”

Mr. Binja is calling on authorities in the Great Lakes region to open borders and allow movement while traders observe measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Photo: Benjamin Bahati at the market with his goods.

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.