How a street vendors organisation improved the life of informal cross border traders in the DRC

By Irene Doda
June 13, 2024
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Assovaco, an association of informal traders operating at the borders between DRC, Rwanda and Burundi managed to establish a simplified procedure for cross border small commerce, despite the several challenges. 

Assovaco is one of the three StreetNet affiliates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). DRC is  one of the largest countries in Africa, bordering several other countries: Zambia, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, South Sudan and Tanzania. Assovaco is based in the eastern part of the country, at the borders with Rwanda and Burundi. Cross border trade is an essential means of subsistence for poorer vendors in this area. According to the latest data collected 85% of the members of ASSOVACO are informal cross-border traders. They have one office in Goma, north Kivu and one in Uvira, South Kivu. The one in Uvira is the biggest one. 

The border between DRC, Burundi and Rwanda

In 2022 and 2023, the organization has worked together with other affiliates from Burundi and Rwanda, in a project to empower informal cross border traders in West and Central Africa (you can read about the two phases of the project here). In 2023, ASSOVACO conducted a successful negotiation with border authorities that led to the establishment of a one-stop- shop (guichet unique) for all border traders in three cities of DRC. 

Simplifying crossing the border 

Comrade Micheline Feza, representative of ASSOVACO spoke to us talking about the successful negotiation of the organization with the border authorities. 

Many of our small traders sell palm, and they move by boat on the lake Kivu or on donkeys” she explains. “There used to be so many taxes, that many traders decided to quit the business and became unemployed. There are for example taxes who are technically reserved for the larger traders, who are imposed on the small ones. So we decided to talk to the authorities about it”

ASSOVACO conducted a negotiation with the DGDA, the Direction General des Douanes, the Congolese Control Office OCC, (in charge of security controls) and some representatives of the Ministry of Economy. The objective was to clear the customs for specific types of goods and, in case the small merchants were not able to do so, introduce just one tax, in order to simplify the whole procedure. 

“That is why we introduced the one stop shop. Traders have a token, thanks to which they can cross the border. The tax asked at the one stop- shop depends on the type of goods, but does not exceed 5 dollars. The negotiation was a success. At the moment, our traders have really improved their lives”. 

ASSOVACO managed to establish three one-stop- shops along the Eastern border: one in Goma, one in Bukavu, both cities at the border with Rwanda and one in Uvira, at the border with Burundi. At the moment the guichet in Goma is not functioning, due to the ongoing armed conflict in the region. However, the other two are in place and work normally, with significant impact on the workers’ business. 

Members having a meeting

Tackling the challenges for cross-border traders 

The over taxation is one of the most serious challenges facing cross border traders in West and Central Africa. The bureaucracy, the lack of transparency in such taxation is a burden for the poorest traders, who are often the most victimized by overly complicated and convoluted systems. 

Reducing bureaucratic burdens has always been a goal of trade unionists and activists for many years: in 2010, COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) introduced the so-called Simplified Trade Regimes, a specific mechanism to reduce the taxes and bureaucracy for traders selling goods under 2000 USD of value. Simplified trade regimes have succeeded in protecting the most vulnerable, something standard free trade agreements seldom managed to do. 

An image of Lake Kivu

How one stop shop has changed the lives of traders

Cross-border traders have found a solution to some of their problems, thanks to the initiative of ASSOVACO.  Vumi Palata, a woman trader based in Uvira tells us how grateful she is for the effort: “Hats off to ASSOVACO for bringing the one-stop shop. In my activities, I have started to gather some small profits. However, when the one-stop shop wasn’t there, I was pushed around in many offices”. 

Another trader from the city of Mulongwe, echoes a similar experience: “With our small goods, we used to be lined up in many offices. When the one-stop shop came, the situation improved greatly, now there’s only one office and we are well received”. Trader Riziki Senenda, from Uvira, recounts being able to bring 10 boxes of goods, and easily crossing the border. Despite the challenges of the ongoing conflict, traders have found a partial solution to their problems.

“With multiple offices operating at the border, there was more opportunity for harassment by the authorities” concludes Bisimwa Kabwana Aimable, a poultry seller between Rwanda and Congo, “But with the one-stop shop, we present a sum of money and hand it over to one or two people who manage multiple services This allows us to cross without problems. Long live ASSOVACO RDC, long live our members!”