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Hitting Where it Hurts – Pandemic Border Closures and SSA’s Most Vulnerable Informal Cross-Border Traders

By John Stuart
07 Apr 2020
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Hitting Where it Hurts – Pandemic Border Closures and SSA’s Most Vulnerable Informal Cross-Border Traders

A related tralac blog, in the same series as this one, discusses the phenomenon of informal cross-border trade (ICBT) in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic. At time of writing, several SSA countries have closed their borders entirely and many others have implemented various types of travel restrictions. Two countries that have closed their land borders – Cameroon and Rwanda – both host ICBT communities on multiple borders, most of them comprising populations close to or below the US$1.9 per day poverty datum line. These communities are vulnerable and live subsistence existences – requiring weekly trade in order to purchase essentials and survive. Border closures and the resulting denial of access to markets therefore represent an existential threat to these communities.

The examples of Cameroon and Rwanda are just two of many across SSA. This blog extends on the previous by proposing a method for assessing the most affected and vulnerable communities in SSA. This method draws on two techniques, both using Geographic Information System (GIS) data in combination with economic and trade data. They are:

  1. Time to market mapping: Using data on road availability, road quality, accessibility, terrain, rivers and borders; it is possible to generate geocoded data on the estimated time taken to access a market for any particular geographic location, to a certain map resolution.

  2. ‘Marketsheds’: A related concept is that of marketsheds. Using time to market data and identification of market centres, it is possible to delineate areas (also known as ‘polygons’ in GIS terminology) which indicate the extent or range of the market for that market centre. These areas can and often to cross borders, especially as the size of the market centre (in terms of the population of the market) increases. For the purposes of ICBT however, we data use the smallest market centres. This is in light of the small-scale, localised nature of ICBT.

These methods can then be combined with geocoded purchasing power/poverty data in order to assess the relative risk of border closures across SSA.

By way of example, consider the marketshed centred on Mazabuka in south-central Zambia. Mazabuka is about 100km south of Lusaka and is the 12th largest town in Zambia, with a population of around 64 000[1]. According to IFPRI marketshed data [2] for this area, the marketshed with Mazabuko at its centre also includes a portion of north western Zimbabwe, including the town of Makuti. The marketshed is illustrated in the figure below.

Figure 1: Mazabuka marketshed

Mazabuka marketshed (Stuart April 2020) 

This marketshed is more accessible to the residents of the indicated portion of Zimbabwe, those living in Makuti (not shown on map) and the surrounding areas, than a marketshed to the south, centred on Chinhoyi.

The map below shows that within the Mazabuko marketshed, a smaller range around the border town of Chirundu town shows that Zimbabweans in the area experience a shorter time to market to the market in Zambia than to markets in Zimbabwe. In this map, the darker the shade of orange the shorter the time to market. Clearly, the areas closer to the A1 arterial route experience a quicker time to market, but that market nevertheless lies on the other side of the border with Zambia, and is accessed via the border post at Chirundu.

Figure 2: Time to market for border post Chirundu

Chirundu border crossing (Stuart April 2020) 

Interestingly, the border post of Chirundu in Zimbabwe was piloted as the first ‘one-stop border post’ by COMESA in 2009[3]. These border posts, also referred to as ‘joint border posts’ – since they are operated as one border post by both countries – have been introduced to reduce the friction associated with cross-border trade and are in essence a recognition of the extent of ICBT taking place in the area.

Analysis of purchasing power and poverty datum data for this region reveals that the population on the Zambian side fall into the 60-80% below poverty line class while the residents on the Zimbabwean side fall into a similar or slightly poorer group. This then is but one example of a vulnerable community reliant on cross-border trade for survival. Closure of this border would involve an existential threat to this community, especially on the Zimbabwean side.

Configurations such as that at Chirundu and with the Mazabuka marketshed are found throughout SSA. There are also plenty of examples involving more than two countries, for example in the Great Lakes area or in West Africa between Guinea, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. An example involving Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania is represented in the figure below. This market shed centres on Mbeya in Tanzania, and is accessed by citizens from Zambia and Malawi as well.

Figure 3: Mbeya marketshed

Mbeya marketshed (Stuart April 2020)

The Mbeya marketshed is accessed through the border posts indicated in the table below. Time to market data, although not shown, also confirms that Zambian and Malawian communities living in these border regions are able to access Mbeya more easily than Mzuzu in Malawi or Kasama in Zambia.

Table 1: Mbeya marketshed access border posts

Border between
Border Post
Malawi/Tanzania
Songwe
Malawi/Zambia
Chitipa
Tanzania/Zambia
Nakonde

Of the border posts listed in the table, Nakonde has been established as a one-stop border post and Songwe is due to be developed as a one-stop border post in the near future. Chitipa, which connects Malawi to Zambia is not on the list for development as a one-stop border post. However, unlike the other two border posts in the table, it does not directly facilitate access to the Mbeya marketshed.

Finally, purchasing power/poverty data confirms the vulnerability of these border communities. The Zambian and Tanzanian communities in the Mbeya marketshed fall into the 60-80% poverty threshold category, while for Malawi the border population falls into the lowest 80-100% impoverished category.

The conclusion to be drawn from the preceding analysis is that land border closures for the sake of Covid-19 action should be undertaken with full cognisance of the potentially disastrous impact on small-scale cross border trade. There is no doubt that Covid-19 action requires modification of human movement and economic activity. However, the extent of the trade-off on the survival of fragile and vulnerable communities must be taken into account by the governments and authorities of SSA.


[1] World Resources Institute. 2020. Maps and data. https://www.wri.org/resources

[2] Guo, Z. and C. Cox 2014. Accessing Local Markets: Marketsheds. Atlas of African Agriculture Research and Development. Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute

[3] UNCTAD. 2019. Borderline: Women in Informal Cross-border Trade in Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. Geneva: UNCTAD

About the Author(s)

John Stuart

John Stuart

John Stuart is an economist and policy analyst with special interests in trade, economic integration, data visualisation and economic modelling. He began his career in academia at Rhodes University and later the University of Cape Town, after which he entered private consulting first with AFReC (Pty) Ltd and subsequently with PBS (Pty) Ltd. Besides economics research and teaching, he has experience in project management, general management, public sector performance management, systems analysis and entrepreneurship. He holds an M. Com degree in Economics from the University of Natal (Durban).

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