24 Mar 2022
By: Alessandro Lira

Two years since the global outbreak of COVID-19, Gambian communities continue to recover from economic stagnation and social hardship brought about by pandemic-related restrictions and border closures. While such measures helped prevent the further spread of the virus, they have also adversely impacted local markets and livelihoods, especially for traders moving across borders. This Women’s Month, as we look back at how two years of the pandemic have affected women at the margins, we are sharing the stories of four Gambian women seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Like many Gambians living along coastal communities, where colourful fishing boats line the beach and fishermen mend their nets, Fatou has always relied on selling raw fish as her main source of income. With the hope of earning more profit, Fatou sought new markets by selling her products to Senegalese traders, as the profits made from trade within her community of Kartong were not enough to cover her daily expenses. “The business was going well; Senegalese love the way we cook our fish,” she points out, while smoking a snapper fish.

Fatou is among thousands of informal cross-border traders making a living through daily trips between The Gambia’s and Senegal’s extremely porous border, lacking infrastructure and unpatrolled border posts.

In West and Central Africa, informal cross-border trade among women represents more than 60 per cent of the countries’ gross domestic product (GDP). While it can be a vital source of employment and livelihood for low-income and low-skilled women, they become highly vulnerable in contexts where mobility is restricted.

The livelihoods of women selling fish across the border were heavily affected when borders closed. © IOM 2022/Alessandro Lira

For Fatou, the emergence of the coronavirus changed everything. The Gambia closed its border in March 2020, while public markets were limited in their capacity to operate. Fatou and her fellow traders could no longer meet Senegalese buyers. “We had a lot of fish but no one to buy them, so we had to throw many fish away because we had no ice to preserve them,” she laments. “The decrease in trade was a big loss for all of the women in the village.”

The impact of restrictions was felt across multiple industries, not just fishing. Just a short walk from the fish centre is Nyima’s restaurant ‘Baobab’, which she only recently reopened, and which is strategically located on the shore where Senegalese cross the river with the traditional pirogues. Nyima recounts a similar story: “During the pandemic, most of us were not working. We supported each other by cultivating vegetables and enlarging our community garden.” Despite these efforts, it became difficult for her to pay for her kids’ schooling – three of her eight children had to drop out.

For the women of Giboro, 50 kilometres inland to the east of the Atlantic coast, the impact of COVID-19 was no different. “As a widow, I was very worried when they closed the border and our business collapsed,” remarks Oumie, who would sell sandwiches and juice to travelers crossing Giboro, one of the country’s official border crossings. “I was also concerned for my children, as I wanted to prevent them from contracting the virus,” adds close friend Jaraitou, who manages a fruit and juice stand next to Oumie’s.

Nyima’s restaurant catered primary to travelers moving along a bustling river border. © IOM 2022/Alessandro Lira

All four women had built a life trading across the border. All four women were heavily affected by the impacts of the pandemic. Now, all four women are taking their lives back after receiving a grant of GMD 45,000 (approximately USD 850) from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – as part of its support to national COVID-19 recovery efforts.

In August 2021, IOM completed a rapid assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on informal female cross-border traders in Gambian border communities. “The assessment revealed that 83 per cent of respondents reported a decrease in family income since the outbreak of the virus, while 75 per cent expressed direct financial support as their most urgent need,” explains Stephen Matete, IOM’s Migration Management Programme Coordinator in The Gambia. “In a number of border communities, we were also seeing disruptions in the supply of commodities, causing increasing and fluctuating prices of goods. Female-headed households, in particular, were more vulnerable to these changes.”

With communities regaining a sense of normalcy two years into the pandemic, the women are regaining hope. “This support was timely, as we received it just as cross-border trade is starting to pick up again,” expressed Oumie, who is currently aiming to expand her business. “Since I received the support, I was able to invest in items such as oil, rice, flour and fruits to improve my business, while I saved the remaining money to sustain my family. I hope to never experience such a downfall again.”

In the aftermath of trade restrictions, Oumie has returned to sell her products to travelers crossing the Giboro border. © IOM 2022/Alessandro Lira

Jaraitou is using her grant to repay the loans she took over the past two years, with the hope of sending her children back to school. She managed to bring electricity to her small store where she is stocking the items that she is selling along the border. “Before receiving the grant, I used to have to buy ice blocks from the neighbouring villages, but now I have my own fridge to keep the products cold.”

Nyima’s and Fatou’s businesses in Kartong have also started improving. With her grant, Nyima was able to reopen her restaurant, where traders are returning in droves for her benachin (a popular local dish that consists of rice, vegetables and meat cooked together), which she claims is the best in town. “The restaurant is going so well now that I hired two people to support me.”

Meanwhile, Fatou is now working longer hours in her fishing trade. “I have managed to buy more raw fish, and I work every day until 8pm to prepare it for clients. I also used part of the grant to finish the construction of my house and repair the roof of the fish centre where we smoke fish.”

Looking ahead, Jaraitou is hoping to expand her business with the grant she received. © IOM 2022/Alessandro Lira

In total, 81 Gambian female cross-border traders were recipients of a cash grant, with financial support from the Governments of Japan and Switzerland. The 81 were selected based on the rapid assessment conducted in 26 border communities, following a set of vulnerability criteria endorsed by a committee led by the Ministry of Trade and The Gambia Immigration Department. The type of assistance was informed by an evaluation of the traders’ challenges and coping strategies.

The assistance builds on IOM’s previous engagements with informal female cross-border traders dating back to 2019, where they were engaged as part of awareness raising efforts on irregular migration. Noting this group’s significant contribution to GDP in the region, IOM highlighted the role they can play in promoting alternatives to irregular migration.

With pandemic-related restrictions approaching an end, Fatou, Jaraitou, Nyima and Oumie now look toward rebuilding their communities. In Giboro, the pandemic has brought cross-border traders together. “The village didn’t have a market before the pandemic, but we joined forces to store our products and create one. Now, we have goods available without having to travel long distances,” exclaims Jaraitou.

“The last two years have been particularly difficult for us, but one thing we have learned is to come together to support each other,” says Fatou. “Everything can be achieved with commitment and patience.”

This story was written by Alessandro Lira, IOM’s Communication for Development Officer in The Gambia.

SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth