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Policy direction for women during crisis

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By Ezelina Kamaliza:

OPTIMISTIC—Kamwendo

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought disruptions in various spheres of life including the way businesses are conducted for both the formal and the informal sector.

Running of small and medium enterprises that largely employs people working in the informal sector has been affected across the world. This story will explore how women in Southern Africa Development Community-Sadc have been impacted by restrictions put in place to help curb the pandemic.

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Tiwine Kamwendo plies her trade in hair products at Limbe market in Blantyre city, Southern Malawi. She gets her stock from South Africa where she was able to travel to in order to buy the latest and fashionable hair products to keep her business ahead of time and the returns were good.

“This enabled me to have a large customer base whereby I catered for both high markets and low markets. Business was booming. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, business was quite good. I started with a low capital but by and by I managed to grow the business. I managed to open a shop in Limbe where customers have managed to find me easily” says Kamwendo.

However this has not been the case for Kamwendo since travel restrictions were imposed in March by the South African government to try and halt the spread of covid-19.

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She says with the travel restrictions, business has been slow, because it takes a lot longer for products to reach Malawi from SA and at a higher cost.

“On the local scene what has also affected us is the change in priorities by most people. A majority are focusing on stocking up home products than buying hair products or cosmetics” added Kamwendo.

According to the Ministry of Trade Spokesperson Mayeso Msokera over 80 percent of the Small and Medium enterprises (SMEs)in Malawi are run by women who are also largely cross border traders within the Sadc region.

With the impact the pandemic has had on women in business with an example of Kamwendo’s story the slowdown in business will contribute to escalating levels of poverty in the country and the region.

“Though Malawi has maintained open borders,the flow of goods is dependent on neighbouring countries which has a direct bearing on the growth of SMEs which are an essential for economic growth” says Masokera.

Masokera said this time also poses an opportunity for women to engage and create support structures in legitimising their businesses to help them access facilities put in place by government and other stakeholders for cushioning against effects of the pandemic.

Talking to women vendors selling fruits on the streets of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, they say due to local measures put in place to combat the pandemic business has also taken a down turn and supporting their families is a challenge.

AbibiSaidi sells seasonal fruits in Lilongwe’s City Centre and according to her, the merchandise that she used to sell in one day it, now takes three days to sell and most of the fruits go bad before she can sell them.

“Being a mother, life has been hard with Covid-19 with less sales sometimes I leave home only able to cater for breakfast for the kids and there isn’t enough money for lunch. They have to wait till I go back home in the evening” saysSaidi.

She attributes this to fewer people going to work at the offices due to Covid-19 and priorities changing on how people are spending their money because every business has been affected.

These impacts shared by the two women plying their trade in Malawi’s informal sector attest to findings in a report on the impact of covid-19 pandemic on the Sadc economy by Sadc Council of Ministers in March 2020.

The report notes that the reduction or suspension of activities due to movement restrictions has led to job loss particularly for those working in the informal sector, poor sales and bankruptcy. This requires swift policy and action to address the challenges posed by the crisis and to ensure that the informal sector is protected the best way possible.

Sadc’s Informal Cross-border Trade(ICBT) which Kamwendo is part of, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation constitutes a major form of informal activity in most African countries and it makes up an estimated 30- 40 percent of total intra-Sadc trade, with an estimated value of $17.6billion. Typically, women represent up to 70% of ICBT in the continent, trading a variety of commodities either in raw or semi-processed, including basic to luxury goods produced in other countries.

Without candid policies implemented to safeguard the interest of those in the informal trade, which contributes significantly to Malawi’s economy as well as Sadc as a region, the losses could be devastating.

In guiding policy response to support women like Kamwendo and Saidi to thrive despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Oxfam Malawi’s country director LingalireniMihowa notes that the women in the informal sector are already in the peripheral and require target response as they contribute significantly to the economy of the country and the region.

In a policy brief Oxfam Malawi notes that some proposed measures such as lockdown that failed to hold in Malawi revealed inequalities, low-income groups especially vendors, daily wage and piece (ganyu) workers in the informal sector, came out in droves to demonstrate against different elements of the Covid measures, especially proposed closure of markets and the lack of cushion against the measures.

The Oxfam paper further warns that any Covid-19 response measures that do not acknowledge the informal sector as a lynchpin of urban livelihoods are doomed to fail as informality pervades the urban life.

Mihowa acknowledges that the pandemic has also presented a wakeup call for the informal sector particularly women to have structures that support access to policy interventions in times of crisis and after the crisis.

“For business continuity, governments need to avoid over regulation as this can lead to suffocation of the informal sector, this can be bad for business continuity” advised Mihowa.

As the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt, asked on the progress and future and prospects of their businesses both Kamwendo and Saidi say they are optimistic that policies to cushion them and many other business players in the informal sector will be put in place to support their survival and business continuity both locally and within the Sadc region.

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