Soap operas with lessons for cross border traders

11 November 2022
ITC News

COMESA’s free trade policies opened new opportunities across Africa. Innovative video dramas show how small businesses can benefit

International borders can be intimidating, especially for small traders who may not know the ropes. But jumping the border can be dangerous and costly for the African women whose businesses depending on safe crossings.

To explain the risks of illegal border crossings, as well as the benefits of using border posts, the International Trade Centre (ITC) collaborated with local filmmakers to create a series of soap operas and documentaries. These videos became the centrepiece of training sessions conducted in four countries by the ITC SME Trade Academy.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) gathers 21 countries stretching across the continent. The trading bloc, along with ITC and the International Organization for Migration, collaborated on the training to steer more traders into the formal economy.

Soap operas like this one dramatized the challenges traders face at the borders, and the ways to cross the border both legally and at no cost.

Most traders in the region are middle-aged women who carry food and clothing across borders. The videos highlight the risks they face from illegal crossing, whether from con artists who scam them or border patrols who can arrest them. Interviews with customs and immigration agents reassure traders on the benefits of crossing at the border posts, which offer better security for themselves and their goods.

Most of the traders qualify for duty-free crossings, as their products fall below the threshold for tariffs. The trainings helped traders understand that crossing formally is actually quite simple and costless, while encouraging smoother relations with border officials. Making sure everyone understands the rules helps cut down on bribery, corruption and harassment.

“Sometimes what makes people to be arrested, and using illegal routes, is they don’t know what is right and what is supposed to be done. Then they don’t even know their rights,” one trader said after the workshop.

“We are hoping that such kind of a programme can come back again so that they can be helped to grow their businesses.”

The eight workshops included 282 traders at the Karoi border in Zimbabwe, Mchinji in Malawi, and Tunduma in the United Republic of Tanzania. In Zambia the workshops were held in Chidundu, Chipata, Nakonde and Chililabomwe.

To design the sessions, ITC facilitators worked closely with associations that represent cross-border traders, training their members to lead future workshops. This way, the associations can keep conducting workshops without ITC’s direct involvement. The project also conducted eight Training-of-Trainers sessions, while showing 92 trader associations how to use the training methodology and technology.

Before the face-to-face workshops, trainers and other stakeholders held virtual sessions to prepare. An additional workshop is planned in 2023 for the Kasumbalesa border post in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Teaching through storytelling

Creating an effective training programme for this target audience is challenging. Many traders left school early, and aren’t always comfortable with written language. Most lack internet access. Crucially, few have much time for lengthy meetings.

The soap operas were commissioned to address these issues. Local film companies dramatized real-life scenarios that traders experience at borders. As the characters make choices in the stories, their decisions illustrate lessons about how to formalize their border crossings and how best to react when confronted with issues such as harassment and corruption. The fictional stories were supplemented with real interviews with border officials through mini-documentaries that showcased key facts for each module.

Actually showing the videos required a special set-up that could work offline in areas where the internet is unreliable or unavailable. As such, the presentations were uploaded to a TV box, along with trainer guides and the multimedia content. The box could then replicate the online experience, without an active internet connection.

About the project

These training fall under the project: COMESA Cross Border Trade Initiative: Facilitating Small-Scale Trade Across the Borders. This project is designed to implement selected activities of the COMESA Cross Border Trade Initiative programme, which are aimed at facilitating small-scale trade across the borders of targeted countries. The initiative is funded by the European Commission under the 11th European Development Fund. The project will be implemented within the framework of the Co-delegation agreement signed between COMESA and ITC in June 2018. 

The project has a general objective of increasing formal small-scale cross-border trade flows in the COMESA/tripartite region, leading to higher revenue collection for governments at targeted borders as well as increased security and higher incomes for small-scale cross-border traders. It has a specific objective of facilitating small-scale cross border trade flows between targeted countries through institutional capacity building and better data collection and monitoring.