Informal cross-border trade is a 2 billion US dollar industry to African economies. It creates jobs, contributes to food and energy security, and alleviates poverty. 60% of informal trade in the East African Community (EAC) is carried out by small-scale traders and is often the most important income-source to rural livelihoods. 70-80% of these traders are women who have on average 7 dependents in their household.
The EAC rules are complex. Cross-border traders often lack an understanding of their rights and obligations as citizens of the EAC. To the benefit of smugglers and corrupt customs, police and local government officers who are known to bribe and extort traders along the border. Information asymmetry makes people’s livelihoods vulnerable, as they try to conduct their business in the face of uncertainty. Women traders are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Estimates place the population of the EAC at almost 169 million inhabitants, and trade is thought to be important for raising living standards.
So what to do?
Sauti was founded as an SMS-based trade and market information platform for small cross-border traders and SME’s in East Africa. Julia Lipowiecka, a co-founder of Sauti felt compelled to act, “It struck me that even though traders were entitled to all these rights, they don’t know about them. They don’t know where to get information.” Julia and her team held focus group discussion, “Through talking to traders it became clear that corruption and harassment were prevalent issues that no one was doing anything about.”.
The platform Julia and her team developed empowers traders with the right information and enables traders to easily and anonymously rate their border experience. “Traders love the name ‘Sauti’, which means ‘Voice’ in Swahili, which they appreciated because the platform would give them a voice. They also appreciated being asked whether our solution would work to address the issues they faced, rather than being presented with a ready-made solution,” Julia shares.
The benefit of the platform is traders are enabled to trade legally and profitably across EAC borders. The founders hope the digital reports sent to the platform will be used in advocacy, bringing more justice for victims of border-related crimes. They have the full support of civil society groups who have been stuck to make meaningful change as people are too scared to report what happens to them. Julia says, “Their number one fear is retribution. They couldn’t ensure their report would be kept anonymous, or they weren’t always aware of the mechanism they should engage”. The real-time reports on incidents of harassment and bribery experienced will be used for evidence-based advocacy by their civil society partners.
It is a rarity to meet individuals, like Julia, who are willing to go to great lengths to solve a particular problem. The Justice Entrepreneurship School created by HiiL was meaningful to Julia, “It was really encouraging to meet other innovators. It was great hearing what others are doing across Africa to make access to justice more available.” The school hosted justice entrepreneurs from around the world, including other innovators from across Africa.
Juila pitched on behalf of Sauti at the Innovating Justice Awards 2016. Her innovation was recognised as the best pitch in the SME Empowerment Challenge. Sauti are now entered into the HiiL Justice Acceleration Track for 2017 and they are preparing to launch in March 2017.