The 8th of March is celebrated annually as International Women’s Day – a day set aside to commemorate women’s cultural, political, and socio-economic achievements. This year’s celebrations preceded ‘the lockdown anniversary’ in South Africa, which brings to light yet another defining occurrence of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic brought economic activities to a sudden halt in March last year, with several governments globally adopting measures to curb its spread into a full-blown national health crisis.

In this context, we celebrated the 2021 International Women’s Day, which is fittingly themed, “Women in leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World”1 by UN Women. At the core of celebrating women’s achievements, International Women’s Day brings to the fore issues such as gender equality and women’s rights; thus, it is inextricably linked to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 52 to achieve gender equality and women empowerment. Particularly in developing economies, economic stimulus packages enhancing Covid-19 recovery must be gender-aware and responsive. Cognisant of the above context, this blog discusses how Covid-19 has affected economies and societies by interrupting livelihoods of women in business, cross-border trade and the agriculture sector within the Southern Africa region.

Women Leading MSMEs

FinMark Trust, aiming to provide evidence-based research during Covid-19 times, conducted a Covid-19 Impact Tracking Survey on Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), focussing primarily on the Southern Africa region. Although many enterprises were affected by the pandemic, data collated from fieldwork in Eswatini showed that Women-Led Enterprises (WLEs) bore a heavier burden. The specific challenges included difficulties in collaborating with male counterparts, thereby stymying coordinated outputs and partnership opportunities. Some MSMEs during interviews disclosed that gender stereotypes remain a barrier to accessing support within societal networks as women are perceived as less capable of running a business. Beyond social barriers, regulatory concerns over Eswatini’s National Agricultural Marketing Board’s (NAMBoard) unilateral decrease in buying prices negatively affected WLEs within the agricultural sector. The condition is exacerbated by significantly fewer tourists being hosted in the area, owing to Covid-19-related travel restrictions. Thus, the international market was nearly non-existent.

Notwithstanding these challenges, a striking finding of the FinMark Trust MSMEs Tracker Survey revealed that WLEs are less likely to retrench employees, signalling empathetic management. Research findings showed that 8% of women laid off workers or reduced their working hours, while 20% of men retrenched or minimised working hours, meaning that retrenchments by WLEs’ were significantly lower. Moreover, more women-led MSMEs reported exploring new business ventures and diversifying products to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. The compassionate business management style within WLEs allows the creation of employer-employee bonds that are sustained through hardships, such as limited economic activity. In the same breadth, women proved resilient and caring for their employees’ families if workers were retrenched; hence women-led MSMEs hold prospects for socio-economic ripple effects.

Women in Cross Border Trading

Ascertaining figures on Informal Cross Border Trading (ICBT) in SADC is challenged by the lack of data on informal exchanges. However, approximately 50% to 60% of total intra-African trade is informal, with ICBT contributing 30% to 40% of total intra-regional trade in the SADC region.3 Within this perspective, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) argues that up to 70% of informal cross-border traders on the continent are women,4 often breadwinners. The magnitude of this sector makes it crucial to assess the impact of Covid-19 on women in ICBT. A study to understand the dynamics of ICBT between South Africa and Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, was conducted by FMT, using a multi-method approach of surveys and interviews with financial service providers and revenue authorities, among other stakeholders. The dominant CBT profiles generated from the fieldwork data were:

  • day traders/ hawkers: individuals that cross the border frequently to buy goods for resale;
  • bakkie brigade: traders with own pick up trucks and carry goods every 2 weeks to 3 months;
  • diaspora traders: individuals living in South Africa who cross the border once a year and send goods back home for trade; and
  • Import and export companies: importing and exporting businesses that are formally registered with their countries respective revenue authorities.

The study revealed that most cross border traders are female and informal. Lengthy and costly registration processes with authorities, coupled with lack of formal documentation, were common challenges across the different profiles of traders. Moreover, the lack of a unified definition of ICBTs and support strategies within the SADC region poses a regulatory challenge as requirements differ by country.

In Mozambique, goods are declared and cleared through the Single Electronic Window (SEW) by an authorised clearing agent, making this process relatively less intensive. While the process may be easier, ICBTs (locally known as Mukeristas) are not included in government development plans, which further complicates the response of women in ICBT to Covid-19. In Zimbabwe’s case, the key financial challenges for CBT were currency instability, the lack of credit and cross border insurance; the latter is disallowed by the country’s Regulatory Authority. Consequently, measures that ought to buffer against financial risks within CBT, especially ICBT, are not available. If they are available, they are not comprehensive, thereby limiting investor confidence in CBT and potential for partnerships with established entities. In cases where women are breadwinners, this has dire implications on livelihoods.

Women and Remittances in Eswatini

FinMark Trust’s work on remittances was carried out to inform the International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD’s) Financial Inclusion and Cluster Development (FINCLUDE) programme in Eswatini, in collaboration with CFI5 as the implementing agency. Salient findings on domestic remittances showed that micro-entrepreneurs trading across borders were mostly females aged 35 years or older, with 58% of these traders from Shisweleni and 25% from Lubombo. Research findings showed that +-40% of micro-entrepreneurs, dominated by females, have no formal education or only primary education and engage primarily in informal trading.

Further statistics showed that cash flow within informal trading is limited; therefore, economic activities are mainly for survival rather than creating employment. The total income ranged around SZL2,000, approximately $130 or less, per month. Despite capital flow challenges and high illiteracy rates, cross border remitters within the South Africa–Eswatini corridor have embraced digital technology. This adoption and inclinication towards digitisation has been driven through the use of both commercial bank-led and non-bank-led remittance service providers (RSPs), with regulation by the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). Regardless, there remains a significant degree of informal remitting, through friends and family or via minibus taxis. Again, domestic receivers of remittances, cross-border receivers and micro-entrepreneurs are mostly women, with males only dominating domestic senders of remittances to Eswatini, sourced from formal employment in South Africa.

Women in Agriculture Value Chains

As Covid-19 has affected access to markets, the agriculture sector was not spared. As evident in a study that FMT commissioned on accelerating the Inclusion of Women in Agricultural Value Chains, women in SADC are predominantly in the poultry and agriculture value chains. The value chains selected for the study were :

  • Malawi: Soya beans and groundnuts;
  • Mozambique: Cassava and cashew nuts;
  • South Africa: Sugar cane, wool and potatoes; and
  • Zambia: Maize, groundnuts, vegetables and livestock (large and small).

Research-based evidence showed that in Malawi and Mozambique, women and youth were the main contributors to primary production and value addition yet, their participation in the control of assets and farming decisions was minimal. Zambia, too shared a similar status, value chains being weakened by vast unused lands from where production could be expanded if women had greater access to land, training and financial services. This aligns with the global trend of the gender gap in land rights. Internationally, less than 15 percent of all landholders are women.6 South Africa is an exception as strong commodity associations offer training and technical assistance to all smallholders, including women. However, challenges remain in the mechanisation of post-harvest value-adding jobs, mostly done by men.


Overall, while women’s achievements, resilience and innovations exhibited during the Covid-19 pandemic are worth acknowledging on 8 March and beyond, women continue to face various barriers. Gender discrimination, rooted in values, traditions and customs, determines access to resources and also influences how they are perceived within the business sectors, as evinced in the case of some MSMEs in Eswatini and Botswana. Furthermore, values, traditions and customs are the sole prerogatives of any society; they are often slow to change; hence the need for informed policy reforms in supporting women-led economic activities.

FinMark Trust’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy proposes a detailed assessment of the varied implications for men and women of any planned action, including legislation, policies, or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. Therefore, while women across the Southern Africa region exhibited resilience during the Covid-19 crisis, nationally coordinated efforts to respond to the pandemic should and must include women for equality, in line with the International Women’s Day, SDGs, and National Development goals, to be achieved.



1 United Nations, UN Women, ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,’ March 8, 2020,

2 SDG 5 aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women in the public and private spheres and to undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources and access to ownership of property.

3 Fundira T, ‘Informal Cross-Border Trading: Review of Simplified Trade Regimes in East and Southern Africa’, (Stellenbosch: Tralac Trade Brief., 2018),

4 Koroma S et al., Formalisation of Informal Trade in Africa: Trends, Experiences and Socio-Economic Impacts. (Accra: FAO Regional Office for Africa & CUTS International, 2017),

5 Centre for Financial inclusion.

6 FAO, ‘The Gender Gap in Land Rights,’