Opening doors: How national IDs empower women cross border traders in East Africa

Every ID has a Story, a series by the Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative

By Lucia Hanmer and Jean Lubega-Kyazze

Agnes. © Daniel Silva Yoshisato

When Agnes became a young widow with four children still to raise, many people in her community thought she would have to take her children out of school. But education is important to Agnes and to support her family, she turned to business and became a cross border trader.

“I buy millet in Uganda and sell it in Kenya,” she explains. “In Kenya, I buy sugar and then bring back to Uganda.”

At first, life as a cross border trader was hard and risky as she was vulnerable to exploitation: Agnes resorted to smuggling her goods across the border to avoid arbitrary taxes and fines. Many women crossing at illegal crossing points frequently experience theft of their goods, assault and gender-based violence.

“There were very many years’ struggle …. When you smuggle, you struggle to make the ends meet.”

Joining the EASSI Women’s Cross Border Traders Association changed Agnes’s life. The Association provided information about rules and regulations governing the EAC Common Market including how to get a certificate of origin for their goods and the level of taxation that was due.

In 2014, Uganda introduced its first national ID card. It turns out that having this proof of legal identity helped pave the way for Agnes’s success. Armed with her national ID and the right information, she now trades legally.

© Daniel Silva Yoshisato

With her national ID card, Agnes can cross at Uganda’s borders with Rwanda and Kenya. This is the result of an agreement to recognize each other’s national ID cards as valid travel documents, which was reached in 2014 between the three countries through the Northern Corridor Integration Projects to fast track implementation of the East African Community’s Common Market Protocol.

Using the national ID as a travel document has saved time and money. In the past, she either had to apply for a passport or she had to get documents like a birth certificates or letter of recommendation from the local sub-county chief, mayor’s office or town clerk to prove her citizenship and then spend time standing in long lines at the border posts. Customs declarations can be now presented with an accompanying ID. Now Agnes is safer as she crosses the border posts to trade.

“When I pass customs, when security asks me who are you? I just give that ID, I show it to them and they allow you to go.” And it’s not just crossing the border — her ID enables her to buy SIM cards in Kenya and make mobile payments, reducing the risk of theft of her hard-earned proceeds.

With her earnings, she has put her children through high school and then supported her three oldest as they completed their studies in university. Her youngest will soon be going to university as well.

Agnes’s story illustrates how ID can enable women to better access markets, economic opportunities and financial services. There are vast numbers of small-scale cross border traders in East Africa trading anything from a sack of grain or rice to goods worth up to US$2,000 — the limit for value added tax free trade in the region. The majority (about 75 percent) are women. Most are between the age of 20–40 and only about two in five have some form of secondary education certificate. Their work provides a vital source of income for their families and, while small-scale informal economic activity is difficult to measure, estimates suggest that it makes a non-negligible contribution to the national economy as it is valued at up to 85 per cent of formal trade.

However, Agnes’s story is not an exception — crossing borders in many African countries can be costly and dangerous especially for women. Most women have to pay bribes and fines and risk experiencing acts of violence, threats and sexual assault.

© Daniel Silva Yoshisato

In the East African Community, government-supported initiatives are becoming more attuned to the importance of women cross border traders. Creation of One Stop Border Posts (OSBP) provide new and better facilities for all traders that small-scale women traders equipped with IDs can also benefit from.

At the new One Stop Border Posts, Women’s Cross Border Traders associations work with officials to resolve problems. A Charter for Cross Border Traders, which stipulates basic rights and obligations of traders and border officials of all the 6 East African countries — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — was adopted in Moshi, Tanzania and is currently being piloted at Rwanda/Uganda and Uganda/Tanzania border posts.

Officials have noticed that the new IDs have given traders more confidence and more people are now crossing legally. At one border in Uganda it is estimated that tax revenues from small trade (a withholding tax is charged on goods valued at less than US$2000) had increased by 5–10 per cent since the ID registration drive in 2014 and the number of people crossing borders had increased by tens of thousands since three of the EAC countries (Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda) agreed to mutual recognition of national IDs.

Women cross border traders are already extending their trade further afield and shipping goods on the buses that travel from borders with Kenya to the Uganda/Rwanda and Uganda/Tanzania borders to respond to consumer demand. They are fully aware that IDs are needed for everything from opening a bank account and registering property to getting a loan and a tax identification number. In future, more women will need IDs to access economic opportunities. The World Bank Group is working with the East African Community and with the Economic Commission of West Africa States to prepare regional identification projects which will improve access to services by strengthening foundational ID systems for all the participating countries’ populations. These projects will also build capacity and strengthen the professionalism of border officers towards smooth, orderly and, we hope, respectful transactions with women cross border traders.


Some 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have an official proof of identity, which greatly limits their ability to access services and benefits, such as education or health. With digital technologies, countries now have the power to efficiently change that. The World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative is documenting — through the #EveryID has a story campaign — how official IDs have a transformative effect on people’s lives.

Read more World Bank blogs.