Tomatoes and peace: cross-border trade in DRC

A crowd of people were running towards the petite barrière border. We were visiting our partner organisation P-ACT (Plateforme des Association des Commerçants Transfrontaliers/Platform of Associations of Cross-Border Traders) and a frisson of concern passed through the car. Then we realised that it was 2.51pm, and traders were rushing to return before the border closed at 3pm.

Trading across the border is a lifeline to communities here. Most of the goods traded are perishable food products, vital to the food security of the region.

The tomato sellers come on Mondays and Thursday, but this Thursday a shipment had been held up on the other side of the border. Michel, the Head of the Traders Federation, explained that this is a wholesale market, and that Congolese traders come from elsewhere in the country to buy up the traders’ supplies. A delay in arrival of the tomato trucks would be financially devastating, as the crop would rot if buyers are not found. With a small crate of tomatoes valued at $30, there is a lot at stake.

Women tomato sellers in Birere market, Goma.
Women tomato sellers in Birere market, Goma. Photo: Charles Bongwa / International Alert.

International Alert has been working with cross-border traders in this market and other markets in eastern Congo, Rwanda and Burundi for a decade under the Cross-Border Trade (Mupaka Shamba Letu) project. With our implementing partners, we have strengthened traders’ associations, improved basic and financial education and supported them in advocating directly with authorities. We provided financial credit and advice on how to use it, enabling some women to double their profits.

When COVID-19 closed the borders, the participants of the Mupaka project felt able to collectivise their trade, working with the few drivers who could still cross the borders. Mupaka helped women small-scale cross-border traders to maintain the high quality of the products they sent across the border, to ensure that trust was maintained.

The ‘grouped purchase and sale’ mechanism facilitated traders at the regional level to continue their activities in the Great Lakes region. Trader cooperatives pitched in to collectively hire a lorry to transport their goods across the border in bulk. With the support of the Mupaka Shamba Letu project, women traders in Goma maintained contact with traders on the other side of the borders to buy staple products during COVID-19.

When the women were having difficulty bringing the goods back across the border, we built a small warehouse together, so that the women who had not sold all their products during the day could store them safely overnight. This is where the tomatoes were stacked in huge crates.

Tomato sellers in a hangar built by the MSL project.
Tomato sellers in a hangar built by the Mupaka Shamba Letu project, Elakat (Bukavu). Photo: Charles Bongwa/International Alert.

They had left Rwanda two days before, and as they got up for the journey, a woman explained that they spread the fruit on the ground every night, otherwise the lower layers would disintegrate and be unsaleable.

Building cooperative trading relationships between small-scale entrepreneurs is complex in and of itself. In North Kivu, it is made far more difficult by international, regional and local tensions that affect daily life.

In particular, the M23 armed group currently controls much of the territory to the north and west of Goma. Tiny shelters line roads into the city, housing families who have fled the conflict. The M23’s presence limits the arrival in Goma of produce from elsewhere in North Kivu, causing further tensions as food prices rise. In this context, the continued trade by small scale sellers across the border and the strong working relationships between trading associations are both essential and remarkable.

Michel explained that he had liaised with his counterpart on the Rwandan side of the border, and they had negotiated with the border officials. A payment of $2,600 had been demanded to release the goods. He didn’t sound hopeful.

But as we emerged from the warehouse, two trucks loaded with baskets of tomatoes pulled up. They’d been released! A woman danced in celebration, and the head of one of the female trader’s cooperatives gave us a large bag of tomatoes in thanks for our support.

A woman small cross-border trader dances as she sees her tomatoes arriving at the cross-border market of Kahembe, Birere in Goma.
A woman small-scale cross-border trader dances as she sees her tomatoes arriving at the cross-border market of Kahembe, Birere in Goma. Photo: Charles Bongwa/International Alert.

The Mupaka Shamba Letu project has given her and her peers the confidence to advocate directly with the authorities’ individual cases like this, but also for changes to regulations, including lengthening a woman’s stay in DRC to avoid her having to return before her goods are sold.

Small-scale peace actions are essential for day-to-day improvements to people’s lives, but decisions taken by national and regional authorities also have a direct impact on community safety, security and development. In our cross-border trade work, Alert and our partners work closely with government authorities, supporting local people to have their say in policy decisions that directly affect them.

Reducing violent conflict requires us to work at all levels, linking up the local to the national to the global.


Our cross-border trade work in the Great Lakes is funded by:

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