When they developed Protocol on Trade in 2005, Southern African Development Community (Sadc) member States envisaged the establishment of a Free Trade Area in the Sadc region by 2008.
The major objectives of the protocol are to further liberalise intra-regional trade in goods and services; ensure efficient production; contribute towards the improvement of the climate for domestic, cross-border and foreign investment; and enhance economic development, diversification and industrialisation of the region.
The Sadc FTA seeks to meet the needs of the private sector and other regional stakeholders in areas of increased domestic production, greater business opportunities, higher regional imports and exports, access to cheaper inputs and consumer goods.
It also seeks to achieve greater employment opportunities, more foreign direct investment and joint ventures, and the creation of regional value chains.
What this means is that products from within the region, whether imported or exported, shall enjoy freedom of movement in the region and only be subjected to normal service rates.
The protocol, therefore, aims to provide a vehicle for accelerating development in the region, which will, in turn, improve the livelihoods of the majority of the region’s population which is poor.
Informal cross-border trade (ICBT) is one of the most important tools for driving the agenda of regional economic inter-dependence and market integration in the Sadc and the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) region.
But does Malawians have anything to show for utilising these trade tools and protocols? Have we made any social and economic strides from these protocols?
A senior member of Chimbimbi Potato Club in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlonyeni in Mchinji, Edgar Jere, acknowledges the role informal cross-border trade can play in the socioeconomic development of the country.
However, Jere stresses that small-scale commercial farmers face enormous challenges, including arbitrary arrests, when they want to sell their produce across the borders.
He cites his own club, which was last year forced to terminate agreements to supply Irish potatoes to vendors and fast-food traders in Chipata, Zambia as Immigration officials from the other side would arrest and detain them for weeks for allegedly flouting Immigration regulations.
“We’re suffering persecution and harassment for trading across the borders. Malawian small-scale traders face arrests in almost all Sadc countries for allegedly trading across the borders without supporting documents; yet, other nationals do not face similar oppression here,” says Jere.
Charles Phiri, 32, is a potato farmer from Kanthiti Village in T/A Mulonyeni. He says he has a huge market for his produce in Chipata, Zambia.
In Zambia, according to Phiri, they do not produce enough potatoes; hence, the traders from Chipata and other cities and towns with booming economy rely on Malawi for sustained potato supply.
While concurring, Elasimo Ali, a groundnut farmer from Zidzwa Vilalge in T/A Zulu in Mchinji, says there are times Zambian traders invade their village to buy farm produce right at their doorsteps or gardens.
But Ali states that as any businessperson would have it, local farmers still prefer crossing the border in anticipation that “we’ll get fairer prices if we take the potatoes to their respective countries using our own transport”.
He adds: “However, the greatest challenge is the hostilities we suffer when we cross the border to sell outside Malawi. For instance, immediately we step into Chipata with our produce, we are arrested and detained for 21 days before appearing before the court.”
Partnership regional economic integration officer for National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)-Progress and Sadc, Stella Kalengamaliro, says the arrest of hapless small-scale traders in Sadc member States does not augur well with the dictates of trade protocol and FTA agreements.
Kalengamaliro says ICBT helps increase the volume and value of regional trade and commercial capacity utilisation thus the arrests pose a threat to efforts to strengthen regional economic integration.
She draws examples from the 2008 study by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, which found that the regional average monthly value of goods traded between Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe was as high as $2 500 (about K1.7 million) per person while some traders confirmed that they lived on more than $1 (about K690) a day, which would not happen if they relied on formal employment income alone.
“Cross-border trade, including that by smallholder farmers, can provide a livelihood for a significant part of the population in ESA. ICBT is the main source of income for people who cannot find employment, which caters for the immediate as well as extended families,” she states.
Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (RLEEP) national programmes director Dixon Ngwende sympathises with potato farmers who suffered any degree of assault or harassment for trying to experiment the workability of the trade protocol and free trade area.
However, Ngwende believes local small-scale traders and commercial potato farmers in Mchinji could be suffering such harassments because they do not meet the interstate trade requirements.