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Following the devastating conflict at the Rwanda-DRC border in June this year, authorities have taken the step to limit border crossings to seven hours a day, from 24 hours previously, hurting thousands of small and medium traders whose livelihoods depended on trading across the border.
Official statistics for informal trade between Rwanda and the DRC for the first two quarters are yet to be released, but cross-border traders say they are feeling the pinch as a result of the tensions between the two countries.
At one point, the ‘Petit Barrier’ border post between Rwanda’s Rubavu district and the DRC’s Goma was one of the busiest borders in Africa with up to 90,000 people crossing daily, according to statistics by the Directorate of Immigration and Emigration of Rwanda.
That drastically fell to 55,000 people crossing per day due to the Covid-19 pandemic between 2019 and 2021 – with the number falling even further to 15,000 crossings due to insecurity that escalated early this year when Rwanda and DRC traded accusations of providing support to rebels. Cross-border traders sell among each other foodstuffs, clothes, liquor and fresh farm produce.
It is now extremely difficult for Rwandan cross-border informal traders to do business with Goma on an individual basis as they used to do
On top of constant border disruptions, traders from Rwanda are now required to pay for a ‘crossing visa’ – implemented by Congolese officials – which costs up to $35. Many informal traders cannot afford the fees. Some also must show a valid passport or a ‘laissez passer’ travel document, whereas previously a national ID card would suffice.
Claude Karekezi, 24, a Rwandan businessman who exports cheese to Goma is now struggling to find a market for his produce due to disruptions at the border.
“We used to sell at least 200kg of cheese to clients in Goma, but we now have fewer clients,” says Karekezi.
“Our supply has been cut to less than half because we can no longer reach some of our clients due to the insecurity in the region and the disruptions at the border,” he says.
Karekezi, who has insisted on travelling to Goma on a daily day basis to look for new clients for his cheese, says he does so with “fingers crossed”, hoping that he is not caught up in a wave of insecurity and violence that sometimes happens sporadically in Goma due to heavy presence of armed groups.
Limited border openings were triggered by cross-border conflict, and tight restrictions have been imposed following Congolese accusations Rwanda was supporting the M23 rebel group operating in eastern DRC.
Rwanda has denied this accusation, blaming Congo for dragging it into its own internal matters, and deploying more troops along its border.
— Rwanda Defence Force (@RwandaMoD) June 17, 2022
Before the escalation of tension between both countries, Kinshasa was becoming one of the most lucrative destinations for Rwandair in Africa and had just added Lubumbashi and Goma to its destinations in September and October 2021.
However, as the M23 rebels advanced and took control of the strategic town of Bunagana in eastern DRC in May, the country suspended Rwandair flights to the country.
The mayor of Rubavu District, Ildephonse Kambogo, tells The Africa Report: “It is now extremely difficult for Rwandan cross-border informal traders to do business with Goma on an individual basis as they used to do. Now Goma authorities require them to join cooperatives and sell as a group; many of them do not like this arrangement.”
“This city is not as vibrant in trade as it used to be. Some traders went back to farming because of the constant difficulties in cross-border trade. Hopefully, when they lift the 3 pm closing time, trade will improve. Talks are now advanced to put things back to normal,” he says.
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He, however, adds that the security situation in Rubavu and Goma “is now slightly better than it was earlier this year.”
“Rwandan traders always get information ahead of time and if there is unrest they know ahead of time not to go to Goma. They have families and friends there, so they always tell them when it is okay to cross the border or not,” Kambogo says.
Formal trade showing resilience
Much as informal trade between the border communities have slowed down, formal trade between the two neighbours has shown strength, as trucks of goods continue to cross undisturbed despite the insecurity and border disruptions.
The One-Stop Border Post link between Rwanda and the DRC sees up to 80 trucks (including transit trucks) entering the DRC from Rwanda daily, while three trucks of goods go the other way, according to the East African Business Council.
Rwanda is a key middle link for goods to eastern DRC coming from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania…
Brigitte Kisuba, president of the Association of Cross-border Traders of Goma, says despite the insecurity issues faced by their region, trade has always found a way to flourish between Goma and Rubavu.
“This is not the first time that we have experienced border problems with Rwanda: Be it insecurity, Ebola or Covid-19 or the Mountain Nyiragongo eruption, we have seen it all and somehow managed to continue trading, so we are optimistic that these current problems will also pass,” she says.
“Supply of goods to and from Goma from Rwanda has drastically reduced, which has affected the income of cross border traders in the region, so we beg our leaders to see an end to these problems.”
“Rwanda is a key middle link for goods to eastern DRC coming from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and this is why formal trade has not been disrupted despite the tensions at the border,” she says.
The brunt of the tensions is always felt by the border communities of Rubavu and Goma which are close to the violence and with little protection. Charles Kabwete, professor of History at the University of Rwanda, tells The Africa Report.
His views are supported by figures from Rwanda’s Institute of Statistics, which indicates that the DRC was the main destination of Rwandan formal exports in 2021, accounting for $587m from $372m in 2019. Rwanda imports from the DRC in the same period were registered at an increase of $20m from $16m in 2019.
In 2020, Rwanda’s exports to the DRC were $88m, while imports were insignificant at $1m – a fall mainly due to the lockdown and cross-border limitations imposed during the coronavirus lockdown.
This year, the trajectory is up again, with analysts pointing out that despite the political tensions that have pitted both neighbours against each other, formal trade is likely to continue its upward trend.
Between January and June 2022, Rwanda exported goods worth $60m to the DRC, while imports were $33m.
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