Shuttle Commerce Helping Create Independent Women

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Women have always shouldered social and economic burdens facing their families. Even though there are encouraging signs of more and more of them going to work and earning for themselves, the challenge of raising children is always present in slowing down any progress made, to the point of pushing women out of economic activities. In recent years in Ethiopia, women seem to have found a way of earning by traveling to Dubai and other places.

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This line of business has been providing decent income for women and their kin, all the while contributing to their independence as these women plan, manage, and deliver through shuttle or travel commerce. A new tax directive seems to be existentialist, however. This and, to a lesser extent, the receding pandemic are challenging the ladies’ fight for economic self-sufficiency, writes Eden Teshome.


Ethiopian women are combining their long-standing tradition for niche businesses with modern practices in an attempt to support themselves and relatives. Traveling for trade has increasingly become one of those businesses keenly taken on by women in recent years. China, Turkey, Thailand, and others have become popular destinations for travel. Dubai—the city of gold—is the most preeminent destination for these budding merchants.

Traders have informally been bringing in clothing and other personal goods stuffed in luggage on private trips since the early 2000s. Individuals fly to these foreign countries on commercial flights to return with bags filled with shoes, fragrances, and cosmetics that stores, boutiques, and individuals readily consume.

Shuttle trading has become a trend for some time and it is said to be playing a major part in empowering urban housewives in the medium-income segment. Asamerech Kebede, Trader, is one of the many who have dived into the business during the last four years.

Aged 51 and a mother of two, Asamerech lives in Addis Ababa’s Lemi Kura District and has spent the last two decades of her life as a housewife, raising her children and dependent upon her husband’s income. About three years ago, she decided that her condition had to change; an event that inspired her to dive into the import business arose at a family gathering. After collecting information to get her off the ground, she borrowed ETB60,000 from a relative as startup capital and flew off to Dubai.

“With the aim of being self-sufficient and the improvement of my livelihood, I started the business,” Asmarech told EBR. She started purchasing clothes, shoes, and cosmetics from a market known as Ajman, a wholesale market in Dubai where one can find all sorts of items in varying brands and quality. “I sell goods bought from wholesale markets and make a profit of around ETB25,000 after each trip.”

Yemisrach Amare, alias, a 47-year-old mother of three, was introduced to the shuttle business through a friend. Her husband, a medical doctor for an NGO, has shouldered the family’s financial obligations through ever-increasing cost of living conditions with some support from his siblings in Europe. The family has done quite well for themselves through the years.

“My husband is a well-educated man and always appreciates my role as a woman and mother,” Yemisrach told EBR. “No matter how understanding he has been, nothing feels more empowering than your own source of income.”

Through luggage commerce, Yemisrach was able make loan repayments for the family’s car bought through a bank loan. She wears a smile when talking of how she paid for her own driving license and is now able to drive her husband’s car to take her children to and from school. But once Covid-19 hit, she had to retain her status as a housewife.

“I am now trying to go back to the business,” Yemisrach says. “Being a housewife is not enough for someone who has seen the other side of it.”

When planning for a luggage-trade trip, traders must be aware of the different visa types in accordance with their plan. Most recommend getting a 15-day visa as that has a direct consequence on the price of air tickets. Thereafter, careful planning needs to be done on which items and brands are preferred, readily sellable, and thus profitable. Clothing, fashion accessories, electronics including TVs, laptops, mobile phones and their auxiliaries, and cosmetics are usually the most considered items.

Perhaps the highest consideration is ensuring salability. If to the contrary, the frequency of the trips will be hindered. Less experienced traders are advised to confer with buyers—whether individuals or stores—to at least get confirmed purchases through agreements and collect down payments, if possible.

Upon arrival at their destination, transport options and hassles confront these luggage traders. Cheap public transport like trains and buses could lead to unexpected destinations while taxis could put a dent in a trip’s expected profits. Therefore, experience and balance are required.

In addition to local travel options, traders then need to select where to stay. In touch with the human characteristic of always looking for your own type, especially in a foreign environment, there are places where numerous Ethiopians are found in one place. This also has a positive contribution on security. The grouping of Ethiopians when lodging thus has cost-saving as well as security-ensuring attributes.

Sabka station is one of the best places in Dubai to find Ethiopians accessing cheaper accommodations for 10 or more people. Private double-bunk beds are available at the equivalent of ETB600 per night. Majority of Ethiopians stay in this area, sharing rooms, transport to shops and the airport, and advise—all offering a sense of security.

Once transport and lodging is secured, the traders are ready to take on their chief undertaking: shopping. Deira Dubai City Center Mall is one of more popular places to do just that. The mall houses 370 large shops and has a vast parking space capable of accommodating more than 3,600 vehicles. One can find almost anything there with varying quality, price, brands, and originality. Experienced traders are aware of and utilize discount periods especially around holidays. They also state that quality is not readily compromised in Dubai.

Ajman China Mall, around 44km from Dubai, is another shopping option. Here, group travel and shopping is recommended for safety and efficiency. Bargaining is possible here. One can also buy in wholesale and share with other traveling traders. Luggage traders are aware enough to properly mark their packages.

Ethiopian and Emirates airlines allow each passenger two units of 23kg without additional charge. Of course, luggage traders can bring in excess of that with additional payment. There are also practices where traders share their items among stranger passengers of the same flight to avoid taxes levied by ECC.

The national carrier operates three weekly flights to Dubai. Ever since ECC’s suspension of the previous directive, activity in the field has seen a drastic fall. At best, traders have minimized the number of trips made. Of course, the pandemic also has a large role for decreasing trade activity by these entrepreneurial women.

This line of irregular business is not positively seen by government authorities, however. Even though the Ethiopian Customs Commission (ECC) declined to confirm, there are new movements governing the contents of these luggage being brought in. Traders are complaining of their items being confiscated at the airport after a circular was issued by ECC’s Airport Branch Office suspending a directive which enabled shuttle trade. A source at Ethiopian Airlines told EBR that confiscation is underway on more than one item belonging to the same category and brand in the same luggage. These practices have sent rumors of a new directive coming on the way of the shuttle traders.

“There is no new specific legislation; rather, Directive 51 has been suspended or is no longer in effect,” Bisrat Teklu, business law Expert, told EBR, referring to the Ministry of Finance’s Personal Goods Directive 51/2010. There were restrictions on how much a person could bring in without being taxed. Items from clothing to electronic products were meticulously listed in their permitted quantities, as long as they were for personal use.

Eden, who requested for the anonymity of her second name, is Owner of a store selling clothing items, cosmetics, handbags, and shoes. She has been in this business for nearly four years and was doing well until these rumors of a new directive kicked. “I travel to Dubai these days just to prevent my VISA from expiring,” she told EBR. She has suffered from a decrease in profit even to the point of being ashamed of calling new prices to customers. Despite higher prices of many Dubai items attained from shuttle traders, Eden claims it is still cheaper than local options like Merkato.

The rumor of a new directive has not been the only recent bad news for these women. Mihret Tadesse, Supervisor at the pioneering online travel agency Guzo Go, witnessed the decline in travel on such business routes after the circular and ensuing rumor of a new customs directive. “Usually, such vendors who take over 50% of aircraft seats are women” said Mihret.

The customs issue is on top of the pandemic problem, of course. Eyoel Assefa, travel Consultant with numerous Dubai-shuttling luggage traders, is also feeling the drop. “The purpose of travel to Dubai for more than half of my clients is trade,” he told EBR. Female traders used to be fairly equal in number, but after the virus outbreak, their numbers declined. This could be due to the additional costs of Covid-19 testing, quarantine, and unreliable test results before departure which could subject travelers to hotel quarantines for days on their own expense once they arrive at their destination. “They spend all of their money on the hotel and come back empty-handed.”

Anyone can bring in luggage weighing up to 46 kg; that law still stands. But bringing in the same items in one luggage is what the new directive is about, according to Bisrat.

As is the case with most other import businesses, access to foreign exchange is another challenge. Parallel markets, hence, offer a way out. Even though most women do not openly acknowledge the practice, they agree they do not access their dollars from banks.

The issue of more women involving in economic activities has far-reaching impacts and consequences than just empowering women or sharing household expenses. Gender inequality has impacted both national and global economies in a massive way. The advancement and productivity of the human race has been slowing down, says a study published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2020. Women’s full and effective participation in the workforce is vital to reverse the downward spiral of economic productivity. While women make up half of the world’s population, they contribute less than a third of the global workforce.

The IMF publication states that “700 million fewer women than men of working age were in paid employment in 2016.”

The World Bank in a 2018 publication estimates that the economic cost of gender inequality around the world could be as high as USD160.2 trillion. Simply put, this amount could be injected into the global economy if women could earn as much as men do.

Another 2019 World Bank document tries to quantify losses to the Ethiopian economy induced by gender gaps. The study focuses on agricultural productivity, business sales, and hourly wages to paint a rather astounding picture of the gender impact. According to the study, the Ethiopian economy loses USD1.1 billion in agriculture, USD1.1 billion in entrepreneurship, and another USD1.5 billion in wage employment.

Yemisrach and Asmarech, who are trying to look beyond the impacts of the pandemic on their newly found comforting business, cannot wait until they are back in the air. Their back-and-forth flights have answered to many flying demands in their homes no matter how unhappy state authorities might be about their contributions in taxes. EBR


10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106

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