Spring 2023

Trade is Changing Women's Lives in Zambia

– Fiske Nyirongo

From clothing to skincare, more goods are crossing countries and continents—and employing more women in the process.

Despite constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global GDP rebounded firmly in 2021, expanding by 6.1 percent. Africa was no exception, with its GDP growing by about 6.9 percent in 2021 according to the African Export-Import Bank. Trade is an integral part of this upward mobility—both within the continent and outside of it. Foreign trade accounted for an estimated $1.1 trillion of Africa’s $2.5 trillion total GDP according to 2021 World Bank data.

African women feature significantly in trade on the continent, largely with small to medium-size businesses. Women trade in food, clothes, small electronics, and cosmetics, to name a few. They often hand-carry these goods from nearby and neighboring countries, and some of these women’s businesses have grown to trade in places as far away as the United Arab Emirates, Europe, and Asia.

One small business that has expanded its trading outside of Africa is Ngosa Styles, a popular—and successful—Zambian-owned clothing store.

“I started Ngosa Styles because of my frustrations with finding clothes locally that I liked from shops like Zara and Shein,” owner Ngosa Natasha Chimfutumba says of her favorite South African clothing stores. “The shops we had back then had limitations in terms of stylish clothes for people my age. I thought I could make a difference so I started to buy things in bulk and resell them here.”

Chimfutumba was in her mid-20s when she started reselling clothes online in 2017, targeting Zambian women like her.  

Two of the fashion items sold by Ngosa Styles. Photos provided by Ngosa Styles.

“I was selling my clothes from Facebook, then Instagram. My car trunk always had parcels in it. I would move from mall parking lots to the Intercity Bus Terminus [where I could] put items on buses for customers who lived outside Lusaka. I was working a full-time job back then so it wasn’t easy.”

As the demand for her imported fashions grew, Chimfutumba’s online model became unmanageable.

Women account for an estimated 70 percent of cross-border traders in the 10 Southern Africa countries which includes Zambia.

“I brought on some family and friends to help me. At first, it was my sisters; then one friend here and there to deliver parcels to people’s homes and offices. But at some point, everyone started complaining that they were getting too tired juggling deliveries with their day jobs. So I started looking for a physical store to reduce the stress. And it was during this time that I quit my full-time job.”

The first brick-and-mortar Ngosa Styles shop was opened on September 9, 2017. It was strategically located at South Gate Mall, right next to Lima Tower, one of Zambia’s busiest bus stations where young women frequently pass through coming and going to work. 

“I couldn’t believe that the support was real. With an online store, it's kind of easy to forget how many people truly are here for your business. This time we got people in person who would say such lovely things about how the store made their lives easier. It all felt like a dream. I mean, some moments still feel like a dream even now.”

Now Chimfutumba uses import companies for most of her store purchases and receives shipments every four to six weeks, in a more streamlined and certified process.

“I usually use a professional shipping company to avoid headaches around tariffs. The companies I have used handle all the logistics for you, you just pay. It ends up being cheaper and quicker than doing it yourself.”

Mulan Mulikita-Hall owns such a company with her husband. Road Shoppers Logistics, which handled Ngosa Styles shipping before they expanded imports from other areas, is an assisted purchasing company that has helped businesses and individuals to buy and transport their goods from American, British, and South African retailers.

“Road Shopper has a logistics manager who is very conversant on tax issues. He knows what tax laws apply on each product we are bringing in. Goods usually have what we call a country of origin which a lot of trade agreements look at, for example the AfCFTA says that goods originating from countries who have ratified the agreement are entitled to a certain import tariff discount,” Mulikita-Hall said.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement, or AfCTA, is the largest free-trade agreement in the world with a 1.2 billion-person market and a combined GDP of 2.5 trillion dollars. The agreement has been signed by 49 African countries, including Zambia. Under this agreement, goods originating from a signatory country are eligible for a 90 percent import-tax discount. Shipping companies have benefitted from the free trade zone.

“I can’t really know if import companies have increased since the AfCTA was introduced in 2021 but I’ve noticed that we have more competition as customers are looking for the most affordable and quickest business,” said Mulikita-Hall.

Ngosa Styles, which imports all of its offerings, has grown to five stores located around Lusaka. They include a store at Northmead Market (a boutique shopping area located on the east side of the central business district), a Chelston store servicing some of the most populated middle-class residential areas further east, a store at Oasis Mall right next to Intercity Bus Terminus, and Iringa Mall, which is very close to the original store opposite Lima Tower Bus Station. And with 92,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 45,000 on Instagram, her online presence is booming. The video featured here had 600 views and 88 comments the last I checked it on Facebook.

The Ngosa Styles success story shows how trade can be a lifeline for African women. What started as one woman’s quest for more pleasing fashion choices now employs more than 20 workers—cashiers, models, stylists, and delivery drivers—the majority of them women. The business has not only changed the life of Ngosa Chimfutumba and her family but also the lives of those who were previously unemployed.

This cross-border business has also drawn a map for those seeking to import goods from other countries, and sell them in Zambia. An example of the indelible mark Ngosa Styles has on young adults is through a popular saying coined on Twitter about a year ago. “Daughters of Ngosa” is used to alert customers of new stock and is often included in jokes about young fashionable Zambian women.

“If you’re a reseller, the secret is to make minimal markups on items you are selling,” says Nampwa Inambao, a food blogger and bakery owner who says selling large volumes go a long way in building a business. “Ngosa Styles has mastered this.”

Another cross-border enterprise is Skinfluent Zambia. Owned by Jasmine Banda, a Lusaka-based mother of two who spent most of her formative years in the United Kingdom.

Banda said, “I came up with the idea for Skinfluent when I was thinking about why I can't access skincare and hair care without going abroad. I wanted something affordable and safe. That's why I decided to create an online store that allows Zambians to order online using cards and other platforms and get their items quickly.”

She launched the web shop in February 2021 and continues to expand the brand. Initially, Banda only sold foreign beauty products but has started to incorporate more Zambian brands. Banda’s business has made great strides in the two years it’s been open. In addition to her online shop, she now has a physical store a few minutes from Lusaka’s busy central business district that offers skin analysis, facials, and massages, and its shelves are stocked with brands from abroad and within Zambia. And, it has its first employee—a woman who handles appointments and sales.

Skinfluent acts as a distributor and independent store for mass skincare manufacturers that include Neutrogena, Revolution, and The Ordinary.

A screenshot of part of Skinfluent's homepage, courtesy Skinfluent.

“I have distribution deals with the brands I sell, which allows me to get products more cheaply,” says Banda. “I am trying to incorporate more African brand products into Skinfluent so I’ll continue to get educated on trade agreements that exist between Zambia and countries like Malawi and South Africa to continue cutting down on import costs.”

This is not unusual for a store that stocks foreign brands. According to KPMG, the challenges of global trade include inflated cost of business due to high taxes on imported products. Skinfluent benefits from the reduced pricing on the wholesale products she orders from overseas manufacturers, which makes up for the tariffs.

Another cross-border trader shared her long history of traveling from her border province and town into neighboring Botswana. Yvonne Sitwala, is a mother of two from Zambia’s tourist capital, Livingstone, in the southern region of the country. Widowed in her 20s more than a decade ago, she has since been the breadwinner of her household. Sitwala started her business selling groceries she bought in Botswana supermarkets and has gradually moved to reselling clothing items that are rarely found in Livingstone stores.

While these trade agreements can drastically slash costs for traders in Africa, most women traders do not know they exist.

“I had to make a plan after the COVID-19 regulations were relaxed,” she told me in an interview I did with her in a few years ago. “I saw that foreign food stuff was not as popular anymore as people had found alternatives when there was no movement of food between the supermarkets in Botswana to kiosks and tuck shops in Zambia. I decided I needed to diversify my business. I started with underwear for ladies and school shoes for children at the beginning of 2022. I now stock clothes for women, men, and children.”

Sitwala said she can now make a profit from selling a variety of products that she imports from Botswana and Namibia. She had also moved her physical store into her home and just recently was able to pay her first rental fees on a shop in Dambwa South, Livingstone.

“I want to start including South Africa and Tanzania into my business trips as they have a variety of the clothing styles I like.”

Sitwala said she had no knowledge of cross-border trade agreements until she encountered fellow women traders who use what they learned to get discounts.

“I would like to learn too because I have seen how helpful it is to people who know about them.”

Sitwala’s story isn’t uncommon. According to the Secretary General of the Southern Africa Cross Border Traders Association, Jacob Makambwe, women cross-border traders make up about 20 percent of the association’s registered members.

“We are an organization that consists of mostly small- to medium-size informal cross-border traders. We have been in existence since the late ’90s. The challenge we have with getting women on board is that they don’t know that we exist. We have these sensitization campaigns we introduced where we go into communities to reach out to cross-border traders. We educate our members on taxes and other aspects of doing business. I believe that women in this sector need to be part of organizations like SACBTA to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills that will grow their business,” he said.

This new era of trade is showing Zambians and Africans as a whole that despite the challenges women traders continue to face there is tremendous potential.

Women account for an estimated 70 percent of cross-border traders in the 10 Southern Africa countries which includes Zambia, according to the 2016 ICTB Gender Assessment Report. Despite this large representation, cross-border trade is still viewed negatively by some parts of Zambian society, including immigration officers. Often mistaken for sex workers and without a full understanding of import laws, female cross-border traders in Africa face discrimination. They also face exploitation by corrupt border workers.

Makambwe has seen improvements in some trader’s lives as they learn more about trade agreements that Zambia is a part of, like AfCFTA.   

Another trade agreement that comes in handy for traders is the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or COMESA, and its Simplified Trade Regime, or STR, a COMESA initiative. The agreement is in effect on borders between East and Southern African borders. It has tried to address some challenges small-to-medium cross-border traders encounter when ferrying goods from high production to scarcity areas. Under this inter-regional agreement, traders carrying goods included in a pre-negotiated list and worth up to $2,000, can clear them with little paperwork (by using a simplified certificate of origin) and without inspection by clearing agents. The processing fee for goods has also been lowered in a number of COMESA countries.

While these trade agreements can drastically slash costs for traders in Africa, most women traders do not know they exist. An example is given of the border between Malawi and Zambia, called the Mwami/Mchinji, where only an estimated five-to-ten traders use the STR agreement to clear their goods each month. The majority instead use the informal route whereby they only declare their goods for personal use and are therefore taxed more than if they declared their goods for resale in their home country.

This new era of trade is showing Zambians and Africans as a whole that despite the challenges women traders continue to face—aftershocks of the pandemic, lack of tax education, and the lack of formal support groups—there is tremendous potential. Women like Ngosa Natasha Chimfutumba, Jasmine Banda, and Yvonne Sitwala are leading the way to create livelihoods and wealth from a sector that sustains a large chunk of Africa’s economy.

Fiske Nyirongo is a Zambian freelance writer based in Lusaka, Zambia. She has previously written for publications including ADP Rethink Quarterly, Black Ballad, Meeting of Minds UK and the Times of Zambia. She is currently studying remotely for her communications degree at Mulungushi University.

Cover photo: Ngosa Natasha Chimfutumba, owner of Ngosa Styles. Photo courtesy Ngosa Styles.