IN A BID TO ASCERTAIN THE ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS OF COVID- 19 PANDEMIC ON MARKET WOMEN IN MAKENI, BOMBALI DISTRICT AND MAGBURAKA, TONKOLILI DISTRICT, NORTHERN, SIERRA LEONE, THIS MEDIUM CONDUCTED AN INTERVIEW WITH MARKET WOMEN AND THEIR FAMILY MEMBERS, TRADERS UNION LEADERS, AND COUNCIL’S SPOKESPERSON.
Women in Sierra Leone are in the majority in the country’s workforce; contributing greatly towards the economy of Sierra Leone. According to Sierra Leone 2015, Population and Housing Census Thematic Report on Gender (www.statistics.sl) accounted for 50.8 percent of women’s population in Sierra Leone, while the female working population aged 15 – 64 years is 56.4 percent compared to the male working population which is 54.8 percent in the country.
The report continues that 28 percent of women are household heads whiles 72 percent are male-headed households. This proves that women are active participants in the economy of Sierra Leone and are mostly empowered by their trade actives in both rural and urban areas under the supervision of the Sierra Leone Traders Union who is charged with the responsibility of advocating for the welfare of the traders including market women.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the market women’s husbands were redundant as many companies were closed. This situation pushed most of the market women to take business from microfinance institutions with high-interest rates in a bid to sustain the running of the homes.
NANCY TUCKER, a cookery seller, at old Lunsar road Makeni, Bombali district, Northern Sierra Leone, said, since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, her sales dropped drastically; even the money she invested to prepare the food is not recovered.
‘‘Before COVID-19 I used to have huge sales, customers were queueing for services, I used to sell around seven hundred thousand Leones LE 700.000 (US $ 80) per day, but with COVID-19 in our midst, I only have a sale of three hundred thousand leones (LE 300.000) or one hundred and fifty thousand Leones at worst (LE 150,000) (0.015 US $) without any profit,’’ she said.
She continued to state that as a mother of four school-going daughters; one being in university, she solely depends on the cookery business to support their education. With the effect of COVID-19, she is unable to contribute to her day-to-day savings and loan program, which has assisted her toward her children‘s education. Nancy called on the government to help them with some micro-credit support.
70-year-old petty soda soap (locally called Africana soap) seller, MABINTY TARAWALLY, said that the pandemic has presented harsh challenges; “things are difficult for me and my family, I have fewer sales, and it is from the business I take care of my family”.
She revealed that her husband is aged, ill, and jobless and cannot perform his role as a partner; the entire household responsibilities rely on her. Mabinty is therefore calling on the government to help them as market women by providing loan support as things are difficult for them presently.
In addition, 43-year-old ISATU CONTEH, a trader dealing in provisions, at Magburaka, Tonkolili district, Northern Sierra Leone, concurred the difficulties due to COVID-19, she is having fewer sales now because of Coronavirus, and all the monies she saved are being spent on food and other needs.
The goods she trades in have an expiration date and when she has not made sales beyond that date, she has no option but to dispose of them.
The goods she trades in have an expiration date and when she has not made sales beyond that date, she has no option but to dispose of them.
She too urged the government to reduce prices of goods whole-sellers to be more affordable to petty traders.
MABINTY KAMARA age 40, sells rubber bowls and other plastic wares in one of the markets in Magburaka, Tonkolili district, she too echoed, before the COVID-19 pandemic,
Sales were encouraging, she would go to the market day, locally called (luma market) and would have sales before returning home, but with COVID-19 now in the country and the world, sales have dropped.
She called on microfinance institutions to allow them access to micro-credit support with less interest rate, or else they will get out of business, she feared.
“Most market women have been imprisoned for not paying back their loans on time, while some have ran away leaving their family members behind simply because they can’t pay back their loans as a result of fewer sales in this covid-19 period” she concluded.
YA KADIATU SESAY is in her 70’s, she sells green leaves (potato leaves), at turntable market, Ropolon area, Makeni Bombali district. She said sales are difficult, because of COVID-19, people are not buying, many a time she comes and goes back without any sales while the leaves get perished.
Her husband Mohamed Essay said, “before COVID-19, life was better for us, but now it’s difficult. My wife hardly has sales now, and we solely dependent on her green leaves business. Many a time when the leaves don’t sell, they go rotten and we disposed of, this happens regularly. This situation has made us not to afford our usual meal (rice) except cassava. I have no options, but just to ask the government to help us in order to prevent our children from going to bed hungry”.
Their two children a boy aged 19 and a girl aged 17, expressed their parent’s grief in being unable to buy them new uniforms, shoes, and bags for this academic year, adding that they had to use their old- torn-uniforms, shoes, and bags, even lunch is not provided for them.
THE MARKET WOMEN’S TRADERS UNION
Chairlady for the market women under the trader’s union in Bombali district; HAJA AMINATA
reiterated that, in Makeni most traders sell perishable goods, but because of COVID-19, there are fewer sales and most of their goods get spoilt, which is a loss to their business.
“Businesswomen particularly suffer a lot as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Most of our husbands have no job, we have kids to care for, and they all rely on the business we do” she stated.
Furthermore, the chair-lady added that women in this part of the country take loans to startup business from microfinance institutions with a high-interest rate, but due to COVID-19 most of them cannot pay back and some ended been arrested and taken to the police for investigation, while others have run away to an unknown location.
As the market women’s chair-lady representing the women in the traders union, she said she had made effort to solicit support for vulnerable traders from the councils and other stakeholders in the district, however, according to her; each attempt is overshadowed by politics. She explained that Bombali district is the opposition stronghold where the opposition party supporters are in the majority.
She maintained that COVID-19 has greatly affected them and has led to the collapse of their businesses.
RESPONSES FROM THE CITY AND DISTRICT COUNCILS
In a bid to know what will be the role of the councils and trader’s union in cushioning the economic problems facing market women at the moment in Makeni city and Tonkolili district, this medium engaged the public relations officers of both the city and district councils and the trader’s union.
EMANUEL YEREH SAMURA: Information, Education and Communication Officer, at the Makeni City Council, said: “the City Council’s role is to bring development to the doorstep of its people; the local council is a sub-national government, representing the central government in cascading national development plans locally to the people in the council’s jurisdiction”.
He explained, by the decentralization process, all markets across the country are under the direct supervision of local councils who, intervene if there are any issues, manage the affairs of traders together with the trader’s union in different localities and it is the obligation of the council to collect tax from market women in the form of market dues.
On the question of support given to market women since the outbreak of COVID-19, Mr. Samura said, the Makeni City Council is one of the first councils that put strategies in place to ensure they protect the lives of their people and the market women are no exception. When the country recorded its index case he said, they went round to seek for an alternative market place to relocate traders in a bid to decongest the market, they also identify other structures less occupied by traders, and talked to them together with the traders’ unions to move to those less occupied markets to be able to observe social distancing, to which he said, they were applauded for by many.
“We ensure we also decongest the clock tower areas, where traders throng to sell every day, we provided hand-washing facilities, face masks, hand sanitizers”, he said.
Public Relations Officer, Bombali district council, ALUSINE BANGURA, disclosed that since the outbreak and recording of the index COVID-19 case, the Bombali District Council, with support from the Central Government and European Union (EU), has been leading in the fight against COVID-19. He continued to say, council summoned a preparedness meeting with district stakeholders, in a bid to raise the awareness of COVID-19 and to involve all to control, mitigate, or contain the spread of covid-19. He said the Bombali district council sensitized, disinfected market places, formulated by-laws, involved local leaders to help enforce the by-laws and educate the people about the COVID-19 preventive measures.
On livelihood support to market women, Mr. Bangura said, currently, the council is not embarked on anything like cash transfer or financial support to market women in order to cushion the difficulties facing their businesses, however, they have been engaging them on COVID-19 preventive measures.
He continued to say as a council, they are fully aware of how bad the country’s economy is affected by COVID-19 and they share the pains of the market women because they are the set of people that come in contact with the daily economic activities, adding that as a council, they are trying to help revive the economy, and once they have grants and other sources of revenue they will help.
PROVISIONS TO MICRO-FINANCE INSTITUTIONS
On the question of how the Bombali District Council will help to plead with the micro-finance institutions on behalf of the market women to adjust the payment arrangement and interest rate for those who have taken loans, citing the effect of COVID-19 on their businesses, the council’s Public Relation Officer said, though micro-finance institutions are operating under the purview of the council, they only provide oversight role, as the micro-finance institutions have their own mandate. He said the help they can give as a council, is to mediate should a trader is disadvantaged or unfairly treated, but they don’t have the power to tell them to have a reduction in the interest rate on loan to traders.
However, he said they will endeavor to persuade the administrative heads of those micro-finance institutions to be reasonable with the traders on a payment plan, with a view on how COVID-19 has affected their businesses. He assured that they will lobby and advocate for grant
in aid in order to help the market women, with cash. He informed that as part of their effort to support market women, they are currently constructing a market place worth millions of Leones in Gbanti Chiefdom with support from the European Union (EU).
THE ROLE OF THE DISTRICT TRADER’S UNIONS
MOHAMED KAMARA, Secretary-General, Bombali District Traders Union said in a live simulcast radio interview on Radio Mankneh F.M 95.1 and Radio Maria 101.1 FM that, from the time the President declared COVID-19 in the country, they stood as a union to educate members about COVID -19, its regulations and preventive measures such as hand washing, use of face mask and social distancing.
On the livelihood support, Mr. Kamara said they don’t have something especially targeting market women in terms of help, but they have been lobbying other organizations to help the market women, as breadwinners of many homes. The union is going all out to seek help for the market women, for instance, he cited the government help through the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA) cash transfer support to market women in April 2020.
Chairman of the Tonkolili District Trader’s Union, IBRAHIM VAN PERSIE JALLOH said in a live radio interview on Radio Mankneh 95.1FM, Maken, Bombali, that “the role of the trader’s union is to look after the affairs of the traders, if there is a problem, they solve it, serve as a go-between the traders and the government in case of development”.
But since the outbreak some of their operations have been hindered, however, he said they managed to cope, they adhere to the regulations of COVID-19, and the go out from chiefdom to chiefdom, sensitizing their members on COVID-19, especially on the proper use of face masking, maintain social distancing and handwashing.
On support to market women, Mr. Jalloh said, at first, they wrote two projects and sought support, but it was not approved, others promised to help after COVID-19 ends, “so as of now, no activities, no loan to traders”.
In terms of the micro-finance loans to traders, Mr. Jalloh pointed out that, “it’s a very big worry for them as traders because 80% of petty traders depend on micro-credit loan facility, some would pay weekly or monthly, but with this corona, businesses have collapsed, no sales, so it came to a time plenty are unable to pay, some ran away leaving their business and families”.
SUPPORT FROM THE TONKOLILI DISTRICT COUNCIL
PETER BANGURA, Information, Education, and Communication officer, Tonkolili district council, said as part of their effort to help market women, the council has relaxed business registration and dues. He added that they are in consultation with the Ministry of Trade to help market women in the district with cash loan which he believes will boost the business of the market women. Mr. Bangura assured that come 2021 they will partner with other organizations in the district to support market women who are economically affected by COVID-19.
Ultimately, both districts; Makeni, Bombali District, and Magburaka, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone show that COVID-19 has presented adverse economic effects on market women. With no signs of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is pessimistic that situations of market women will find relief, considering low sales, high-interest rate on loan, and poor support of council to market women.