- Outline of the agenda:
The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has been impacting life on all levels of business and society as a whole. After an initial delayed reaction, this is also true for Africa and the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region. For many businesses, the last couple of months have recalibrated their understanding of normalcy at every possible juncture. To this end, several important border lessons have been subsequently learned. Nonetheless, many of the challenges that countries in the ESA region faced before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to alter how cross-border business takes place in the region. This WCO ESA RPSG webinar — the 7th of its kind — deliberated on linking the ESA region with SMART Borders and Trade Single Windows as a positive step into the future concerning trade in the region.
The webinar was chaired by Dr. Juanita Maree, (WCO ESA-RPSG and SAAFF Director). She was joined by six leading customs panellists:
- Larry Liza – Director – Regional Office for Capacity Building, World Customs Organization East & Southern Africa Region
- Patrick Gyan – Technical Attaché – World Customs Organization – Regional Development Manager, East & Southern Africa Region
- Valentina Mintah – International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Executive Board
- Willie Shumba – Senior Customs Expert, African Union Commission
- Trudi Hartzenberg – Executive Director, t r a l a c – Trade Law Centre
- Jason Blackman – Senior Director – Customs, Trade Compliance and Regulatory Affairs, DHL Express – Sub Saharan Africa
As evidenced above, the panellists included a much-admired combination of important private and public sector role-players throughout the region. The WCO ESA RPSG is particularly pleased to have Valentina Mintah from Ghana — newly appointed member of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Executive Board — address our members.
Outline of the agenda:
- Welcome & Rules of Engagement: Juanita Maree
- Panellist discussions:
- Larry Liza
- Patrick Gyan
- Valentina Mintah
- Willie Shumba
- Trudi Hartzenberg
- Jason Blackman
- Q & A from WCO ESA RPSG Members
- Closure: Juanita Maree
1. Welcome and rules of engagement
A warm note of welcome was extended to the distinguished panellists, as well to all participants with a stake in Customs and trade-related matters in the ESA region. Some background was provided as to the purpose of the meeting, including introducing the panellists and outlining the topic of discussion.
As with previous webinars, it was highlighted that the RPSG is not a mandatory organisation, but rather one which shares ideas and suggestions to be tabled to the Private Sector Consultative Group in Brussels, Belgium. Therefore, as always, RPSG members are encouraged to partake in discussions and share their ideas.
The rules of engagement were outlined, and all attendees and panellists were requested to mute themselves when they were not speaking. Participants were encouraged to engage via the chat features and pose their questions to the panellists as and when they arose.
The effects of COVID-19 have been far-reaching, but three things can be learned from the experience. (1) We need a positive mindset, (2) hope should never fly out the window, and (3) we need a dream and we should live the dream. The dream discussed by the distinguished panellists during this webinar was to show what an African Union should look like, especially in terms of SMART borders and Trade Single Windows.
The webinar was recorded and is available on the WCO ESA RPSG’s website and YouTube channel. Furthermore, the panellists’ presentations used during the webinar has also been made available on the website.
2. Panellists discussions
a. Larry Liza – WCO ESA ROCB
As a background, a status update on what is happening in the region was provided, specifically in light of the observations and challenges concerning COVID-19:
- The ESA region currently accounts for 53% of the COVID-19 cases in Africa. For a while the region only accounted for 30%, but as the cases rose, especially in South Africa, the percentage went up.
- By the same token, South Africa currently accounts for 53% of Africa’s cases and is responsible for 83% of the cases in the ESA region.
- We have noticed in the last couple of months that initially, the rate of increase in cases continued to rise by about 10% per week.
- Cases then rose to a 30% increase per week two months ago, and about a month ago, the increase in COVID-19 cases dropped to about 25% per week. Then last week, the rate of increase dropped to a 15% increase per week.
- The region also continues to have increases in total deaths; nevertheless, the increase has been on a downward trend.
- At the moment, deaths are at about a 22% increase per week, down from 30% per week.
- Recoveries have maintained a constant trend of about 30% recoveries per week.
i. Observations and challenges
Border closures and delayed cargo delivery
Many of the ESA region’s member countries closed their borders for people but kept them open for cargo. However, these border closures presented many challenges, such as the difficulties between the South-Africa-Zambia border, the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, and the Tanzania-Kenya border, where there were issues with delayed cargo delivery. Some of the challenges faced at border posts include getting to the ports of entry without a COVID-19 certificate, or the rapidly changing regulations that are not communicated to the drivers on time, or what could just be called unnecessary bottlenecks, as we have also seen at other borders.
Reduction in Customs revenue
We have seen a reduction in customs revenue within the region, which has been reported by every member country, ranging from a reduction of as low as 2% to as high as 20%. Customs revenue accounts for nearly 30% of the revenue input for most revenue administrations in ESA. Where you see such a loss of revenue — and yet goods are supposed to be moving —a lot of things are causing this. First, half the products entering the ESA comes from the East, specifically China and places like Turkey. January-April saw a higher reduction in revenue because a lot of production facilities in China were closed, and only began to open in May. Within 30 days we saw a slight sustained increase. The only challenge is the bottlenecks we are seeing in different border stations.
Infections and loss of Customs staff
Unfortunately, some Customs officials have also been lost due to the COVID-19 virus. We have lost several staff members from the ESA in Customs.
Some years ago, the WCO started a Customs response to terrorism, and two years ago they began to address the issue of customs quickly responding to threats. In the ESA region, a lot of reactive measures have been put in place, guided by national governments. There were cases where people did not have access to PPE or of entire offices being closed due to infections, without measures being put in place to ensure continuity. Nevertheless, the good news is that things are continuing to stabilise over time. However, several challenges have been presented by the ‘new normal’, notably in terms of:
- Poor IT connectivity and IT security protocols that have restricted working from home; and
- Challenges enforcing social distancing, especially for frontline workers at Border Points.
The major challenge, however, is IT connectivity and IT security protocols that have restricted people working from home. Many customs administrations allowed their customs staff to work from home; nevertheless, their computers, machines or gadgets may have restricted workability. What we must note when talking about the border is that it is difficult to work from home. Collectively as a region, we will need to find new ways of doing things. Borders were also operating with reduced staff, which has caused a backlog. Enforcing social distancing with front-line workers has also presented a challenge at border points.
The WCO has recently spoken about emerging technologies, which in some areas are also called “exponential technologies”. One of our main recommendations made was that Customs and private sector administration realise the need to fast-track the utilisation of exponential technologies. These include blockchains and drones (some countries in Asia are already using drones for the verification of goods). We realise that using these technologies will make trade easier, not just in light of the pandemic but of increasing levels of efficiency. The good news is that we have noticed that many customs administrations are taking the issue of data management very seriously.
Likewise, the WCO has offered support to the region, which is normally coordinated by our Regional Development Manager (Patrick Gyan), assisting in developing data frameworks for each member’s administration. We believe intelligent data management will be fast, efficient, and provide faster and more effective analyses regarding Customs operations.
Aside from that, it is important to model Customs procedures and operations. Most members’ Customs administrations have already gone paperless with the exceptions of South Sudan and Somalia, who are still using paper a lot. Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and to a small extent Burundi also use a lot of paper. The WCO believes that “paperlessness” will lead to “contactlessness”. I use this word, coining it deliberately to help us realise that the less contact there is between Customs on the border stations, the better it is for other border agencies and the people that use the borders, especially the private sector. Leveraging on Single Windows to ensure that there is a specific location where goods are lodged and all the government agencies at borders work through that will help remodel customs operations.
Coupled with the above, there are still many Customs authorities that are calling on us to pay revenues physically. The example of Kenya can be used to demonstrate the progress in terms of “contactlessness”, where it is not necessary to go to the bank. Kenya has developed a mobile application that allows users to draw up to $3,000 and pay it to their revenue authority. This can be used as a best-practice case. The government of Kenya removed all the charges, especially for those done using mobile phones. This means that SMEs and all small-scale traders can execute this without necessarily going to the bank. One of the countries most affected by Ebola in West Africa had the challenge of digitisation of revenue, so they moved to a no-contact system, which led to revenue collection improvements.
iii. Possible gains from the COVID-19 pandemic
There are also opportunities for levels of gain during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the largest opportunities lies with the implementation of ICT. A set in the right direction has been the fact that many member countries’ revenue administrations have introduced an increase in budgeting for ICT.
Also, more organisations and authorities are adopting and adapting to working remotely. In terms of Customs and trade, remote work does not necessarily mean working from home; you can work at a border without having to be in touch with the traders that want to cross the borders. At some of the SMART borders, there is, for example, a system where the number plate of a truck carrying goods is detected from the port, and at every place or border station that the truck passes, the number plate is photographed. The goods are under electronic seals, which makes it difficult to steal as there are rapid response units.
As we move towards SMART borders, we move towards SMART gates, SMART cargo handling, and SMART documentation processing. All of these matters are extremely important milestones in the progression of the ESA region in terms of customs and trade-related matters into the future.
b. Patrick Gyan – WCO Secretariat
i. WCO theme: “SMART borders for seamless trade, travel, and transport”
In light of the topic of this webinar, we should start by reminding ourselves of the 2019 theme that the WCO selected, which talks about “SMART borders for seamless trade, travel, and transport”. The WCO specifically chose this theme as a way to show its commitment to promoting the transformation of national frontiers into SMART borders. This means that borders will be able to provide swift and smooth cross-border movement of goods, people, and means of transport. Proficient customs administrations play a pivotal role in this agenda.
The theme of SMART borders envisions a cross-border environment where customs working with other cross-border agencies will provide processes and procedures that will ensure security, are measurable (using self-evaluation), automated, based on risk-management decisions, and technology-led. They will provide an enabling environment for supply chain and economic growth.
The scenario was then based on a positive global outlook, where it was expected that the number of passenger travels and the volume of cross-border trade would grow exponentially. A year later, the world is faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented health crisis that has evolved into a global economic crisis with a serious socio-economic impact. What does this theme look like now? Is it that because the outlook is no longer positive that the theme becomes irrelevant? No. It is even more relevant now to move towards the urgent transformation of frontiers into SMART borders.
This is a time in which Customs plays a critical role, to continue ensuring smooth facilitation of not only the relief and humanitarian goods, but goods in general. This will help limit the impact of the pandemic on human lives, societies, and the economy. In doing so — from the SMART perspective — Customs agencies are strongly urged to establish correlated and proactive approaches with all concerned agencies to ensure the continued facilitation of the supply chain. Customs administrations are encouraged to explore more in the realm of technology to find solutions, which was the main idea that the WCO tried to promote, realising that emerging and new technologies present opportunities for customs administrations to engineer business processes whilst applying these new technologies to become more efficient. The mandate is still there, but the urgency has become very real.
ii. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ESA region
It is noticeable within the ESA region that all Customs administrations have been impacted by the pandemic, and the visible things that can be recalled are the adjustments made in work areas, particularly the protection of frontline workers, adjusting work-hours, and shifts to comply with health and safety measures. This includes the reprioritisation of workflows and workflow procedures. Hence, adapting to the guidance provided by SMART borders will not only keep Customs administrations and OGAs (other government agencies) in readiness for the initial response to disasters but also keep them resilient in the face of disasters, which is crucial for business continuity and economic recovery.
By staying SMART, customs administrations in the ESA region will be ready and prepared to manage any situation comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a more sustainable way to deal with certain situations. The WCO is continuously working in this area and developing several components and tools to assist customs administrations in that regard.
iii. Shift towards SMART borders, paperless Customs and the digitisation of trade through Single Windows
What makes our discussion today even more complete is matching national and regional efforts to achieve SMART borders with the concept of Single Window. Many businesses in the region — and around the world — including SMEs, have adapted to the pandemic by moving towards e-commerce much faster than they had planned. While businesses have been saved through this demonstrated capacity of e-commerce, the sudden shift presents an urgent call to customs to provide the critical building blocks for the good of e-commerce on the African continent.
Ultimately, it is time for paperless customs and the whole digitalisation to trade through Single Window. Single Window implementation is known to play a pivotal role in digitalisation of all national business processes, especially to facilitate cross-border trade. It also has a great impact on how the government interacts with other stakeholders as well as citizens. Single Window has huge potential in consolidating the efforts made in the area of SMART borders.
To add to the discussion, the WCO has gathered evidence that shows that WCO members with a mature Single Window environment have had smoother processes. The level of maturity of the Single Window also plays a critical role. The pandemic has brought some positive impacts to bear on long-term planning for national digitalisation policies. Businesses and governments alike are all finding technological solutions for various difficulties. Governments are refreshing their national IT projects and drafting new ones. They are searching for innovative ways to confront the virus.
Customs administrations have a key role in the implementation and operation of Single Window System and must take the necessary steps to seek assistance. The WCO emphasises cross-border Regulatory Single Windows and explains it as a facility that governs the regulatory aspect of the cross-border flow of traded goods, cargo, transport equipment, means of transport, and crew. The whole focus is on how cross-border regulatory agencies interface with trade so that government agencies can work in cooperation with what trade needs to provide simplified solutions.
The WCO has developed an unofficial definition for the Single Window environment, namely: “cross-border intelligent facility that allows parties involved in trade and transport to lodge standardised information, mainly electronic, with a single entry point, to fulfil all import, export and transit-related regulatory requirements.” The emphasis is on the intelligent facility, apart from allowing for a single point of entry and electronic submission. It is a vehicle that provides shared services to all users and so it allows for intelligent interaction. Enhanced cooperation of national Single Windows on a regional level, can result in Regional Single Windows and prove to be an excellent tool for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). A Regional Single Window can also leverage the untapped potential of national and regional economies and facilitate further commercial transactions through multi-modal transportation.
c. Valentina Mintah – ICC Executive Board
i. The purpose of SMART borders and Trade Single Windows
The ultimate objective of SMART borders and Single Windows is to reduce the time on the cost of doing international trade business. This is where the government and private sector really must work together because most of the regulatory facilities are provided by the government with business conducted by the private sector. Therefore, stakeholder cooperation is especially important and even more critical in the pandemic period.
ii. “The COVID19 Crisis and Trade Facilitation” ICC Survey Highlights
The ICC and partners conducted a survey titled “The COVID-19 Crisis and Trade Facilitation”. The survey shows that over 95 countries have implemented restrictions and banning measures on the export of some critical goods. Whereas these may be temporary non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that are introduced legitimately, it is important to mitigate the risk of these measures becoming permanent. Almost all trade procedures have become cumbersome, particularly in the area of testing on critical medical supplies, which are sometimes needed in critical situations of life and death. These regimes that have come into play must be balanced with health and safety as well as critical needs.
Likewise, the flow of transit goods to landlocked countries has also become a serious barrier to trade. These are all NTBs that are seeping into the supply chain. Although these are immediate challenges that need mitigating, it is also important to work to ensure that the agreements that are put into place rapidly find solutions to remove these NTBs.
These challenges clearly show that contingency planning and disaster management is no longer a hidden clause needed in agreements or programmes only. They must be robust and timely, since, as we find in these times, it is not just about the movement of goods, but also life-saving goods. There is now the added balancing act of balancing health and safety matters such as physical distancing with matters such as trade facilitation, not to mention the already existing balancing act of trade facilitation and revenue collection. We need to ensure that strategies are deliberate in ensuring that the private sector can go about their duties while the government regulates the necessary areas without putting processes in place that impede the movement of goods.
iii. Storyboard of lessons learned – Digitalisation
Digitisation and access to timely trade information are components that are critical for ensuring that business can be conducted in time, anywhere in a “contactlessness” environment. We must look at trade information. In the last few months, information has been changing by the second, minute, or hour. How do we ensure that this information is disseminated to the people who need it to ensure the flow of goods? It is important to understand national and regional infrastructures to determine what measures can be put into place whilst working towards a harmonised supply chain.
Some of the components that are relevant to the challenges that are being faced:
Pre-arrival processing is now critical. There are finite resources and physical distancing measures that still need to manage the critical goods that are moving across borders. Access to data before the goods arrive means that the regulatory agent can do their work before the physical arrival of goods at the port, easing the flow of traffic.
National risk management
Pre-arrival processing cannot be done without a robust national risk management system from a regulatory point of view. All the necessary authorities need to work together to ensure clarity and certainty about which goods are risks and which need to be stopped upon arrival, even before the goods arrive. Joint and coordinated inspections are also a part of this process.
AEO – Trusted Trader, Single Windows, and physical infrastructure
The above also brings to bear the Trusted Trader (AEO). If there is a list of trusted traders in the database, customs should expedite those compliant goods and work on post-clearance audit facilities that can check them while ensuring the decrease in time and cost of moving these goods across borders.
Landlocked countries faced a stifling of trade flows into critical areas. It is important to ensure that critical routes remain open to ensure that landlocked countries receive their critical goods, which can be assisted through Regional Single Window.
It is impossible to fully realise all the benefits of digitisation programmes without the necessary physical infrastructure. It is important to ensure that telecom infrastructures, port facilities for container management, movement of goods and people, and the road networks are sound. These tools should be considered a priority, since they have been proven to be successful. They are no longer just a ‘nice-to-have’ but are now critical to implement.
iv. Priority next steps
Priorities — specific to each country — need to be put in place. The fact that ESA is moving towards paperless systems is an important foundation. It is a call to action to review National Trade Facilitation Strategies, ensure that priorities are put in place, and blueprints are created specifically for each country.
The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement has been ratified; countries must align their blueprints with these agreement priorities. The free flow of information and data, closely aligned with the movement of physical goods, is important. The only way to exchange data nationally and across borders is by ensuring safe systems and harmonised data sets. This is why the WCO Data Model is really important. It is important to rapidly integrate systems domestically and across borders. Priority and planning are key.
To achieve all the measures outlined above, the necessary tools need to be put into place rapidly, because there is a long road ahead towards economic recovery. Having these foundations in place will allow countries to bounce back more quickly.
d. Willie Shumba – African Union Commission
i. SMART borders
We are all aware of the WCO theme for 2019 was “SMART borders for seamless trade, travel, and transport” — which almost seems as if it was a prophecy of what was to come. In 2020, we start to wonder to what extent we have succeeded in creating SMART borders. The emphasis of the theme was on ensuring the swift and smooth cross-border movement of goods, people, and means of transport, and recognising the central role of customs. The guiding principles were “Secure, Measurable, Automated, Risk Management-Based, and Technology-driven”.
It is important to note that there is a need to re-engineer some business processes. Coming from that theme, in 2020, the WCO’s theme involved “Customs fostering sustainability for its people, prosperity, and the planet”. They were also looking at the “contribution of customs towards a sustainable future where social, economic, health, and environmental needs are at the heart of its actions”.
ii. Experience for African countries in 2020
In 2020 there have been border closures. Some were well-coordinated, with both sides of the border closing at the same time. In other cases, both sides of the border did not. The result was that no people, and in some cases no goods, could move across the borders. The restrictions on the movement of people as well as goods caused serious disruptions to business, business closures, and cash flow issues. Although some borders have begun to reopen, borders largely remain closed. Business has not returned to normal yet. In some situations, goods cannot move across borders because of the person transporting the goods.
iii. Lessons learned
Business continuity plans
One of the key lessons learned during this crisis — both for government and the private sector — is the importance of business continuity plans (or disaster recovery plans). This is especially important for the private sector in the ESA region. Private sector firms must be strong, reliable, and well-executed as a fall-back. A key lesson that comes with this is that when business continuity plans are drawn up, it is important to engage with those that benefit from the services rendered.
The other lesson learned is the issue of automation. With the spread of COVID-19, business has moved towards ICT. This has made it clear that there is a great need for business, public sectors, and government to invest in ICT. Many of the customs officials that were expected to work from home could not connect or link up with their clients or offices, meaning that the extent of ICT in a country affected business. It also influenced human safety, as these people needed to then go into their offices to do their work.
When business came to a halt, there was a major loss in revenue, especially for those that could not access ICT to work from home. There were also serious revenue losses in government, salary cuts, and closed borders. In contrast, government spending increased because governments had to feed people that were suddenly without and income, and they needed to invest heavily in medical equipment and supplies.
The need for cooperation with stakeholders has been made clear. The importance of the Minister of Health’s has drastically increased during the pandemic, showing the need for cooperation. Cooperation is required between national, regional, and international stakeholders. Moreover, cooperation that takes place during the pandemic must be continued once the crisis is over.
Reliance on multi-modal transport
The effects of COVID-19 varied across different modes of transport. Some countries throughout the ESA region particularly relied on road transport. Other countries, in turn, relied on air and rail transport. Given that 80% of cross-border regional trade takes place via road transport, this modality suffered the most under the strict border closures. This impact has made clear the necessity of making use of multi-modal transporting systems.
e. Trudi Hartzenberg – Tralac
i. The broader context of digitisation
COVID-19 is serving as a push factor towards digitalisation, especially in the context of customs and border management. Digitalisation can be used to drive efficiency and competitiveness, improving the overall outcome of trade. Digitalisation and digital transformation have become part of the policy discourse and agenda at the African Union level, the Regional Economic Community level, and the national level. E-commerce is now also on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agenda. Indications are that negotiations will begin next year. This means that the e-commerce agenda within the context of the joint sector initiatives at the World Trade Organisation negotiations are also important, even though at this stage very few African countries are participating.
Developing the capacity to manage digital trade solutions must be addressed. This should include the development of digital infrastructure. When we look at infrastructure, and infrastructure services, in particular, it is crucial to consider the trade in services agenda along with the broader regulatory governance agenda. Services are by nature regulatorily intensive, and issues such as harmonisation of transport regulations must be included. Harmonisation of regulations regarding cyber protection, data storage, and access to data are important areas of digital governance. These have not yet considered fully in the context of our trade and integration agenda.
Furthermore, operational matters associated with the implementation of trade agreements must be considered too. Borders demarcate jurisdictional boundaries and officials at border posts play an important role in the implementation of trade agreements. Officials can exercise some discretion as they implement aspects of the agreements. Some indicate that they are more comfortable with paper solutions, making it difficult to implement digital trade solutions. This should be taken into account in the development of operations manuals and training on new agreements such as the AfCFTA for border officials. They should also be held accountable for their decisions.
The broad infrastructure and connectivity eco-system which will underpin our capacity and ability to adopt digital trade solutions, specifically SMART borders, and associated customs and border management issues must be on our agenda. This includes energy security and internet connectivity.
ii. Regional integration model
Africa’s regional integration model does not provide for supra-national institutions. Some of the limitations of the model have become obvious as member states have legitimately taken unilateral measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19. They are entitled to do so since they are sovereign states, and all trade agreements make provision for the adoption of extra-ordinary measures in times of emergency or crisis. By contrast, the initiatives at the regional economic community level, are in the form of guidelines and entreaties to cooperate. They are not binding commitments, and thus not enforceable. The effectiveness of these guidelines, which have sought to provide for coordinated responses, has varied considerably across regional economic communities.
A border has two sides. Unilateral measures by one member state will impact the other side of the border. Given the contiguous nature of the countries in the ESA region and the configurations of transport routes and corridors, the closure of a border by a country such as South Africa, Tanzania or Kenya will of necessity have a much broader impact, across transit countries to the final destination.
The lessons learned are very important because COVID-19 will not be the last disaster or emergency. Future disasters may come in the form of climate disasters or other pandemics. What we are learning now should become institutionalised and systematised for future responses. During a pandemic, state of emergency or disaster, the rule of law is not suspended; thus, judicial review is possible. In South Africa, several cases have been brought before the national courts. There are some regional courts, such as the East African Community Court of Justice, where cases can also be brought by private parties. In SADC, however, there is no functional Tribunal, and even when the new Tribunal becomes operational, it will not be possible for private parties to bring cases.
We have seen that digital trade solutions can work. If e-certificates, for example are issued by a member state, it is necessary that they are accepted by the other member states. Thus, regional cooperation and a legal basis for accepting national certificates issued electronically by other countries are necessary.
iii. Lessons from COVID-19
Trade facilitation matters
We have learned that the continent is interconnected in the sense that what one country impacts many others. But Africa still remains geopolitically fragmented, and therefore, effectively functioning borders, effective functioning of cross-border transport networks, including multi-modal transport networks, is extremely important. This is important for the AfCFTA, RECs (Regional Economic Communities), and also for the member states. If we take a look at the implementation capacity required for digital solutions to work, for SMART borders to work, then of course we have to focus on domestic governance and capacity issues.
South Africa’s International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) indicated on their website that an export permit could take up to 10 days to process. During a pandemic, when essential goods such as pharmaceutical and food products require export permits, this is an extremely long time.
Services and trade facilitation
Services play a very important role in trade facilitation. Focusing, for example, on transport, financial, and communication services, we recognise the importance of the regulatory frameworks for those infrastructural services to support efficient cross-border trade. Harmonisation of transport regulations, such as axle load limits, is important.
Interagency cooperation also requires attention, both at the national level and cross-border levels. Many countries do not have a legal basis for interagency cooperation. Digital governance needs to be developed. This is essential if we are to consider the use of distributed ledger technologies, such as blockchains, for access to databases and use of personal information by different border agencies.
An important link exists between the trade in goods agenda, trade facilitation, customs and border management, transit, and e-commerce agendas. It is encouraging that e-commerce is now on the AfCFTA agenda. Cross-border e-commerce can only work well if goods can efficiently cross borders. The traditional trade in goods agenda including customs and border management, and trade facilitation is essential, for e-commerce to function efficiently.
To conclude, the development of governance for the digital economy (i.e. for SMART border management, Single Window, cybersecurity, protection of personal information, data storage, and access) is essential. These matters have to be addressed not only at a national level but also at regional and continental levels. There are important capacity deficits, as well as governance gaps which still exist. Addressing these matters and effectively providing the necessary digital solutions will make our borders work more efficiently, they will make our cross-border value chains work more effectively, and so will also contribute to Africa’s industrial development.
f. Jason Blackman – DHL
From a private sector perspective, we have had quite a lot of fun over the past four months at DHL in addressing a real challenge. There is a lot of dialogue where all of the key private sector participants have been really good at sharing information, setting up working groups, and most importantly, sharing lessons learned and best practices. How do we move forward? As mentioned earlier, this will probably not be the last situation of this nature and magnitude. The situation, especially within the African context, will probably persist at least another six months during which there will be significant disruptions to trade and services. We have done some investigation in terms of lessons learned across the African region. DHL operates in all 51 Sub Saharan countries and has a fleet of 15 aircrafts that we use, which gave us some insight into the regulatory challenges and the COVID-19 impact on the aviation sector. We are now beginning to settle into the ‘new norm’.
i. Summation of COVID-19 impact
The pandemic has changed our lives in a way that nobody envisaged. COVID has re-emphasised the fundamental importance of global trade. The presentations all very much align with my views and the views of DHL and what we see as critical within the region in terms of trade development and digitalisation. Everyone in the private sector is very much aligned to the thoughts, discussions, and points, there is a strong agreement of the critical issues, take-away, and actions that are needed. Transparent and consistent regulatory frameworks were one of the things we strongly support wish to see developed. The AfCFTA and TFA offer a very good regulatory framework for the ESA context to develop trade and SMART borders, etc.
Some of the key observations are the need to implement the AfCFTA. If it is rapidly implemented, it will hasten the recovery from COVID-19. The free trade agreements (FTAs) are an important element of any discussion. What we saw during COVID-19 was a very rapid roll-out of regulations governing measures with little private sector consultation in all the African countries. Unfortunately, the situations were arising so rapidly that there was not much of an opportunity to consult. However, in hindsight, some private sector involvement and dialogue before the implementation of regulations are important, especially in making sure that we have the infrastructure and capabilities to manage the regulatory changes.
In one of the countries where a lockdown was implemented, no one could get onto the online portal for essential services permits, and it took three or four days before that particular website came back up. We found that countries were erring on the side of caution, and rightfully so. There is also the risk at the moment of protectionist policies being re-established and continued, which is a risk that we need to keep in mind.
Nonetheless, we did see some reprieve from customs with the easing of bonds, simplified clearances, a stronger focus on digitalisation in some countries, and a reduction of duties and taxes for example for COVID essential items. Some of the other presenters already discussed border management. We were lucky, as the cargo flights were still allowed to operate and we were able to gain within the logistical services industry essential services status in many of the countries, allowing us to continue in part our supply chains to ensure the flow of goods.
Unfortunately, we are still seeing some physical inspections continuing and several stops where an element of physical interaction is required. This is interesting, because we would have thought that this would be the ideal opportunity for physical interaction and inspections to reduce, and to demonstrate the importance and power of risk profiling, versus the manual, physical approach based customs clearance.
Then, of course, we have seen daily changes in the regulations, which were published daily, which seems to have stabilised, and we have seen a reduction in the number of new directions being published. There was often little advance notice of the regulatory changes. We found that sometimes guidance notes were lacking in defining the regulations and providing clarity, leading to ambiguity in terms of for example roadblocks, where officials (police, security, or army) did not fully understand the regulation and the goal thereof.
Additionally, there was a global lack of coordination but which has improved substantially. There was also a lack of clarity on the defining standards regarding import and export controls, and in some countries there were, for example, some restrictive measures on masks, but no defining standards of what type of face mask would be acceptable.
ii. Lessons learned
What we should be doing, which stood out in all the presentations, is integrate the lessons we have learned and make necessary adjustments to operating models within the customs environment, particularly into long-term sustainable, modernised customs processes. Now is an ideal opportunity for countries to learn that their risk mitigation through modernisation is not as fraught with as much risk as they may have thought. The COVID-19 is an ideal opportunity to leverage the lessons learned and integrate them into future models and plans.
Expedite critical goods
For SMART borders, for example, priority lanes for freight transport at the borders. Priority lanes are particularly important, as it works very well in Europe. Expediting critical goods, which we did see in many countries. We have also seen regulatory constraints blocking the movement of critical goods. The lack of Single Window meant that transporters would be cleared by one border management agency, then go to another border agency, then through to health, involving three to five agencies with no cooperation or coordinated approach. This is important in terms of how we harmonise to clear and manage our supply chains during and after COVID.
In some countries, the tariff reliefs that were granted were revoked because there are enough local supplies available.
Risk management systems and pre-arrival processing
A lot of work going on in terms of looking at how we can maximise the opportunities that pre-arrival and pre-departure processing present to us in terms of risk profiling and how to streamline those processes to ease the cost and timelines of doing business within the African region.
Minimise physical inspection and prioritising of AEO cargo
We should be encouraging minimal physical inspections and prioritise AEO cargo. AEO partners should benefit from their certification. This will certainly help shift the congestion that we are seeing at the borders.
Penalties and collection
Extend the period for penalty resolution and collection from the normal time frames to at least 90 days
Matters of digitalisation and paperless filing emerged in the other presentations, which is an absolutely a key focus area. There should be a strong drive to integrate system solutions which are essential for a smooth clearance process with Single Window capability and reducing needs for manual paper-based entry documents.
Extend deadlines for other paper-based processes
Extending deadlines for paper-based processes helps for social distancing and to demonstrate that paper-based processes can be replaced by paperless trade and digitalisation.
In Africa, countries must temporarily suspend all types of cargo road and access restrictions in place in their territory (weekend bans) immediately.
Private sector consultation
The public sector must ensure as a priority that current and future policy and regulatory decisions are not made in isolation or a silo approach — as they are currently doing in many countries with future and current policy changes. The private sector has some very well-developed best practices and adds valuable experience. Adding to this, we (the private sector) see ourselves as a stakeholder during this process.
A broad holistic approach that incorporates the views of all stakeholders in a controlled and focused manner is required together with continued awareness that the transport and mobility sector is essential to ensure economic continuity, and to this end, collective and coordinated action is indispensable and must include the private sector.
Fast-tracking and achieving the paperless customs agenda
Finally, fast-tracking and achieving the paperless customs agenda in Africa and the recognition that digitalisation is an integral part of a modernised customs environment needs to gain momentum.
It is interesting to see how all the presenters agree and how their views are aligned, and that is where the strength lies in the collaborative approach — in isolating key issues and key elements of the approach that must be taken.
3. Questions and Answers
Given the time constraints, the opportunity was present to all participants to send their questions to:
- firstname.lastname@example.org; or
following the conclusion of the 7th webinar titled ‘Linking ESA via SMART borders and Trade Single Windows: Border lessons learned during COVID-19’.
At the time of writing, no specific questions were received. The WCO ESA RPSG nonetheless encourages all interested parties to send forth questions as and when they arise. In the meantime, all participants and members of the RPSG are encouraged to visit the website for updates in terms of customs and trade-related matters in the region.
A heartfelt message of appreciation was given to Juanita for the coordination of the webinar, bringing stakeholders together and bridging the gap between Customs and the private sector. Larry suggested that the Customs administrations should be included in the next webinar, which he will be happy to coordinate. A special thank you was extended to the panellists for providing their views. He echoed the final words that Jason gave. We are in this together, and it is amazing to see how presentations found congruence. The winners of the discussion were the need to harmonise and coordinate, to enhance ICT, and to recognise that these are abnormal times which require atypical, new ways of working — we can no longer proceed as we did before.
Juanita Maree B. Com (Hons cum laude, NWU) M. Com (UJ) and PhD (NWU – May 2020) is an Executive Director of Savino Del Bene South Africa (SDBSA). She is a passionate ‘captain of industry’ in the logistics field and is active at all levels of Customs-related organisational entities, nationally and internationally. She headed up the Customs Fraud and Illegal Imports Task Team for Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) (2018/2019) and is a board member of the South Africa Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF). Juanita, in her capacity as a Director on the SAAFF board, represents SAAFF at the World Customs Organisation (WCO) Private Sector Consultative Group (PSCG) and leads the WCO-ESA-RPSG (Regional Private Sector Group) under the auspices of the WCO-ESA-ROCB (Regional office for Capacity Building). Juanita is held in high regard by her peers in the industry at large, who recognise her unique abilities in collaborating with various public and private organisations in respect of the changes in statutory legislation such as Customs Modernisation, AEO and Scientific Risk Management systems.
Larry Liza is the Director of the World Customs Organization, East & Southern Africa, Regional Office for Capacity Building (WCO ESA ROCB) and in charge of implementing capacity building initiatives for 24 member countries in the region. The focus of his service includes promoting growth in intra-regional trade, promoting fair and efficient revenue mobilisation, strengthening intra-regional compliance and enforcement, and enhancing integrity and professionalism in human capital. Under Customs-Business partnerships, Mr. Liza cooperates with the private sector, including logistics companies, in light of their critical role in international trade and economic development. Larry, who serves on secondment from Kenya Revenue Authority, has a Master’s degree in Planning and Management and a Bachelor of Science degree, both from the University of Nairobi, among other qualifications. He is a Kenyan-born poet, published author, and global champion for maternal health.
Patrick Gyan is currently the Technical Attaché at the Capacity Building Directorate of WCO and the Regional Development Manager responsible for coordinating capacity building support to Member countries in the East and Southern Africa region, and has quality assurance oversight on the delivery. His portfolio also includes liaising with the regional office for capacity building (ROCB) on regional strategy development and implementation, as well as cooperating with development partners. Before joining the WCO in 2013, Patrick worked with the Ghana Revenue Authority where he acquired vast experience in the field of Customs research, policy and programmes, and international cooperation and development.
Valentina Mintah is a Ghanaian-British technology executive, internationally recognised for her expertise in trade facilitation and process automation. She is the founder and former CEO of West Blue Consulting, an award-winning ICT organisation based in West Africa. Under Ms. Mintah’s leadership, West Blue Consulting successfully developed and delivered national Single Window platforms for Nigeria (2013) and Ghana (2015), significantly improving trade facilitation and leading to multi-million-dollar savings for both governments. Ms. Mintah has been recognised for the economic impact of West Blue Consulting’s technology solutions by the International Monetary Fund, the WCO and the International Chamber of Commerce. Prior to establishing West Blue Consulting, Ms. Mintah was a Senior Solutions Specialist at Crown Agents in the UK, having previously worked at IBM. In 2019, Ms. Mintah founded e-Ananse, a UNESCO-backed network of libraries that seeks to improve literacy in Ghana by providing young people with access to high-quality, contemporary literature. In 2020, she was appointed to the Executive Board of the International Chamber of Commerce.
Willie Shumba is with the African Union Commission (AUC) as a Senior Expert and Advisor in the Department of Trade and Industry. Prior to joining the AUC, he was Head of Customs Cooperation with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretariat based in Gaborone, Botswana. In the SADC he was responsible for Customs programmes in the SADC Region and was also an advisor to the organisation on Customs issues. Mr. Shumba has extensive work experience with revenue administration in Zimbabwe, at various levels, including that of Commissioner. Mr. Shumba has qualifications in Business Management, Economics and International Trade Law having acquired these at both Bachelors’ and Masters’ levels with universities in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. During his career he headed the Zimbabwe Customs Training Centre, which offered training programmes both nationally and internationally. He has over 13 years of university teaching as a visiting lecturer in Customs Law at the National University of Science and Technology, the second largest State University in Zimbabwe. He is a Fellow of the Zimbabwe Institute of Management (FZIM), a leading and national institute of professional managers in Zimbabwe. Fellowship is the highest and most honoured level of membership. He is married with four grown up children.
Trudi Hartzenberg is the Executive Director of the Trade Law Centre (tralac). Her research is in the areas of international trade, competition policy, industrial development and Africa’s integration agenda. She has a special interest in, and commitment to capacity building, and institutional development. She currently serves on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Chairs Advisory Committee and is a member of the Committee for Development Policy of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).