Minutes of meeting: 8th Webinar – 17 November 2020, 09h00 to 10h00 (CAT; UCT +02:00)

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Background

As we near the end of 2020 — a year which no one could have predicted at the start — the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to dictate a lot of what we do, which includes how we do cross-border business in the East and Southern African Region. The WCO-ESA-RPSG is proud to continue its work in exploring more opportunities within the AfCTFA (African Continental Free Trade Area) Agreement, the WTO-TFA (World Trade Organisation Trade Facilitation Agreement), as well as the WCO Instruments and Tools. Leveraging all of these items can all bring greater alignment in a united African Union.

Outline of the agenda

  1. Introduction of the team
  2. Exploring additional opportunities in the AfCFTA, WTO-TFA and WCO Instruments and Tools
  3. Request assistance for the WCO-ESA-ROCB
  4. Ideas on accelerating the WCO-ESA-RPSG’s six focus areas from a Private Sector view
  5. Unlocking sponsors for collaborative work under the WCO-ESA-ROCB
  6. Closure

This WCO ESA RPSG webinar — the 8th of its kind — was chaired by Dr Juanita Maree, (WCO ESA-RPSG and South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) Chair). The following participants were present:

  1. Thabile NtombelaHead: International Cooperation, South African Revenue Service (SARS)
  2. Larry LizaDirector – Regional Office for Capacity Building, World Customs Organization East & Southern Africa Region (WCO-ESA-ROCB)
  3. Faith Mosongo Programme Officer – WCO-ESA-ROCB
  4. David LoganCEO – SAAFF
  5. Basil Pietersen President – International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA)
  6. Devan GovenderVice-Chair, SAAFF
  7. Bobby MottianConsultant, SAAFF KwaZulu Natal (KZN)
  8. David WattsNational Maritime Consultant, SAAFF KZN
  9. Liam SmithersExecutive Committee, SAAFF KZN
  10. Russel MackenzieExecutive Committee, SAAFF KZN
  11. Karen NeuteboomExecutive Committee, SAAFF KZN
  12. Nick TaljaardExecutive Committee, SAAFF KZN
  13. Hillary AugustusSecretary, SAAFF KZN
  14. Ronald Naidoo Executive Committee, SAAFF KZN
  15. Jacob van RensburgExecutive Coordinator, WCO-ESA-RPSG
  16. Lisa de JagerCommunications Manager, WCO-ESA-RPSG

1. Introduction of the team

Some background was provided as to the formation of the WCO-ESA-RPSG. The group’s origins started in 2016 when the desire was expressed to the WCO Private Sector Consultative Group (WCO-PSCG) in Brussels, Belgium, to have a regional private sector group in the ESA region. The ROCB, together with the then ESA Vice-Chair and Commissioner of Uganda, approved for the WCO-RPSG’s creation and nominated SAAFF to facilitate the ESA-RPSG. Since then, webinar meetings have been held (a total of seven to date) to mobilise the private sector in the region. As such, six main focus areas for the private sector in the region have been identified by the group. Additional information on the website can be found (https://www.wcoesarpsg.org/). The PSCG is keeping an eye on the progress of the ESA-RPSG.

Currently, the WCO-ESA-RPSG has around 600 members in the database. There is a great need to expand the reach of the database across countries and into the private sector. With the AfCFTA and AU, it is clear that the WCO-ESA-RPSG has a vital role to play. The WCO-ESA-RPSG (Larry and Faith) will not change policies but will instead advocate, under Larry and Faith, for example, identifying NTBs, which areas require more work, identify training gaps, and take these further.

One of the major projects the WCO-ESA- RPSG wants to focus on is the Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) programme. If there are AEOs in every country, and if they are aligned, the private sector will also be able to contribute and assist in the raising of the level of compliance, and safety and security in supply chain movements across the region.

To expand the database, the group needs the help of the ROCB in reaching out to the 24 countries and asking the customs authorities to nominate companies to the WCO-ESA-RPSG. Thabile will enquire with the SADC Secretariat on the private sector within SADC. If the customs administration nominates companies, they can be brought into the website, and the group can continue with its excellent work.

Action number 1: ROCB to reach out to the 24 countries’ customs authorities and Thabile to the SADC Secretariat for the SADC private sector representatives to nominate companies for the RPSG

Thabile confirms that the ESA region has been able to influence the direction at the WCO and that the group’s hard work is yielding fruits. The importance of an extensive database of connections was reiterated, highlighting that the team speaking to the broader private sector in the region to obtain data which is inclusive, verified and accurate.

AEOs are especially crucial in the South African context. Thabile shared with the attendees that SARS recently launched an AEO compliance programme, previously known as the Preferred Trader programme within the SACU region. The programme was assessed by the WCO, also in terms of the WCO-SAFE Framework, which regarded it as compliant. To date, 139 companies have joined the programme. SARS is still advocating for a much broader uptake of the program, as it is built on voluntary participation. Moreover, SARS is launching a full AEO Pilot Programme, including the security of the supply chain.

2. Exploring additional opportunities in the AfCFTA, WTO-TFA and WCO Instruments and Tools

There is always an emphasis, from a Customs Administration perspective, on doing everything for trade and their country. Customs administrations should involve the private sector as much as possible, ensuring compliance and safety and security is rewarded with recognised trade benefits. Thabile noted that SARS would lend their support to the ROCB in terms of marketing the programme. With SARS’s backing, more companies can be brought on board.

Furthermore, within the SACU region, there is an emphasis on the AfCFTA for each are to benefit and make sense, bringing in the private sector to enable them to move their goods faster, to reduce the cost of compliance, and to ensure that trade is facilitated. Thus, SARS will support the RPSG team as far as it can.

Larry congratulated SARS for launching their first AEO programme. South Africa is one of the few countries that have clearly outlined the AEO accreditation criteria. Besides, most countries start with 10 to 30 AEO operators while SARS began at 139, which shows that the private sector in the country will gain a lot under the programme. Larry expressed appreciation to SARS for putting them in touch with SAAFF, as the ESA was one of the weakest regions, without a participant for over 12 years, until SAAFF joined.

Additionally, Larry noted that the ESA region was the first to set up a regional private sector consultative group (RPSG), and the group is already a case study in the global arena. The WCO-ESA-RPSG has identified focus areas, which include the AEO and trade facilitation, through the WTO-TFA and AfCFTA.

Before COVID, the group had already made great strides in holding webinars and meetings. Larry noted that the group is looking forward to greater participation, better coordination and improving customs through the implementation of the regional strategy. During the COVID pandemic it came out that not only customs should be blamed for bottlenecks, because of COVID, it was clear that other government agencies have also had a hand in the bottlenecks caused. Thus, it is vital to bring in the private sector as well as members of other government agencies to enhance databases and partnerships.

3. Request assistance for the WCO-ESA-ROCB to reach out to the Customs Administrations for the 24 countries

The need for the WCO-ESA-RPSG to expand their database was reiterated. Juanita asked Basil Pietersen if he has any suggestion on how to reach out and get the private sector to join the WCO-ESA-RPSG. He noted that within FIATA, AEO and private sector, engagement is a key focus point. The importance of customs was reiterated, noting that although they are significant, they are not the only parties involved in trade. There must be a collaboration between the private sector and the authorities.

Internationally, collaboration is already being done, and Africa is lagging quite far behind. Within RAME (Regional Africa and the Middle East), this is a particular topic that has made inroads into the agenda. Engaging with each other will be a crucial part of bringing change to the world at a much greater speed and with much better traction. For Africa, the best place to start with this is within RAME, which David Logan is also familiar with.

To conclude the discussion on the topic, Juanita noted that the KwaZulu Natal chapter is specifically included in the meeting to ensure that the group does not work in isolation and to create stronger partnerships and better engagement. In this spirit, the group have also reached out to FIATA, FERSATA (Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations) and the ICC (International Chamber of Commerce) in Africa. They continually aim to broaden their outreach and to ensure that the group is a fair representation of the private sector.

David Logan has had discussions with David Phillips at RAME, who indicated that they are keen to work with the group. He also noted that Dr Mangeni, who is now based in Uganda, will be driving the AfCFTA, so the group should link up with him as well.

Larry suggested that the group consolidate the list of member companies per country and distribute these lists to the relevant customs administrations. This way, when they nominate companies, it can be ensured that they do not select companies that are already members. This process is especially important as a large number of customs administrations underwent leadership changes recently. Engaging in this process will help beef up the membership.

Action number 2: The ROCB will write to the 24 Member Administrations and request for them to nominate companies for the RPSG. The existing database will be shared in order not to nominate the same entities. Furthermore, there will be efforts to consolidate the database and segment companies according to countries, then distribute these lists along with the request to customs administrations to nominate companies for the RPSG. Larry suggested targeting already established sub-regional groups such as the East Africa Freight Forwarders Association, the East Africa Business Group, and many more.

Thabile asked if there has been any engagement from the SADC group, recalling that there was a private sector initiative. She noted that it is easier to liaise with Associations rather than individual businesses. She stressed that SARS is already engaging with businesses through SACU. She indicated that from SARS’s side, they could check with the secretariat to find out regarding the private sector engagement in SADC.

Action number 3: Thabile will investigate further private sector engagement in SADC and how the RPSG can leverage this.

4. Ideas on accelerating the WCO-ESA-RPSG’s six focus areas from a Private Sector view

The six focus areas are (1) Smart Borders; (2) AEO; (3) Education and awareness: WCO Instruments and Tools; (4) Research in the Region; (5) Measurements in the ESA region; and (6) Non-tariff barriers (NTBs) in the ESA region. In terms of NTBs, a critical task currently experienced is the fact that the challenges are listed, but not the outcomes thereof. For example, no clarity is provided when issues are resolved or whether they have led to a policy change. The two main focus areas, which Larry also mentioned, is the AEO and the trade facilitation under the AfCFTA. Juanita suggested that the group creates a work plan, with webinars included, and adapt the work plan under the ROCB.

Larry agreed that a work plan which covers January to December 2021 would be an excellent idea. He noted that it would cut over different financial years as the financial year for the ROCB begins April, while others start in July or October, but that should not be a concern if the group does a calendar year work plan. He added that in the light of the COVID pandemic, particular focus should be given to digitalisation and the leveraging of ICT. Considering only six countries in the region had IT systems that enabled people to work from home, the other nations struggled to configure their systems in such a way as to allow remote working, which highlights the importance of ICT.

Action number 4: Draw up a work plan for the next calendar year.

Juanita suggested that if the work plan is broken down into quarters and months, it will make it easier to see what needs to be done. It was further indicated that the draft work plan would be circulated during the first week of December and then adjusted, which will be finalised towards the end of December. The team agreed to this timeline.

Basil noted that within RAME there are MoUs (memorandums of understanding) signed with various organisations, including COMESA, the UN, the AU, etc. He suggested speeding up processes to contact these organisations. These organisations are always looking for participation from associations and entities such as this. Having discussions with them could be very powerful. He suggested that Juanita and David Logan contact Dr Mangena and David Phillips to get them into the programme, as this will lead to many more outreaches.

David agreed that he would contact them in this regard. He also indicated that he would present this group and project at the next RAME meeting.

Basil indicated that FIATA is in the process of establishing an office in Ethiopia, as that is where the African Union is. That office would be under the control of RAME, and that could be a vehicle to the various portfolios within the African Union.

Thabile reiterated the importance of a whole of government approach when it comes to AEO. It is important to note that more often than not, the NTB delays are not even related to customs, but instead as a result of OGAs. Thus all stakeholders must be on board, which will allow trade to move faster.

Larry brought an old website (www.tradebarriers.org) to the group’s attention, which has an abundance of information on NTBs, that should also be included in the work plan. Juanita agreed that NTBs, along with the six projects listed, should be included as the subjects together will create a holistic image of the region.

5. Unlocking sponsors for collaborative work under the WCO-ESA-ROCB

Juanita suggested that we could use RAME as a vehicle to help the group and to work in close collaboration with the ROCB. Larry agreed with the proposition. Juanita noted that ultimately it would be ideal to have a private sector liaison person in the ROCB, but, leveraging RAME would be a powerful vehicle.

Basil agreed that the idea would work, although the process thus far has been slow. In principle, the idea has been accepted. However, funding remains problematic, with work continuing to be done on the prospect thereof. Larry added that the ROCB is hosted in Kenya. Hopefully, the office will be registered by the end of the year, which will mean that it will enjoy the same benefits as international organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the EU, as is currently experienced in Nairobi. The process will consequently allow for more officers for members from member countries.

Furthermore, the ROCB would be more than happy to have a private sector liaison officer. The aim is also to have appropriate job descriptions, as one of the areas that they are struggling with is donor coordination and funding. Consequently, a private sector liaison would help a lot with that as well. Larry noted that customs had realised the importance of improved customs-to-business partnerships, and through the WCO-ESA-RPSG, this will be achieved much better.

As a continuing driving force, Juanita explained that if these projects are suggested from a specific country’s perspective, other countries are less likely to accept it, as they believe their programmes are better than those proposed. However, if it is suggested under the WCO and the ROCB, it is much better received, as it is then considered best practices, the politics are out of the way, and logic prevails.

6. Closure

Devon thanked the group for including his team in the process. He noted that by participating in the meeting, they have now affirmed themselves with the various stakeholders that are currently available in the region. They are very encouraged that SARS is participating in the discussions. He noted that the entire region, and the world, is committed to easing the way of doing business, and post-COVID research. They will continue to encourage private sector participation and giving members publications of what is being done.

Juanita echoed Basil stating that the engagement and leverage will not depend on one person, but all of us working together. The work plan is an encouraging result of the discussion, as well as Thabile and Larry’s assistance in growing the reach of the group. Thabile noted that beyond the AEO programmes, it is essential to start planning around mutual recognition of these programmes. Some regions already have AEO programmes, and at some point, we will want to compare these programmes and to move towards mutual recognition, which will give a significant benefit to the traders.

Larry asked for clarity with regards to the acronym RAME. He noted that customs administrations are working towards taxation of e-commerce, which should be considered in the work plan. He then thanked everyone, especially Juanita, who arranged the meeting and included the new group of people. Basil noted that FIATA divided the world into four regions, of which RAME is “Region Africa and the Middle East”.

Thabile thanked the team for support and noted that it is good to see the support growing. The meeting was concluded with well wishes and greetings.

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