FTW pick: Customs disharmony stymies fluid corridor flow

Andrew Shaw, supply chain director, PwC.

The quest to create the world’s largest free-trade zone with a projected combined GDP of $3.3 trillion appears to be well under way – particularly with high-profile talks about implementation strategies in Addis Ababa a fortnight ago and South Africa’s recent ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

But that is a bird’s eye view.

In stark contrast to the headline hype is the general sentiment on the ground that the overarching objective of a 55-state zone where freight flows freely across borders and trade yields reach unprecedented levels, is long off.

Despite news earlier this year, for example, that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Nyusi, had signed an agreement to improve efficiencies at the border between Lebombo and Ressano Garcia, delays persist.

And more recently, Kenya and Tanzania announced customs cohesion at their Namanga crossing that, apart from much fanfare over eased trade restrictions, ran into technical snags from the start.

Africa House director Duncan Bonnett said that was exactly where governments often fell flat. “They believe when a deal is signed there are no issues, and it’s not the case.”

Addressing a recent exclusive Connectivity Forum made up of select delegates from government and industry, Maputo Corridor Logistics Initiative CEO Barbara Mommen pointed out that since 1996, at least $500bn had been spent on infrastructural upgrades. And yet the current situation on South Africa’s busiest border with Mozambique was one of negligible development, said supply chain expert and director at PwC, Andrew Shaw.

“Improving infrastructure and capability have all but disappeared.” Looking further north, and with specific emphasis on Beitbridge and the Zambian-DRC border post of Kasumbalesa, said to be one of the most constricted and chaotic transit points in Africa, the picture’s not looking better.

Freight through Beitbridge remained clogged, mainly because of larger issues related to Zimbabwe, Shaw said, and between Zambia and the DRC trucks snaked for days on end on either side of the border despite EU funding pumped into Kasumbalesa to transform it into a one-stop border post.

Shaw questioned why 15 to 20 years after these posts had first been mooted, the one-stop process appeared to have lost momentum.

“Why is it important for officials on one side of the border to ask you the same questions on the other side? Surely we should’ve sorted this out by now.”

“Mutual objectives” such as the eradication of red tape, he stressed, and the implementation of efficiencies like the rapid pre-clearing of goods, could immeasurably improve the entire process. And yet over-border operators such as Barloworld Logistics, in its presentation to the same Connectivity Forum attended by the MCLI, indicated that transits remained tripped up by issues such as un-harmonised systems and unscrupulous law enforcement, to name but a few.

“It’s going to take government-to-government engagement,” Shaw said.

Mommen concurred. She told the Connectivity Forum that some of the most pressing challenges facing corridor efficiency were the “lack of political will and agreements”.

Mommen said that “regional integration is difficult when national interests are not aligned”, made worse with a “significant disconnect between policy and implementation. “Ultimately, it’s going to take genuine workable partnerships between the public and private sector that demands vision, maturity and a conceptual shift to look at things differently.”

But Mike Fitzmaurice, executive director of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (Fesarta), was much less forgiving of public sector involvement, especially in respect of the so-called “Tripartite” of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community, and the Southern African Development Community.

AfCTFA, he said, “is not going to happen anytime soon, especially given the current state of SADC borders such as Beitbridge, Kazangula, Chirundu, Kasumbalesa and Nakonda, all of which are in total chaos with trucks backed up for kilometres on either side of the borders and no political will to sort it out.”

And border corruption and smuggling remain the elephant in the room. “Some border officials simply don’t want the free-flow of goods because of the illicit profit they make from selling access. It makes them very resistant to implement measures,” Shaw said.

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