It took a traffic jam of a couple thousand trucks at the Malaba border between Kenya and Uganda to fully visualize both the health and trade issues at stake when borders operate at optimum.
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed both hairline fractures along borders in East Africa and the potential to solve them through better regional coordination.
The East African Community (EAC) to date has been a grand experiment in more than just free trade between Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
It also seeks to transform the region into a single market that allows free movement of goods, people, services, labour and capital, and create a single investment area.
The coronavirus pandemic has curtailed this dream in the short-term but the experience has been a learning curve, and UNCTAD, TradeMark Africa (TMA) and other regional partners have used the moment to help the region’s national trade facilitation committees (NTFCs) improve their skills and work more effectively by offering them ground-breaking online training.
“It’s a complicated situation due to the necessity of imposing health controls and measures to manage COVID-19 on one hand, while still ensuring trade flows, especially of essential goods, on the other,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics.
“The situation has been extremely challenging for everyone from policymakers to customs officials; truck drivers to traders,” she added. “Training is one of the solutions to this challenge.”
Trade committees need greater role in emergency response
During the COVID-19 crisis various stakeholders realized that multisectoral coordination was key to unlocking trade flows which is a requirement by the World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) through each country’s NTFCs.
But just at the point when NTFCs are needed most to address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, they have not been sufficiently involved in the ad hoc emergency committees set up by the countries.
Still, they are expected to respond to increasing requests from businesses regarding the new EAC Administrative Guidelines to facilitate the movement of goods amid the pandemic.
The NTFCs are also under pressure to manage the border situation, get contacts, unclog trade blockages and help solve problems on the spot.
“There is a pressing need to involve NTFCs in national and regional emergency response mechanisms such as the COVID-19 National Task Forces,” said TMA’s senior director Eugene Torero.
“NTFCs already have dependable cross-border networks, positioning them to support governments to resolve challenges such as time-consuming processes in the export and import of emergency supplies. They can advise on interventions that will create a fast, reliable, cost-effective and safe trade environment for all.”
Trade coordination amidst COVID-19
A trio of regional trade stakeholders came together to deliver the first regional online training programme on trade facilitation for East African NTFCs, led by UNCTAD, in cooperation with the EAC Secretariat, and with financial support from TMA.
“Through e-learning tools, we shared our expertise on trade logistics for development to support EAC countries’ efforts in tackling the challenges arising at their borders due to the COVID-19 crisis,” Ms. Sirimanne explained.
“The objective is simple: to ensure the trade and transit of vital goods, including equipment to fight the pandemic. We also wanted to help the NTFCs put the right measures in place to accelerate economic recovery after the crisis,” she added.
More than 130 NTFC members from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda completed the nine-week training.
Flavia Busingye, the EAC Secretariat acting director customs, noted that the online trade facilitation training was a great opportunity for the region to reinforce its capacity to address unprecedented demands due to COVID 19.
She was optimistic that the training would greatly enhance the regional capacity on trade facilitation interventions and facilitate faster clearance of goods amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The online training was delivered under exceptional conditions, with participants usually undertaking the training from home while teleworking, many of them with unstable internet connections.
Yet they used the opportunity to strengthen their roles as agents of change and contribute to more simplification, transparency and streamlining of trade procedures.
“Being an agent in maintaining trade flows during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial. We help ensure the provision of essential food and medical items, limiting negative impacts on jobs and poverty,” said Delphine Munezero Ntaganda from Rwanda.
“The speed and scale of the crisis are unprecedented. But governments can ameliorate the impact. If we use best practices to mitigate pandemic-related trade risks, we can support trade facilitation and logistics, and implement effective trade policy in a time of crisis.”
Training participants are already applying their new knowledge. “I’m assisting my country address challenges associated with the movement of cargo across the borders, especially to Uganda and Tanzania,” said Rose Kemunto Masita from Kenya.
Similarly, Noel Segonda from Tanzania said the training equipped him to handle several challenges. “The knowledge obtained will help me solve trade issues at the national level so the country recovers from the economic shrinkage experienced during this tragic time.”
Now the NTFCs’ members, serving as “agents of change” in trade facilitation and greater coordination, will support recovery efforts to strengthen regional value chains throughout East Africa, building trade competitiveness and ultimately a stronger and more self-sufficient region.
The online training is one of UNCTAD’s contributions to the coordinated United Nations response to COVID-19.