Rwanda opens wide an electronic window for trade

Rwanda is blazing a trail for the rest of East Africa to follow by launching sub-Saharan Africa’s first one-stop electronic trade clearance system, a computerized scheme that saves time, shoe leather and money.

“This is a ground breaking scheme to cut the red tape snarling trade and I am confident it will pave the way for similar systems in EAC countries as well as making Rwanda an even cheaper place to do business,” Ben Kagarama, Commissioner General of the Rwanda Revenue Authority said at the launch August 3rd, 2012.

Called the Rwanda Electronic Single Window (RESW), the system gathers under one electronic roof all the agencies needed to clear, approve and charge duty on imports and transit goods transparently, quickly and efficiently.

“It’s one of our most important areas of support – an I.T. solution to improve the administration of the whole process of clearing goods and bring Kigali one day closer to Mombasa.” said Mark Priestley, Rwanda Country Director of TradeMark Africa, which helped deliver the system.

“It has huge implications and offers great possibilities for other countries in the EAC, several of whom are adopting the same system.”

In the past, the landlocked country of Rwanda cleared goods using hard copy documents that were physically moved from office to office and across a variety of organizations – the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA), the Rwanda Bureau of Standards, the Health Ministry, the Airlines and the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

Now the process has been streamlined and computerized and can cut the amount of time it takes to clear a cargo by 40% or one full day – a huge advance and a direct saving for a business of around US$8-17 million a year.

No longer does Philip Shapiro, a clearing agent, have to traipse from office-to-office to fill out a bewildering array of documents on behalf of his employer, Gorilla Clearing and Forwarding, the impatient client or the weary truck driver who has brought the goods by road from the distant Kenyan port of Mombasa.

“The whole process involved so many people, so many forms for us, going from office to office…” he says.

First, a consignment had to be registered at the border, then taken to the inland container terminal at Magerwa for inspection, then the Rwanda Bureau of Standards had to decide whether to inspect the cargo, sample it and test it or get the Health Ministry involved.

If all those steps went off without a hitch, there was still the process of paying customs duty to RRA or getting an exemption from the Rwanda Development Board. “This involved physically recording three documents for approval before getting final approval! It meant a lot of time,” said Joseph Mpunga of the RDB. And the client still had to pay the duty or get an exemption at the end of all that.

Now, with the RESW, almost all of the formalities can be completed on a computer screen. Clearing and forwarding agents have been given a three-day intensive training to familiarise themselves with the process.

“You just keep clicking (with a computer mouse) until the form is validated,” says Josephine Nyebaza, a clearing agent for Intra-Cargo Ltd. “It works from anywhere. You can do all the work sitting at your desk,” she says with a smile, as a red line on her screen turns blue, signifying that another part of the process has been ticked off.

“Just imagine the fact that you are sitting in your office waiting for everything to happen. You don’t even have to move!”
“Embracing the Electronic Single Window is the biggest achievement in the country’s move to strongly reduce non-tariff barriers that hinder investment; I believe that online clearance of goods will positively increase the country’s global competitiveness,” Minister of Finance and Economic Planning John Rwangombwa told the August 3 launch.