WCO shares good practices for drafting a rules of origin tool with the AfCFTA

At the invitation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat, the World Customs Organization (WCO) gave a presentation on international standards for the drafting of tools and instruments on rules of origin at a virtual workshop on the drafting of the AfCFTA Rules of Origin Handbook held on Monday 21 February 2022. 

In her welcoming address, the Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Rules of Origin expressed her profound gratitude and thanks to the AfCFTA’s partner organizations, such as the WCO and UNCTAD, as well as to the Regional Economic Communities (COMESA, EAC, ECOWAS and the SADC) which had kindly accepted the invitation to share their experience of drafting rules of origin handbooks.

She reminded those taking part that Article 8.3 of the Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area laid down that any additional instruments, within the scope of that Agreement, deemed necessary, are to be concluded in furtherance of the objectives of the AfCFTA and will, upon adoption, form an integral part of the Agreement. In accordance with Article 13 of the Protocol on Trade in Goods, discussions among the negotiating bodies had led to the adoption of Annex 2 on Rules of Origin and of close to 88% of the tariff lines constituting Annex IV. She also emphasized that both of those legal documents on rules of origin had to be made operational through the use of the Rules of Origin Handbook.

With a view to the implementation of Annex 2 on Rules of Origin of the AfCFTA Protocol on Trade in Goods, she went on to stress that the 8th Meeting of the Council of Ministers, held on 28 January 2022, had decided that the work on drafting the AfCFTA’s Rules of Origin Handbook had to be given priority.

Accordingly, under Item 3 on the Agenda, the WCO gave a talk on the drafting of rules of origin handbooks, presenting some practical cases that explained the international standards applied in drawing up its tools. There was then a question-and-answer session in which the delegates from Customs administrations, trade and industry were able to have a fuller exchange on the subject of good practices on which the AfCFTA could draw in finalizing the drafting of the Rules of Origin Handbook.

The workshop was attended by more than 150 delegates, for whom it was an opportunity to learn more about good practices in relation to the drafting of operational handbooks on rules of origin, with a view to making proposals for improvements to the AfCFTA handbook, on the basis, too, of the experiences of the WCO, UNCTAD and the African RECs.

The workshop came before the 5th Meeting of the Sub-Committee on Rules of Origin to be held from 22 to 25 February 2022, at which the handbook in question would have to be drawn up in order to facilitate the implementation of AfCFTA rules of origin and thereby boost intra-African trade.

Source: WCOOMD, 24 February 2022

WCO and AfCFTA Secretariats join forces for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area

On 15 February 2022, Dr. Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the World Customs Organization (WCO), and H.E. Mr. Wamkele Mene, Secretary General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat, met at WCO Headquarters to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). This MoU aims at strengthening the organizational capacity, transparency and effectiveness of African Customs administrations in a sustainable manner through cooperation between both Organizations. 

In his remarks on this occasion, Secretary General Mene explained that it had been a long road since the establishment of the AfCFTA Secretariat. Today, 41 of its 54 Member States had duly ratified Rules of Origin for 87.7% of tariff headings agreed upon, to name but one milestone. He recalled the mandate of his Secretariat and stated that Customs’ involvement is essential in order to realise the ambitions laid out in the Agreement establishing the AfCFTA. He also noted that expectations were high and that communities were eager to start trading under the Agreement. The AfCFTA Secretary General then acknowledged the WCO’s expertise and role in delivering capacity building in highly-technical areas which were key for implementing the Agreement.

After congratulating his counterpart for the work done by the AfCFTA Secretariat, Dr. Mikuriya highlighted the areas where the WCO could contribute, including customs technical matters such as the Harmonized System, Valuation and Origin, as well as automation, risk management and trade facilitation which will yield economic benefits to the African continent.

He went on to outline the WCO’s long experience in developing capacity-building materials for Customs administrations and in donor coordination to ensure the efficient delivery of training. He reaffirmed WCO’s commitment to contribute to the regional integration efforts in Africa through customs modernisation.

Source: WCOOMD, 16 February 2022

When will the AfCFTA be customs-ready?

Picture: Grayomm @ Unsplash.com

The negotiations to finalise the tariff schedules and rules of origin (RoO) of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are taking place during the last two weeks of January 2022. Senior Trade Officials (STOs) and the AfCFTA Council of Ministers (COM) will then meet to confirm the results or to decide the outstanding issues. Once the State Parties have agreed on the content of these important Annexes to the AfCFTA Protocol on Trade in Goods, they must be adopted. This is the responsibility of the African Union (AU) Assembly.[1]

Trade in goods under AfCFTA preferences can then begin among the State Parties presently trading with each other under most-favoured-nation (MFN) rates. (Non-State Parties will first have to accede to the AfCFTA Agreement in terms of Article 23 of the AfCFTA Agreement.)

Those State Parties that are members of Regional Economic Community (REC) Free Trade Areas (FTAs), Customs Unions (CUs) and other trade arrangements will continue to trade under existing preferential arrangements.

Article 19(2) AfCFTA Agreement provides that

“… State Parties that are members of other regional economic communities, regional trading arrangements and custom unions, which have attained among themselves higher levels of regional integration than under this Agreement, shall maintain such higher levels among themselves”.

Article 8(2) of the Protocol on Trade in Goods adds the following:

“… State Parties that are members of other RECs, which have attained among themselves higher levels of elimination of customs duties and trade barriers than those provided for in this Protocol, shall maintain, and where possible improve upon, those higher levels of trade liberalisation among themselves”. 

However, there is also the practical requirement that the AfCFTA regime must be “customs ready”. It means that the tariff books of individual State Parties and of CUs such as the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), and presumably the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), need to be updated. AfCFTA columns will have to be added to these tariff books in order to ensure the new preferences will be enjoyed when customs officials and border control agencies clear goods under this new trade arrangement.

The updating of a tariff book normally happens through national legislative procedures such as the promulgation of a Government Gazette. Customs and other border officials can only act in terms of domestic legal instruments granting them the necessary powers. Trade agreements are not self-executing.[2]

The importation and exportation of goods entail detail procedures involving customs clearance. Customs clearance is the procedure of procuring permission, through its customs authority, to either take goods out of its territory (export) or have goods enter its territory (import). Failure to provide the correct paperwork will mean that goods cannot clear customs and enter the market of the country of destination.

The customs authority of a country is the administrative agency responsible for collecting tariffs and for controlling the flow of goods into and out of a country. Depending on local legislation and regulations, the import or export of some goods may be restricted or forbidden, and the customs agency enforces these rules. The customs authority is different from the immigration authority, which monitors persons who leave or enter the country, checking for appropriate documentation, apprehending people wanted by international arrest warrants, and impeding the entry of others deemed dangerous to the country. A customs duty is a tariff or tax on the importation or exportation of goods.

The approach taken by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) is to improve the security of borders, without unduly hindering legitimate international trade. The WCO initiative focusses on the entire international trade supply chain, rather than restricting customs’ interest to that aspect of the international trade transaction, when goods move across a border. The basic principle underpinning its work is to create an international mechanism for Customs Administrations to gain access to relevant information relating to international trade well in advance, for the purposes of risk management and risk assessment.[3]

The AfCFTA is a free trade agreement (FTA). This is an agreement between States that removes tariffs and other restrictions on goods which are traded between the State Parties, according to the applicable RoO. The main difference between a customs union and a free trade agreement is that even where zero (or reduced) tariffs are part of an FTA, extra bureaucracy is needed to take advantage of those tariffs. Exporting under an FTA means companies have to comply with a complex set of rules (known as preferential rules of origin) to prove that goods only come from countries who have signed up to the FTA and that such goods have been produced or manufactured in accordance with the applicable RoO. For a customs union, once the common external tariff has been paid for a product then it is in “free circulation”. Traders only have to prove the common external tariff has been paid on goods or parts they have used. This is easier to demonstrate than proving the origin of imported goods.

Source: Authored by Gerhard Erasmus, TRALAC, 24 Jan 2022


[1] Art 22 AfCFTA Agreement.

[2] Constitutional systems based on monism, may provide otherwise but will have other requirements to ensure that the executive branch of government respects the powers of the legislature.

[3] https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/a/6/24649.pdf

Data is King!

Two recent articles reaching my desk reiterate the importance of clean and standardised Customs data. Without this, any real benefits to be derived from the latest and future technologies will not be fully achieved. Downstream, a country’s economy depends on this data for accurate analysis, forecasting and policy-making. Similarly, the business community relies on accurate information to assist in better business and investment decisions.

During the 15th PICARD Conference held during 23-26 November 2020, ‘World Customs Journal Special Edition’ was introduced. The first paper of the special edition is based on the keynote speech which was given at the 14th PICARD Conference in October 2019 titled “Data Science: Policy Implications for Customs”.

The paper referred to is titled –

“If algorithms dream of Customs, do customs of cialsdreamofalgorithms?A manifesto for data mobilisation in Customs

The Abstract of the document reads as follows –

“Governance by data is a growing global trend, supported by strong national public policies whose foundation is open data, artificial intelligence and decision-making supported by algorithms. Despite this trend and some technical advances, Customs face obstacles in deploying ambitious data use policies. This article describes these challenges through recent experience in some Customs administrations and considers the technical and ethical issues speci c to all law enforcement agencies in the context of customs missions, to open paths for research and propose policy recommendations for a better use of customs data.”

The second matter is perhaps more directed towards Africa. TRALAC Newsletter, of October 2002 titled “Trade and Related Matters discusses the importance of data, specifically now with the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2021.

The article considers more than just Customs trade data relating to goods. It envisages trade in services data as just as important to ensure a holistic approach –

“Trade-related data includes not only recorded values and volumes of goods trade among countries, but also data on services trade, non-tariff measures and barriers, tariffs, informal trade, trade restrictiveness, macro-economic conditions (like gross domestic product), micro-economic data (industry/firm-level data including employment, sales, profits and prices) and investment. This data is utilised by governments to make public policy decisions including the formulation of industrial, agriculture, trade and economic growth policies, strategies and regulations; trade negotiations strategies; merger and acquisition reviews; assessments of anti-competitive practices and determinations in trade remedy cases and applications for changes in tariffs. Businesses use trade information, such as tariffs in destination markets, applicable non-tariff measures, transportation costs and trade restrictiveness in combination with macro-economic indicators, firm-level data and market information to make investment, trade and market development decisions, and also to lodge trade remedy and tariff review applications and to inform their participation in public-private forums.”

The Newsletter continues to explain the notable improvements in data and reporting oer the last decade –

“Although trade and trade-related data has various uses, it needs to be useful, reliable and accurate information which is publicly available (except in the case of confidential information). This is the area where most African countries have historically fallen short although there has been some significant progress over the last decade. Initially, African trade data was only available on subscription databases and only for a select number of countries (like South Africa, Kenya and Egypt) and limited to trade in goods. There was a lack in published tariff schedules and data pertaining to non-tariff measures, investment, informal trade and services. In recent years, the availability of some data has improved significantly, especially for goods trade.

  • African countries are now increasingly publishing their statistics on websites of national statistics authorities and notifying their national data to the United Nations (UN). This data includes data on formal goods trade, aggregate services trade, non-tariff measures, tariffs, investment and some market information. The quality of the data has also improved as most countries now extensively verify the data prior to publication and submission. Increased access enables organisations like the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Trade Centre (ITC) to obtain, collate and publish trade data in databases like the ITC TradeMap and MacMap and the WTO trade portal.
  • As part of the implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, many countries are establishing trade portals. Southern and eastern African countries that already have functioning portals include Seychelles, Eswatini, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Some portals contain detailed information on import and export requirements by specified product, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, port of entry and applicable tariffs. The trade portals of countries in east Africa, including Uganda and Rwanda provide details of import or export processes including the trade costs such as inspection charges, and indicate the waiting time to complete the different steps.
  • Once fully operational, the African Trade Observatory (ATO) will contribute significantly to the availability of African trade data and capacity building. The ATO will collect and analyse trade and trade-related qualitative and quantitative data and information, establish a database for African trade; monitor implementation and evaluate the implementation process and impact of the AfCFTA and the Action Plan for Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT); and equip national governments and businesses to analyse and use of trade and related data.
  • There is increasing awareness of the effect of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) on intra-Africa trade. More information is available in the public domain through industry/product/sector studies, the trade cost database of the World Bank and the online non-tariff barrier mechanisms of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area, the Borderless Alliance (west Africa) and the new AfCFTA mechanism.
  • Informal trade is recognised as a major component of intra-Africa trade and this is not captured in formal trade statistics. There are a number of initiatives to gather data on informal cross-border trade (ICBT), including studies by UNECAand ongoing work by the Bank of Uganda which has been conducting surveys and reporting ICBT data since 2005.

Although there have been improvements in intra-Africa trade data, there is room for improvement.”