SA – Hub for computerised Regional Integration?

AfricaFrom time to time it is nice to reflect on a good news story within the local customs and logistics industry. Freight & Trade Weekly’s (2015.11.06, page 4) article – “SA will be base for development of single customs platform” provides such a basis for reflection. The article reports on the recent merger of freight industry IT service providers Compu-Clearing and Core Freight and their plans to establish a robust and agile IT solution for trade on the African sub-continent.

In recent years local software development companies have facilitated most of the IT changes emerging from the Customs Modernisation Programme. Service Providers also known as computer bureaus have been in existence as far back as the early 1980’s when Customs introduced its first automated system ‘CAPE’. They have followed and influenced Customs developments that have resulted in the modern computerised and electronic communication platforms we have today. For those who do not know there are today at least 20 such service providers bringing a variety of software solutions to the market. Several of these provide a whole lot more than just customs software, offering solutions for warehousing, logistics and more. As the FTW article suggests, ongoing demands by trade customers and the ever-evolving technology space means that these software solutions will offer even greater customization, functionality, integration and ease of use for customers.

What is also clear is that these companies are no longer pure software development houses. While compliance with Customs law applies to specific parties required to registered and/or licensed for Customs purposes, the terrain on which the software company plays has become vital to enable these licensees or registrants the ‘ability to comply’ within the modern digital environment. This means that Service Providers need to have more than just IT skills, most importantly a better understanding of the laws affecting their customers – the importers, exporters, Customs brokers, freight forwarders, warehouse operators, etc.

Under the new Customs Control Act, for instance, the sheer level of compliance – subject to punitive measures in the fullness of time – will compel Service Providers to have a keen understanding of both the ‘letter of the law’ as well as the ability to translate this into user-friendly solutions that will provide comfort to their customers. Comfort to the extent that Customs registrants and licensees will have confidence that their preferred software solutions not only provide the tools for trading, but also the means for compliance of the law. Then, there is also the matter of scalability of these solutions to keep pace with ongoing local, regional and global supply chain demands.

The recent Customs Modernisation Programme realised significant technological advances with associated benefits for both SARS and trade alike. For the customs and shipping industry quantification of these benefits probably lies more in ‘improved convenience’ and ‘speed’ of the customer’s interaction with SARS than cost-savings itself. My next installment on this subject will consider the question of cross-border trade and how modern customs systems can influence and lead to increased regional trade.

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First WCO ESA Regional Workshop on Resource Mobilization

First WCO ESA Regional Workshop on Resource Mobilization

First WCO ESA Regional Workshop on Resource Mobilization

The WCO and the ESA Regional Office for Capacity Building (ROCB ESA), in cooperation with the Kenyan Revenue Authority, organized the first WCO ESA Regional Workshop on Resource Mobilization in Mombasa, Kenya from 19 to 23 May 2014. This workshop was one of the regional key activities in 2014 under the WCO-ESA Project ‘Building Trade Capacity through Customs Modernization in the East and Southern Africa” funded by the Finnish Government.

This workshop was also part of the ongoing efforts of the WCO and the ROCB ESA in supporting Customs Administrations to enhance engagement with development partners for their reform and modernization programmes. Previously, the WCO and the ROCB ESA had organized the first Regional Meeting on Donor Engagement in March 2012 in Mauritius, which provided Members in the ESA region with the opportunity to enhance their understanding of partnership with development partners. The workshop in Kenya was a follow-up on the event in 2012, enabling participating Members to address needs in the field of Resource Mobilization which are essential for subsequent Capacity Building / Customs Reform and Modernization processes at regional and national level. The workshop was facilitated by Ms. Heike Barczyk, WCO Deputy Director Capacity Building, Ms. Sigfridur Gunnlaugsdottir, WCO expert from Iceland Customs, and Ms. Riitta Passi, Project Manager within the Finnish-funded project.

A total of 25 participants from 17 ESA regional members took part in the workshop. Participants developed first draft business cases/project proposals that could in the future lead to potential real Capacity Building projects. Reflecting on the current Customs environment, the workshop equally addressed the WTO Agreement on Trade Facilitation (ATF), potential interest from development partners in supporting countries with its implementation and how to best reflect this in respective interaction with those partners including how to address the respective alignment in the different steps towards developing a written project proposal. The workshop is expected to further enhance the collaboration between Customs administrations and development partners for the successful implementation of Customs reform and modernization.

The WCO, the ROCB ESA and participating Members agreed to continue to work together in this regard. Source: WCO – article provided by Ms. Riitta Passi, Project Manager, Nairobi.

Getting to Grips with the Future Customs Control Act

Having recently introduced a whole new integrated customs business solution last year the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has spent the last six months stabilising its system. At the heart of the system is the Interfront Customs and Border management (iCBS) engine which takes care of all customs declaration processing.

CCB

Click on the image to download the Infogram

A new ‘state-of-the-art’ EDI Gateway infrastructure is at an advanced stage of development and configuration, and will be subjected to a series of rigorous testing both internally and with industry service providers over the next few weeks. The gateway is an important component of the organisation’s future aspirations in C-2-C, C-2-B and C-2-G information exchange with it’s stakeholders.

Over the last 2 years, SARS has been a key participant in the WCO’s Globally Networked Customs (GNC) initiative which seeks to develop standardised electronic information exchanges of commercial customs data and common border procedures between customs administrations. This is ‘greenfield development’ and requires innovative thinking between potential customs partners. In this specific area SARS has engaged both Mozambique and Swaziland Customs as willing partners in such an initiative. Developments with Mozambique are at an advanced stage and will shortly become a reality with the conclusion of the bilateral One Stop Border Post (OSBP) agreement that includes provision for electronic data exchange between the two administrations. More on this in a future post.

Technology aside, perhaps the most daunting task on the horizon is the introduction of the new Customs Duty and Control Acts which are currently in the parliamentary process. Much publicity and robust argument was aired in the printed media over the last year, all of which culminated in the parliamentary hearings overseen by parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance (SCoF) during November and December 2013. While an agreement was reached with the freight forwarding sector of the local supply chain and logistics industry on certain aspects of the Control Bill, there still lies much work and clarification to be addressed in these and other areas.

Notwithstanding the signing into law of the Customs Bills, operational enactment thereof can only occur once the ‘rules’ to execute this legislation are circulated for comment, finalised and gazetted. Even considering the legal and approvals process in a simplistic form, the implementation of this new legislation is just too complex to introduce in a once-off, big-bang approach.  Due consideration must be given to a transitional approach taking into account the practicalities thereof as well as economic and logistical consequences of such approach.   It is no understatement that the impact of the new legislation, its incorporation into current automated systems, policies and procedures as well as the necessary re-adjustments to be made by every entity engaged in business with SARS Customs is no small feat.

Furthermore, the implications of the recently concluded WTO Agreement on Trade Facilitation for South African Customs and Trade also needs to be determined and understood. While a large proportion of its content is encapsulated within the Revised Kyoto Convention, it is the first time ever that such requirements are subject to the conditions of a trade agreement.

It’s been some time since I last penned thoughts on the Customs Modernisation initiative. In retrospect and thinking ahead, the underlying bottom line to its longer term success lies in increased ‘communication’ with stakeholders – ironically, the World Customs Organisation’s adopted theme for 2014!

Please feel free to download the infogram on the future Customs Control Act by clicking on the picture above. Official links to the Customs Control and Duty Bills are included below. It would also be wise for parties involved in Excise to consider the contemplated changes contained in the Excise Duty Bill (Customs and Excise Amendment Bill).

Related documents

Lesotho Revenue Authority launches Trade Portal

LRA Trade PortalThe Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) has undertaken an extensive Customs Modernisation Programme aimed at simplifying the processes and reducing the costs of ‘doing business’ at the border. Earlier this week, the LRA launched the Lesotho Trade Portal as an introduction of the first portion of these reforms which brings a commitment to transparency for all border users on expectations and procedures.  The launch of the portal will be followed by an introduction of simplified border procedures supported by the implementation of modern computerised systems using ASYCUDA World.

The LRA has been reorganising its structure the past year aligning it with organisational strategy, and alongside that as a result of the modernisation, there will be extensive restructuring to promote efficiency and professionalism in customs and across the LRA. Staff members are undergoing extensive training to prepare for the introduction of the new systems.

To facilitate legitimate trade and enhance compliance LRA will introduce risk based controls to enable legitimate trade to pass more freely through the border posts and following the recent pilot project, there will be a full introduction of a ‘Preferred Trader Scheme’ offering additional facilitation benefits to compliant traders.

Through use of modern technology LRA will speed up the inspection process as they will be coordinated and organised from dedicated inspection areas. There will eventually be an introduction of inland clearance to improve service delivery and clearance time.

To protect legitimate trade and reduce market distortion, there will be targeted anti-smuggling activities. This will be for deterrence of illicit and illegal goods as well as to protect the nation from prohibited importation of goods.

The Lesotho Business Partnership Forum has also voiced its unanimous approval of the Lesotho Trade Portal. It believes this milestone represents a major breakthrough in the relationship between business and government. It reveals a level of transparency in procedures and processes which business can only welcome as a sign of a more constructive and open approach to the management of government affairs.

Similarly, the traders and general public will participate in an extensive publicity campaign with announcement in the media as to how to get involved and benefit from the reforms.  A key tool in this process to keep everyone on the loop, will be the News section of Lesotho Trade Portal itself. This will be supported by an extensive communications programme and an education programme targeted at regular border users. Source: Lesotho Revenue Authority

Vietnam Customs to Push Ahead with New e-Customs System

Picture1The Japanese-funded e-Customs system known as “VNACCS/VCIS” (Vietnam Automated Cargo and Port Consolidated System and the Vietnam Customs Information System) is set to “go live” on April 1, 2014.

Based on the NACCS/CIS of Japan, VNACCS/VCIS is intended to handle e-Declaration, e-Manifest, e-Invoice, e-Payment, e-C/O, selectivity, risk management/criteria, corporate management, goods clearance and release, supervision and inspection.

With the launch of the VNACCS/VCIS, Vietnam Customs is trying to simplify customs clearance procedures, reduce clearance time, enhance the management capacity of customs authorities in line with the standards of modern customs, as well as to cut costs and facilitate trade. VNACCS/VCIS also purports to ensure Vietnam’s compliance with the ASEAN “single window” initiative.

VNACCS/VCIS is intended to improve on the current e-Customs system. For example, the VNACCS/VCIS provides new procedures for the management of pre-clearance, clearance and post-clearance processes, adds new customs procedures such as registration of the duty exemption list, introduces a combined procedure for both commercial and non-commercial goods, simplifies procedures for low unit value goods and offers new management procedures for temporarily exported/imported goods, etc.

After the testing phase (which took place from November 2013 until the end of February 2014), users have been raising concerns regarding the VNACCS/VCIS system’s complexity. VNACCS/VCIS provides a declaration process with 109 export and 133 import data fields, compared to the current 27 export and 38 import declaration fields. Many of them are not compatible with the actual systems of companies, and appear to require from declarers an extensive knowledge of customs-related matters.

Comment – from an outsider’s perspective, besides systems testing, it would seem to appear that insufficient time has been allocated for alignment of industry systems to Vietnam Customs’ new data requirements. This, and the fact that no ‘grace period’ (waiver of sanctions or penalties) will be considered by the customs administration does not bode well for a smooth transition.

VNACCS/VCIS employs the quantity reporting mechanism in the official Units of Measures (“UOMs”), often used in international trade statistics, yet creates significant obstacles to companies that do not have compatible manufacturing, inventory planning and control systems. Vietnam Customs has stated that it will work on improving this issue.

VNACCS/VCIS also applies the declaration of customs values at the unit level. Since unit costs and unit prices used in financial systems of companies may not always be identical to declared values, companies may fail to comply with such requirement. Sanctions may be applied from day 1 of the new systems activation.

Technical difficulties are also a matter of great concerns to business community, e.g. with asset tracking. Currently under VNACCS/VCIS, reporting is limited to 7 digits, incompatible with many companies having asset tracking systems with identification numbers of up to 20 digits. To address concerns raised by the business community about the new system, Japanese experts have agreed to support Vietnam Customs 1 year after the official implementation date of the system.

There are concerns for potential risks of non-compliance for wrong declaration due to lack of an adequate understanding of VNACCS/VCIS. Vietnam Customs has rejected a proposal for “grace period” before applying sanctions upon violations, but encourages companies to actively participate in training programs organized by customs authorities to better avoid potential non-compliance risks.

Another concern is the chance of system failure which may lead to severe interruptions and delays in clearance procedures. Vietnam Customs has ensured business community that they have a back-up contingency mechanism in place to support customs procedures in the event that VNACCS/VCIS fails to operate properly. In the meantime, a new circular detailing the implementation of VNACCS/VCIS is being drafted and should come into effect by the launch date. Various business associations are still trying to find ways to mitigate the likely disruption from the sudden transition to the new system. Source: Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam)

Border Management in Southern Africa: Lessons with respect to Policy and Institutional Reforms

The folk at Tralac have provided some welcomed insight to the challenges and the pains in regard to ‘regionalisation’. No doubt readers in Member States will be familiar with these issues but powerless within themselves to do anything due to conflict with national imperatives or agendas. Much of this is obvious, especially the ‘buzzwords’ – globally networked customs, one stop border post, single window, cloud computing, and the plethora of WCO standards, guidelines and principles – yet, the devil always lies in the details. While the academics have walked-the-talk, it remains to be seen if the continent’s governments have the commitment to talk-the-walk!

Regional integration is a key element of the African strategy to deal with problems of underdevelopment, small markets, a fragmented continent and the absence of economies of scale. The agreements concluded to anchor such inter-state arrangements cover mainly trade in goods; meaning that trade administration focuses primarily on the physical movement of merchandise across borders. The services aspects of cross-border trade are neglected. And there are specific local needs such as the wide-spread extent of informal trading across borders.

Defragmenting Africa WBThis state of affairs calls for specific governance and policy reforms. Effective border procedures and the identification of non-tariff barriers will bring major cost benefits and unlock huge opportunities for cross-border trade in Africa. The costs of trading remain high, which prevents potential exporters from competing in global and regional markets. The cross-border production networks which are a salient feature of development in especially East Asia have yet to materialise in Africa.

Policy makers have started paying more attention to trade-discouraging non-tariff barriers, but why does the overall picture still show little progress? The 2012 World Bank publication De-Fragmenting Africa – Deepening Regional Trade Integration in Goods and Services shows that one aspect needs to be singled out in particular:  that trade facilitation measures have become a key instrument to create a better trading environment.

The main messages of this WB study are:

  • Effective regional integration is more than simply removing tariffs – it is about addressing on-the-ground constraints that paralyze the daily operations of ordinary producers and traders.
  • This calls for regulatory reform and, equally important, for capacity building among the institutions that are charged with enforcing the regulations.
  • The integration agenda must cover services as well as goods……services are critical, job-creating inputs into the competitive edge of almost all other activities.
  • Simultaneous action is required at both the supra-national and national levels. Regional communities can provide the framework for reform, for example, by bringing together regulators to define harmonised standards or to agree on mutual      recognition of the qualification of professionals……. but responsibility for implementation lies with each member country.

African governments are still reluctant to implement the reforms needed to address these issues. They are sensitive about loss of ‘sovereign policy space’ and are not keen to establish supra-national institutions. They are also opposed to relaxing immigration controls. The result is that border control functions have been exercised along traditional lines and not with sufficient emphasis on trade facilitation benefits. This is changing but specific technical and governance issues remain unresolved, despite the fact that the improved border management entails various technical aspects which are not politically sensitive.

The required reforms involve domestic as well as regional dimensions. Regional integration is a continental priority but implementation is compounded by legal and institutional uncertainties and burdens caused by overlapping membership of Regional Economic Communities (RECs). The monitoring of compliance remains a specific challenge. Continue reading →

Customs Modernisation – positive impact on Doing Business in South Africa!

South Africa ranks 39th out of 185 countries surveyed in the latest International Finance Corporation (IFC)-World Bank ‘Doing Business’ report, which was published on Tuesday.Last year, South Africa ranked 35 out of 183 countries assessed.

The country is placed above Qatar and below Israel in the Doing Business 2013 report, which covers issues such as starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, accessing credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency.

Singapore remains at the top of the ease-of-doing-business ranking for the seventh consecutive year, followed by Hong Kong and New Zealand. Poland improved the most in making it easier to do business, by implementing four regulatory reforms in the past year.

South Africa led the pack in terms of improving in the ease of trading across borders through its customs modernisation programme, which reduced the time, cost and documents required for international trade. “We hope that through the streamlining of procedures, we will see the growth of commerce in the country,” said coauthor of the report Santiago Croci Downes.

The Doing Business 2013 report stated that improvements in South Africa have effects throughout Southern Africa. “Since overseas goods to and from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe transit through South Africa, traders in these economies are also enjoying the benefits,” it stated.

Another 21 economies also implemented reforms aimed at making it easier to trade across borders in the past year. Trading across borders remains the easiest in Singapore, while it is the most difficult in Uzbekistan.

Out of the 185 economies assessed in the 2013 report, South Africa ranked 53rd for starting a business, 39th for dealing with construction permits, 79th for registering property, 10th for protecting investors, 32nd for paying taxes, 82nd for enforcing contracts and 84th for resolving insolvency.

The country ranked low, at 150, for ease of access to electricity, while it tied at the top with the UK and Malaysia for ease of access to credit. Croci Downes added that it was still too early to tell whether the recent labour unrest in the mining and transport industries would have an impact on South Africa’s ranking or on foreign direct investment .

Meanwhile, the IFC and World Bank reported that of the 50 economies making the most improvement in business regulation for domestic firms since 2005, 17 were in sub-Saharan Africa.

From June 2011 to June 2012, 28 of 46 governments in sub-Saharan Africa implemented at least one regulatory reform making it easier to do business – a total of 44 reforms.

Mauritius and South Africa were the only African economies among the top 40 in the global ranking. World Bank global indicators and analysis director Augusto Lopez-Claros said Doing Business was about smart business regulations, not necessarily fewer regulations. “We are very encouraged that so many economies in Africa are among the 50 that have made the most improvement since 2005 as captured by the Doing Business indicators.”

IFC human resources director Oumar Seydi added that lower costs of business registrations encouraged entrepreneurship, while simpler business registrations translated to greater employment opportunities in the formal sector.

“Business reforms in Africa will continue to have a strong impact on geopolitical stability. We encourage governments to go beyond their rankings. Ranking does matter, and competition is important, but that is not all that counts. What truly matters is how reforms are positively impacting growing economies,” he said.

African economies that have improved the most since 2005 include Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Angola, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Niger, Nigeria, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Source: http://www.polity.org.za

News from Angola

SEZ for Cunene Province

The government of Cunene province in southern Angola, has chosen the border town of Calueque, in Ombadja municipality, to set up the province’s Special Economic Zone (ZEE), the province’s governor, António Didalelwa said in Ondjiva speaking to Angolan news agency Angop. At the end of a meeting of the provincial government, the governor said that Calueque had been chosen due to its potential to drive agri-livestock activities based on the Cunene River’s hyrodgraphic basin and the Calueque hydroelectric facility. Its proximity to Namibia, its conditions in terms of available electricity and water, as well as access roads make it possible to set up economic and administrative facilities in order to drive production and job creation. The entities that attended the provincial government meeting concluded that the existing conditions at the new ZEE would attract investments and drive production by installing factories, retail and services areas. This follows last year’s fomalisation of the Luanda-Bengo Special Economic Zone (SEZ) between the towns of Viana and Cacuaco in Luanda province and the towns of Icolo-e-Bengo, Dande, Ambriz and Namboangongo in Bengo province. Watch a short video on the Luanda-Bengo ZEE here! Source: Macauhub.com.

Customs Modernisation

The Programme to Expand and Modernise Customs Services (PEMA) in Angola, which began in 2002 and officially ended Monday 21 May, cost US$315.5 million, Angolan weekly newspaper Expansão reported. The newspaper added that in a 10-year period the PEMA had led to US$17.7 billion going to the State’s coffers and thus the cost of the programme was just 1.8 percent of the revenues that it had made possible.

During the ceremony to mark the end of a partnership with Crown Agents, a UK company that specialises in modernising public services, the assistant director general of the National Customs Service, Maria da Conceição Matos, said that whilst the programme was being implemented customs revenues had increased steadily and significantly. Matos said that the Programme for Expansion and Modernisation of Customs Services had reformed the institution structurally across the whole of Angola, based on international best practices for the customs sector.Source: Macauhub.com.

Countdown to D-Day

In little over 2 weeks from now, the South African Revenue Service together with its business partners in South African commercial trade will usher in a new customs clearance dispensation. Notwithstanding many trials and tribulations on both sides, there is a steady commitment and determination to successfully introduce the single biggest change to impact the country’s import / export community. It is only right that there should be anxiety, trepidation, and cautious optimism. Modernisation in the Customs domain is not new, internationally, and most definitely not in South Africa. Obvious too are those who wish to detract from the hard work already accomplished, to the point of seeking any fracture, shortcoming or delay as reason to doubt the ability of this country to implement a modern electronic trading environment.

True, there is a lot of reputation at stake…surely all the more reason to toil tirelessly over the last remaining weeks to best prepare ourselves for this event. In reality it is my wish that this event be a ‘non-event’ – to the extent that it provide as seamless as possible a transition for internal and external users. However, that is wishful thinking since the sheer scope of this programme necessitates ‘challenges’ to both 3rd party service provider, trader, trade practitioner, and customs policy makers alike. Over the last 2 months, not a day has gone by without one or other procedure, policy or IT technical issue being raised which necessitates a rethink or alternative consideration.

Modernisation programmes have a transitional element which poses difficulties in terms of timing and coordination. In the South African context the first phase is about putting Customs and the trading community in the right space to migrate from dated legacy clearance practices to principles of a new customs legal dispensation – to be introduced sometime in 2011. Information Technology is undoubtedly the key enabler here, which is the reason SARS chose the migration from clearance by ‘purpose code’ to ‘customs procedure code’ as the catalyst to kickstart its longer term modernisation strategy. Phase 1 is the most critical delivery in that its outcome not only determines the collective ability of Customs and Trade to modernise, but the ‘apetite’ to continue the journey over the next phases of this programme to bring into being a true fully automated end-to-end supply chain.