A recent survey by the East African Business Council (EABC) has highlighted the continuing problems of cumbersome customs procedures in the region. Based on over 450 questionnaire responses the EAC Business Climate Index (BCI) 2006/07 Survey focused on six trade-related clusters namely, customs procedures, immigration and work permits, business registration and licensing, police roadblocks, weighbridge stations and quality standards and export certification. Customs procedures continue to top the list of obstacles as perceived by businesses and a serious impediment to intra-Africa trade.
This view is broadly supported by a report for Business Action for Improving Customs Administrations in Africa (BAFICAA). The report (sponsored by Unilever, BAT, SITPRO and Diageo), Customs and Business in Africa: A Better Way Forward Together was revealing. It emerged that businesses were tired of being considered “the enemy”. Customs authorities across Africa just did not appreciate the private sector and that despite reforms and improvements, generally most front-line Customs officers lacked any basic appreciation of business issues such as the impact of delays on their businesses. Respondents said that even when higher-level officials were business friendly, this rarely translated to lower management levels. The general feeling was that of frustration – those law-abiding, tax-compliant value-generating businesses were being treated with constant suspicion.
It is unfortunate though that these perceptions still linger. Customs administrations in the East African region have been putting themselves through a sometimes painful though much needed process of reform and modernisation. Much has improved as reflected in improved clearance times for most of the East African countries (see the recent Doing Business Report). Though this public sector driven reform and modernisation agenda has been driven by primarily revenue imperatives it has the potential to significantly improve the business climate.
BAFICAA is making sure that the role of the private sector as a driver of change is not overlooked. BAFICAA is working with customs administrations in the East African region to implement what the report calls “Fast Track” - or simplified procedures for compliant businesses aimed at reducing clearance times for businesses with a history of full compliance. The initiative has met with considerable success in its first phase which included the creation of private sector taskforces, meetings with national customs administrations and a regional workshop in Arusha, Tanzania with the EAC secretariat and the EABC amongst others. These meetings facilitated by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (Kenya) have set the groundwork for a dialogue with customs administrations. A meeting to agree an action plan with the Commissioners of customs is being organised by SITPRO in conjunction with the World Customs Organization (WCO) for later this year.
BAFICAA is still in its infancy but has broken free of its start in the UK and is now the purely African initiative it was always envisaged to be.