Violet was restless and impatient under the noonday sun as she awaited customs clearance at the sprawling border post, packed with monster trucks, that divides Zambia and Zimbabwe.
On the road for four days, she had travelled on public transport all the way from Ndola in northern Zambia to and back from Johannesburg to buy women’s clothes to sell in her hometown.
“It is very hectic and cumbersome,” said Violet, who would give only her first name and was standing with a large black canvas holdall.
“We came at about nine this morning and our bus still hasn’t been cleared. There is just one official to inspect our goods and they make their own suggestions on the duty.”
A group of women nodded in agreement at the imputation that she was being charged too much duty.
But at least these women were going through customs. Africa has a huge, predominantly female informal economy, estimated to be one-third of the continent’s gross domestic product. Smuggling takes place on a grand scale and some routes are so well established that 30-tonne trucks use them to evade customs.
In Southern Africa, informal traders deal mostly in crop products such as maize, rice and beans, as well as clothes and blankets. Many avoid checkpoints and border posts where they are subject to “facilitation payments”.
As the continent seeks to boost intra-African trade to promote growth and foreign direct investment, governments are trying to draw informal traders into the formal economy. They hope that simplifying and harmonising trading rules will make life easier for the merchants – and fill government coffers with customs payments, provide reliable statistics and, because registration would provide easier access to loans, give small traders the chance to grow.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) has simplified trade for Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi and exempts a long list of goods from duty if they are worth less than $1000. It includes goods as diverse as soap, cotton wool, smoked fish and gravy powder.
Despite Violet’s complaints, cross-border trade at Chirundu, Africa’s only “one-stop border post”, has improved significantly, particularly for long-distance drivers. The border crossing at the Zambezi River was once a choke point for trucks laden with food and mining equipment coming and going to Durban.
A two-lane, 400m bridge – funded by Jica, Japan’s aid agency – and simplified procedures agreed to by Zambia and Zimbabwe have speeded up the processing time. Trucks that were previously obliged to stop twice now do so only once. Those from Zimbabwe are checked and cleared on the Zambian side, whereas those heading into Zimbabwe are cleared by that country’s authorities.
Things have changed
Trucks in Zambia pass through a Chinese-made, state-of-the-art scanner that “sees” into containers, examining them in just four minutes. Four red-brick banks are on the premises to facilitate customs payments and preclearance for shipments, enabling trucks once delayed for at least two or three days to zip through in half an hour if everything is in order.
Stephen Kabuswe, a 44-year-old Zambian driver who was transporting plastic resin from Beira in Mozambique to the Zambian capital Lusaka, a 1 500km round trip, confirmed the improvements.
“Things have changed,” he said, standing in a large dirt compound filled with trucks. “We used to stay here for five to seven days; now it’s half an hour.”
But this time he was not so lucky – his company had not paid the customs office yet. “I’m still here. I’ve been told I will leave in the afternoon, but my friends who drove here with me only took 30 minutes.”
Speed is particularly important for food going through Chirundu, which is in a nature reserve. The monkeys lose no time in ripping off a tarpaulin to get to maize and sugar if the trucks stand around for too long. They still do it, but their foraging time has been reduced.
“We cannot hurt them [monkeys] because they are protected; we are the guests here,” said Clement Mulenga, the Zambian deputy customs manager. He rattled off figures to illustrate the changes since Chirundu became a one-stop border post in December 2009.
“In 2009, an average of 1800 to 2000 trucks were coming and going out a month; now it’s 12 000 to 14 000 a month and the trade is still increasing,” he said.
The improved trade has increased revenues for the Zambian government by 30%, according to the African Development Bank, which is keen to introduce more one-stop border posts to boost regional trade.
Teething problems still bedevil Chirundu, not least the scanner on the Zimbabwean side, which is not working. It faces the wrong way, to screen outgoing rather than incoming traffic, which means the Zimbabweans have to reroute outgoing trucks.
With regard to small traders, Mulenga said the authorities wanted to make life easier for them.
“We are no longer just here for revenue collection; we are here to help them to grow, to engage with them so that they can become successful businesspeople,” he said.
Despite its problems, the revamped border post has attracted widespread interest from other countries. Mulenga was recently in Kenya to speak to customs officials, but unfortunately Chirundu remains the exception to the rule.
Kazungula, on Zambia’s southern border with Botswana, typifies the hassles of border posts in Africa. Also on the Zambezi, the scruffy and dusty post is 60km from Livingstone, named after the missionary and explorer David Livingstone. There is no bridge, although designs have been drawn up for an elegant, curved suspension bridge extending to almost 1km.
The trucks have to be ferried across the Zambezi one at a time. Three ferries operate, but it is not unusual for one or more to be out of action, slowing things to a crawl. When one breaks down, the line of trucks on the Zambian side can stretch for a kilometre and a half, according to Mupishi Kelly Miti, head of customs on the Zambian side.
Miti, whose business card states “Pay taxes not bribes”, described the day as quiet, although at least 30 trucks were queuing on the road. Dozens of others awaited customs clearance in a dusty compound where fruit vendors and money changers huddled under a tree for shade.
Small traders also find it hard at Kazungula. Mary was sitting on the ground beside blankets wrapped in five bulky, durable plastic bags as container trucks trundled past behind her, their huge wheels stirring up dust. She looked exhausted – unsurprisingly, because she set off from Lusaka two days before, making the 472km trip on public transport. She crossed into Botswana to buy 10 blankets and was taking a brief rest before resuming the long trip back north to Lusaka.
“It’s very difficult,” she said, softly. “I have been doing this since 2008, but I don’t have enough capital. I have so much costs. I have to pay for transport and I have to pay duty on what I bring in.”
Mary, who would not give her second name, is a victim of Africa’s alphabet soup of regional trading blocs. Botswana does not belong to Comesa but to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), dominated by South Africa.
Bringing in her blankets from a non-Comesa member, Mary does not benefit from Comesa’s $1000 duty exemption for small traders.
Africa has eight regional economic blocs and some countries belong to more than one. Landlocked Zambia, bordering eight countries, belongs to both SADC and Comesa.
Efforts are under way to bring Comesa, SADC and the East African Community into a single market of 26 countries, stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, with half a billion consumers and $1-trillion in output. – © Guardian News & Media 2012