Features In focus

COMESA simplified trade regime bearing fruit

VIOLET MENGO, Livingstone
JUDY Kasabo, a cross-border trade who lives in Livngstone’s Maramba township, starts her day as early as 04:00 hours.
She has to trek to Maramba market to buy tomatoes at wholesale price after which she goes to Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe to sell the commodity.
Tomatoes are in high demand in the southern African country which suffered economically as a result of sanctions imposed on it by western countries for its controversial land redistribution policy in which most white commercial farmers were driven off their farms.
“I cross the Victoria Falls border post twice every day to sell tomatoes and also buy cleaning products from Zimbabwe, which I later sell in Livingstone,” Ms Kabaso said.
She has been doing this since 2013.
“Since I started cross-border trading, I have not had serious challenges in crossing the border with my goods, or with customs. I follow the law and I know each time what goods I must pay duty on and which ones I must not.”
The smooth business that Ms Kabaso conducts between Zambia and Zimbabwe is one of the benefits of the implementation of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Simplified Trade Regime (STR), which was introduced in 2010.
SRT consultant John Chirwa says the inspiration was the recognition that small-scale traders are responsible for the bulk of intra-COMESA food trade which stands at 30 to 40 percent.
Having realised this huge contribution, COMESA felt the need to develop a mechanism that would help small-scale traders participate more effectively in the Free Trade Area (FTA), which involves the abolishment of duty on nearly all goods produced locally and sold in members of the regional grouping.
According to the guidelines of the FTA, goods ‘originating’ from COMESA member states pass through the borders of those states for resale without paying any duty.
The said goods must, however, appear on what is referred to as ‘a common list’ on both sides of the border, and for Zambia and Zimbabwe, goods such as potatoes, dried beans, soya products, yeast, cement and ploughs, appear on the list.
To help small-scale traders to understand the STR, trade information desks have been set up at border posts throughout the countries where the STR applies, and Zambia-Chirundu, Mwami and Victoria Falls borders are already on the STR.
And Mr Chirwa says the STR initiative has three main objectives:
To formalise the sector to bring the traders out of the informal sector, because most of the cross border traders used bush roots to cross border posts
To help cross-border traders with simplified clearing procedures at the border; and to provide documentation for the small-scale cross-border traders at the border instead of travelling to Lusaka.
The programme, which was piloted by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, now covers seven countries.
Trade information desks have been set up at border posts manned by a member of the cross-border traders associations to help traders with the necessary information to ease their business engagement.
Sidney Mudenda is an information desk manager at Chirundu.
He says the information desk provides services to cross-border traders when filling in forms and education on COMESA trade protocols among other necessary requisites.
“We also deal with sexual harassment complaints against female traders. Other issues include disputes that may arise, customs and bribery issues,” he says.
Dealing with sexual harassment is cardinal.
Most baseline surveys done indicate that majority of informal cross-border traders are women.
According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNDFW), women constitute about 70 percent of the informal cross-border traders in southern Africa.
And Mr Mudenda says most women traders fall in the category of the simplified regime which allows that “provided the goods are worth US$1,000 or less and will be sold in the neighbouring country; the trader can use the simplified customs document”.
Cross-border traders export goods such as cotton wool, caterpillars, exercise books, hair extensions, plastic ware as well as fresh products such bananas, tomatoes and oranges which are also part of the common list.
The Department of Immigration believes the STR programme is a perfect fit for smallholder traders.
“The STR is one of the most successful reforms for small-scale traders,” says the department’s public relations officer Namati Nshinka.
“It feels like we are progressing, moving to a new level. People are using this opportunity to trade freely more and more.”
According to Mr Chirwa, the STR programme has positive results, helping traders to come out of poverty and increasing the volume of trade.
“Some traders have graduated from being smallholder traders to medium while others even to large-scale traders,” he says.
“The STR is one sector that has promoted food security because it enhances the movement of food from surplus areas to food deficit areas.”
Despite the progress made, some challenges still remain, including transport costs and bribe seeking by some immigration officers.
There is also lack of proper infrastructure such as sleeping bays, which puts women traders in a vulnerable position and exposes them to wayward border agents.
However, for Ms Kabaso, it is still a success story as she now is able to put her son in school, put food on the table and afford decent accommodation.

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