Protecting cross border trade and keeping East African borders open during COVID-19

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By Frank Matsaert, CEO TradeMark East Africa

TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), is a multi-donor Aid for Trade organisation that was established in 2010 with the aim of growing prosperity in East Africa through increased trade. Our operations span over 13 countries covering the Eastern Africa region.

TMEA has been operational in the region over the last decade (since 2010) supporting the East Africa region in implementing reforms aimed at improving the cost and time of doing business. An independent review of TMEA’s operations for the period 2010–2017 indicated that TMEA had significantly contributed to reducing the time and costs of doing business, in some cases reducing the time for goods crossing borders by over 75%.

Like many regions in the world however, the COVID-19 has slammed hard on the brakes of this otherwise thriving regional trade. To contain the virus, East African Governments have taken several measures including partial and complete lock downs. A direct consequence of these measures has been a sharp reduction in trade as well as an increase in the time and cost of trade.

For a region that relies heavily on manufactured imports ranging between 5–38% of the region’s overall GDP, any supply chain shocks will have significant consequences particularly on the overall growth and trade performance. Despite reductions in cargo trucks released at the Malaba and Busia borders, transit times at Malaba border (a key trade border between Kenya and Uganda) has increased by 60% in April 2020 as compared to April 2019 (from less than half a day to more than 3–4 days on average) significantly increasing the costs of trade.

To arrest this quickly unravelling situation, TMEA has designed a US$23 million Safe Trade Emergency Facility, to make ports, borders and critical supply chains safe for trade by mitigating cross-border transmission of COVID-19. The emergency program is being supported by Governments of Canada, Denmark, European Union, Finland, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The program was informed by the unique challenges COVID-19 continues to pose for the region among them; limited PPEs for front-line border agencies staff, risky manual immigration and customs processing, compulsory cargo driver COVID-19 testing at borders with inadequate testing capacity-often resulting in cargo truck tailbacks rolling back tens of kilometres, border closures for movement of people with goods, all but killing thriving small scale cross border trade and fragile supply chain for critical food, medical and humanitarian items.

The Safe Trade Emergency Facility supports a range of multi-pronged critical short to medium term measures among them;

· Supply of COVID-19 protective gear and reliable tests to key trade nodes such as ports and border crossings.

· Maximizing technology use to minimize physical contact in documents and cargo processing including tracking cargo and drivers for better traceability.

· Other components of the program in include the development and implementation of relevant protocols to enhance efficient and safe trade; supporting trade policy, standards and sanitary and phytosanitary standards; policy advocacy and improving e-commerce; and the development of safe trade zones to support formal and informal traders at the borders.

The Safe Trade facility has been applying the following elements that have made it innovative and adaptive to challenges in the region:

a. A partnership approach to build a strong coalition to take the challenge

b. Multi-disciplinary approach to meet COVID-19 trade-related challenges

c. Joint health and trade responses to logistics and borders

d. Support informal cross-border traders get back on their feet

e. Understanding regional and local politics and adapting the program to fit this environment

Ultimately, the Safe Trade facility will ensure continuity of safe and reliable trade in Eastern Africa. With support from its donors and partners (e.g., EAC and its member states, AU, IGAD, UNECA, WFP, WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, IOM, AMREF, and AFCFTA Secretariat), TMEA’s Safe Trade facility helps maintain and grow the flow of trade across Eastern Africa during these challenging times, in addition to providing a strong foundation for quick post-COVID-19 recovery across countries in the region.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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