Written by Nicholas Kalungi and Charles Achieng.
It is November 2017; Charles Achieng and I are set to meet at the Busia One Stop Border Post (OSBP) for the very first time. We have been interacting online for some months.
While at the Busia OSBP ‘cargo verification compound’ waiting for Charles and another Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) customs officer assigned to take me around the facility, I see men unloading a truck. Curious, I get closer and ask them what they are doing.
“URA officers suspect this truck to contain some unauthorized commodities. We have been asked to unpack everything. After they have cleared their doubts, we shall re-pack it and drive to Kampala,” the truck’s turnboy tells me.
This, according to this fairly-young man, let’s call him Emma, would take between one and three days, something that results in more expenses incurred and time lost along the way.
While the turnboy leads the unpacking, the driver is not anywhere in the vicinity. Actually, I am told he is somewhere in a bar having fun with newfound female friends and will only pass by to check on the progress.
After a while, Charles finally joins me after attending to an urgent matter in his office (he is a Kenya Cross Border Traders’ leader) on the Kenyan side of the Busia OSBP.
He immediately joins the conversation as we talk about the merits and demerits of this manual cargo inspection and verification process. He tries to make me appreciate why a full truck has to be unloaded and re-loaded.
Charles is accustomed to this procedure and thus finds nothing bizarre about it even though I find everything about it out-dated and somewhat analogue, to say the least.
Fast forward to the end of February 2018 and we are back to Busia. This time, President Yoweri Museveni and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta are leading delegations from both countries to the official launch of the Busia OSBP.
At the launch, which was coincidently hosted in the same cargo inspection grounds /parking yard Charles and I first met in November 2017, the two presidents note that for the security of their countries and the entire region and due to the need for faster cargo clearance, it is important that electronic scanners are installed at all border posts, beginning with Busia and Malaba.
President Museveni then notes that the first such scanners would be installed this year (2018), to the applause of the audience in attendance.
Because Charles is a Kenya Cross Border Traders’ leader, he is seated with Kenyan delegates while I am with the Ugandan media team.
I meet Charles after the commissioning, and he notes: “I hope you have heard from the two Presidents. Your cargo inspection issue is being worked on.”
“I understand that the procurement of the scanners has already been done and installation will start soon. These will greatly reduce time wastage and unnecessary expenses incurred by traders while waiting for cargo verification in Busia,” he states.
Cargo Scanners arrive!
Further-forward, it is August 2018 and Uganda launches the first inland non-intrusive cargo scanners at Busia OSBP, to the excitement of truck operators, traders and trade-facilitating agencies.
The Fast scan series (FS6000) automated scanners can detect what is hidden behind 300mm of steel and can automatically differentiate organic and inorganic materials using colour separation. It also has capacity to scan up to 200 trucks per hour.
The new cargo scanners are fully funded by the government of Uganda to the tune of Shs 15 billion while their linking/connection with the cargo scanners at the Mombasa port is being funded by Trademark East Africa and Department for International Development (DFID). It is expected that the completion of the Busia-Mombasa and Malaba-Mombasa scanners integration will lead to the creation of one digital trade corridor.
The launch of these FS6000 Non-Intrusive electronic cargo inspection scanners in Busia marked the beginning of a new era in the East African Community OSBP framework with full inclusive and seamless integration with other trade enabling digital systems such as Asycuda World, Outward Processing Relief (OPR), Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Electronic Single Window and Regional Electronic Cargo Tracking System (RECTS) guaranteed.
As such, the cross-border trading community is assured of increased accountability, efficiency and predictability in movements of cargo on top of elimination of numerous highway stops for verification.
It takes just seconds to have full scanning done, which ultimately translates into increased number of consignments receiving customs attention.
In an interview, Mr Ali Malio of Sibed Transporters Company is full of praise for the new system: “It takes less than two minutes for verification to be done through the scanner at Busia.”
“We used to spend hours here but with these scanners in place, our trucks are cleared and cargo verified within minutes. We thank both the Ugandan and Kenyan governments for making this happen,” he says.
Similarly, Mr Ayub Mburu, a driver with Bingos Best Mango Exporting Company notes that “we are seeing better days.”
“Time is of the essence to us and any effort put in place to reduce time wastage is always welcome,” he says.
For Ben Mbazira, a truck turnboy, this development is a personal benefit as it saves him energy and time.
“As turnboys, we have always suffered at this place. The driver just moves out and you are left to pack and unpack the cargo. But with this new system, we just sit as the machine does its work. In a few minutes, we are back on the road.”
According to the Ugandan Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Hon Matia Kasaija, traders involved in cross border trade are the biggest benefactors of the initiative.
“Importers and exporters will enjoy reduced clearance time, avoid the inconvenience and risks linked to physical inspection. They will experience a better and faster export process with reduced possibilities of short landings,” Kasaija said.
Small scale traders and travellers await their turn.
However, while the new technology is doing wonders for the large scale traders, small scale cross-border traders, passengers, and tourists are still hoping for better times since they are still being subjected to physical inspection and verification of their travel bags, goods among others.
These complain of the manual systems that violate their privacy and dignity in addition to giving some fraudulent officials room for intimidating and soliciting bribes from travellers.
Godfrey Wanyama, a hand cart cross-border trader, is quite inconvenienced by physical inspections. He notes that moving a sack of maize requires that the standards bodies open and manually check in the event that they suspect the quality of the seeds has been compromised.
“In the process of inspecting the maize for example, they sometimes pour it down, making it dirty and also tear the bags/sacks. It would be nice if small scale traders have a scanner where such small goods are rolled through, and not intruded into,” Wanyama notes.
Sam Wafula, a fish transporter reveals that there are scenarios where a bicycle load of fish is spread on the packing slab for verification. Most of this, he says, is packed in Uganda for destinations as far as Eldoret or Nairobi but its quality is compromised from Busia, thanks to the manual inspections.
In the same spirit, Mercy Vereso, a traveller found at the Busia OSBP crossing from Kenya to Uganda notes that while she is amazed by the infrastructural development of the border and the effective operations, she is inconvenienced every time she is asked to open her bags and luggage for physical checks.
“The same way that they have installed automatic scanners for the trucks, they should also put conveyor scanners for travellers,” she says.
With the non-intrusive scanners sorting large scale traders, it is only in order that focus now shifts to small scale traders and travellers.
It remains to be seen whether the issues of small scale traders will be addressed immediately or in the words of Nelson Mandela, it will be another “long walk to freedom!”
About the Writers;
Charles Achieng is the chairman Busia Kenya Cross-Border Traders.
Nicholas Kalungi is a Digital Proficient Journalist.