Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Speech by Secretary General of COMESA Mr Sindiso Ngwenya during the opening of the 38th COMESA Council of Ministers


Speech by Secretary General of COMESA Mr Sindiso Ngwenya during the opening of the 38th COMESA Council of Ministers

Speech by Secretary General of COMESA Mr Sindiso Ngwenya during the opening of the 38th COMESA Council of Ministers
Photo credit: COMESA

Address at the COMESA Summit 2018

It is a distinct honor and privilege for me to make my last address to the COMESA Council of Ministers in as the Outgoing Secretary General of this Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Our Guest of Honor, Honorable Mrs. Inonge Wina for yet again officially opening the Council of Ministers Meeting. We indeed look forward to your Statement that will guide the deliberations of the Meeting. On behalf of the Member States and indeed on behalf of the COMESA Secretariat and Institutions I crave your indulgence, our Guest of Honor by requesting you to convey our heartfelt gratitude to His Excellency, Mr Edgar Chagwa Lungu, President of the Republic of Zambia to the Government and the People of the Republic of Zambia for their legendary hospitality and steadfast support to COMESA and its predecessor the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern African States. It is this support that has contributed to the success of COMESA.

The valiant and indefatigable people of the Republic of Zambia paid the supreme price for with their lives for the liberation of countries in Southern Africa and today are again at the torch bearers for the economic integration in the COMESA region. There are very few leaders in the COMESA region who have not benefited from the legendary hospitality of Zambia which today continued to host refugees.

The meeting of Council takes place a day after the COMESA Market that is a microcosm of COMESA and indeed the EAC and SADC Integration was partially destroyed by fire. It is with a heavy heart as Patron of the COMESA and SADC Cross Borders Association that I announce the tragic death from the fire of a lady member of the Association from the United Republic of Tanzania who died from burns caused by the fire. May Her Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.

The COMESA Market has Traders from the COMESA, EAC and SADC Tripartite Region and include but are not limited to the following countries: Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

I thank His Excellency, Mr Edgar Chagwa Lungu, President of the Republic of Zambia who was on the scene hours after the fire destroyed the COMESA Market to stake stock of what had happened and give comfort to the Cross-Border Traders. On the scene, His Excellency, directed that different Government Ministries and myself representing the COMESA Secretariat meet to discuss and agree on immediate measures to be taken in the short, medium and long term to address infrastructure and related facilities for the cross-border traders in the COMESA Market who come from the entire COMESA, EAC and SADC Tripartite Region.

Two hours after the directive, I hereby report that the meeting did take place with the Honorable Ministers of Home Affairs, Local Government and Disaster Management and that actions have been initiated to address the short, medium and long-term requirements of the market. The challenges facing cross border traders are indeed a region wide one as evidenced by the COMESA Trade Facilitation Projects that are funded by European Union and the World Bank. Taking into account that Cross Border Traders Account for approximately 40 percent of intra COMESA trade there is indeed a need going forward for a comprehensive COMESA program. In this regard, as advised by His Excellency the President yesterday this Council meeting may come up with recommendations for consideration by the COMESA Summit to be held next week.

Allow me at this point to turn to the theme of this meeting of “COMESA Towards Digital Economic Integration “. The theme for this meeting is timely on account of the fact that three elements in the twenty first century will define competitiveness of nations and regional economic blocks. These are knowledge management, learning and innovation.  Indeed, the process of globalization has and continues to be aided by information communication technologies and software applications.

Allow me before I give examples of the potential areas of digital applications for COMESA economic integration to highlight the key drivers for the rapidly evolving digital global economy that will underpin the fourth industrial revolution which is disrupting the Henry Ford model of mass production to customized production. These are artificial intelligence, 3D Printing and Nano Technology to mention but a few. With respect to trade facilitation the digital applications will see the twenty first century moving from the national processes and controls to virtual regional and global processes that eliminate fragmented national border controls through the application of the block chain technology which essentially is a distributive ledger for sharing information between and among different parties in real time. The ledger which has been used by book keepers and accountants since the thirteenth century, has thanks to modern technologies become a veritable instrument for ushering in a borderless economy within COMESA and indeed the rest of the world.

The following  summarized  background for this year’s theme is  appropriate to enable a common and shared understanding of the technologies and companies that are at the heart of the evolving digital economy. Immediately after release of Windows 95 communication technology was unleashed to the masses, thereafter technology and internet technology boomed with startups like Yahoo and America Online immediately becoming a multimillion dollar companies few years thereafter not to mention Microsoft and Apple computers. Silicon Valley was born and throughout all years it became the cradle of all future technologies.

In early 2000 GSM technology was again released to the masses and mobile computing was born. It has revolutionized the way we interact and later became our Wallets through mobile money which pushed banking to the masses not to mention health, education and all other spheres of human development were disrupted. Again, early in 2010 human interaction was brought closer through Facebook, twitter and other social media platforms. Information is now available to billions of people as it happens. During those 20 years humanity has accumulated more data than all the other years it has existed. The disruption is ongoing through online markets and online trading with the founder of the online shopping Bezos of Amazon becoming the first Centi-billion in Dollars through valuation of his shares in Amazon which is are gaining value everyday with everyone now doing more online trading.

It is no exaggeration for me to say that we are standing on the brink of another disruption which will send humanity and interaction to the edge of real physical interaction no matter location and time of each other. This will be realized through now very ready virtual/ augmented reality where people can travel virtually to any place in the world, experience it without even going their physically. This will change medicine, education trading and all other spheres of human development forever. This will forever break the physical borders between countries and humanity, it is the birth of world citizenry who is free to “move” and interact with the other.

The COMESA region and indeed the Tripartite region is in dire need of digital applications for trade facilitation in view of the high transport costs that account on average for 40 percent of the costs of the region’s export and imports. This is one of the factors that have made the region unattractive to investors who decide to invest in other regions of the world. To give a simple example, it costs an average of one thousand United States Dollars to move a twenty-foot container from ports in Asia to ports in the COMESA region compared to an average of five thousand United States Dollars to move the same container to any point in COMESA member States that are landlocked.

I am happy to report that COMESA is leading again in the application of instruments that are a sine qua non for a single market and indeed a digital economy. Two examples are sufficient, namely the issuance by insurance companies of the digital COMESA Yellow Card which can now be accessed and bought on line and the COMESA Regional Customs Transit Bond Guarantee. In addition, it is my hope that in the coming days and months COMESA will yet again be in the forefront of rolling out the digital certificate of origin.

My cherished dream is to see COMESA being a borderless economy with regards to trade facilitation. This is within our reach with the application of the blockchain technology which makes it possible for an export document to be a transit and import document. In simple terms what this means is that there is no need to process transit documents and export imports documents for consignments as the sharing of all exports documents from the country or port of origin become transit and import documents. This eliminates the need for declaration by freight forwarders at Border Posts to make new entries in the form of Customs Bill of entries and import declarations.

The provision of this information in advance to all border posts with the aid of trade facilitation platforms that integrate all trade documents, including Standards and Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary documents will eliminate the current business processes that cause delays at border posts. Hence, there is no need to build expensive infrastructure in terms of One Stop Border Posts as transit vehicles and goods will have been precleared. I wish to submit that this application on the Corridor from Mombasa to Kigali reduced transit time from 21 days to 3 days for a truck. The existing technologies and applications, particularly the COMESA Virtual Trade Facilitation System (CVFTS) has these functionalities. The member States participating in the CVFTS will be reaping these benefits in the next six months.

Some of you may be asking the question why is the outgoing Secretary General still dreaming on the eve of his departure. The simple answer is that regional cooperation and integration I’d now in my DNA, I have since I joined the former PTA on 1st February 1984 been part of this organization and been involved as part of a Team of no more than eight officers played a key role in the establishment of the then PTA institutions and now COMESA Institutions, such as the Trade and Development Bank, formerly PTA Bank, the COMESA Re Insurance Company (ZEP RE) and the COMESA Clearing House. Other programs I have put in place were the COMESA Yellow Card, the COMESA Carrier License, COMESA Harmonized Road User Charges, Axle Load Limits and Vehicle dimensions for Heavy Goods Vehicles. The list is long and is for a book I will be publishing.

As the last remaining officer who was there when the PTA Secretariat was established if I were to be asked what are your best memories and experience I would answer as follows.

First, that the PTA and the first decade of COMESA at a political level was characterized by group unity, solidarity and cohesion. The example, among many that can give if had time, was the PTA Summit that was held in Uganda in the 1987, soon after the National Resistance Movement came to power. The infrastructure was so dilapidated to the extent that Ministers and Delegations were bathing from buckets. For the record, the British Broad Casting Corporation other news media did not believe that we could have a successful. Against all odds, thanks the collective unity and single mindedness of the generation of leaders of that time the Summit was a resounding success and put Uganda back on the global map.

The Second example, I would like to give is that during the days of the PTA and the first decade of COMESA the meetings of Council were business like and decisions taken then were implemented expeditiously. The example of the 1985 PTA Summit in Burundi would suffice in that a decision by Council for Burundi to auction its tobacco on the Zimbabwe Tobacco Auction floors was implemented within three months of the Council decision and Air Burundi commenced flights between Bujumbura and Lusaka.

Another example was the establishment during the PTA of the African Air Joint Services Airline (AJAS) which was jointly and severally owner by Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia and later South Africa which provided Boeing 747 aircraft. This airline which provided international flights between these countries and European Capitals started to experience problems when the International Monetary Fund prevailed on some of the Governments not to participate in the airline.

What about my regrets. There are many suffice to say that in the past fifteen years have observed that the group unity, solidarity and cohesion has disappeared with some COMESA member States taking positions as a group of countries within the larger group.

Secondly, Council and other meetings that support Council are no longer discussing the primordial objective of regional integration and instead time and resources are spent on matters that will not contribute to deeper integration and structural transformation of our countries, hence we are not addressing how regional integration contributes to economic growth and job creation.

Third, unlike in the golden days of the PTA and early years of COMESA, member States are not implementing their decisions unless there is funding from development partners. This means that the programs are not owned by member States.

Fourth, Council Meetings which used to take one day and focused on implementation of decisions are no longer practicing mutual accountability, hence, the back log of decisions. I recall in the old days that Ministers would put the Secretariat and Committees of Officials to Task by giving strict deadlines.

As I exit COMESA to a new life and new world I would like to put on record that as far back as 2015 when I found that the values and ethos that I had known were no longer informing action of this great organization I signaled my intention to step down. Again, in Madagascar I requested that I be allowed to step down and the wisdom of Council was that don’t do so now as it would destabilize the organization. I am happy that we all now agree that the time has come for me to step down and step aside so that others can provide leadership to this organization.

In concluding my statement is to sincerely thank all member States and our Cooperating Partners for the support that they have given me. I ask for your understanding that in cases where I stepped on your toes this was not deliberate but due to the dream of collective action and self-reliance that has informed my thoughts and actions since I was a young practitioner of regional integration.

To my successor. I wish him or her success and are ready to handover the office.

I thank you for your kind attention.

Long Live COMESA

Long Live the African Union of one People of One Destiny.


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