Countries in East Africa cut transit time

21 February 2019
By Geofrey Balamaga, RECTS Project Manager, Customs Department, Uganda Revenue Authority

The implementation of a real-time electronic cargo monitoring system to track goods transported in transit enables countries in East Africa to cut transit time, prevent cargo theft and boost revenue collection

In the East African region, the management of transit operations across the five land-locked developing countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan was, for a long time, done via a convoy system, characterized by paper based controls, transit log sheets, physical escorts, and transit check points.

As a result, along the Northern Corridor connecting the five countries, the transit system was plagued by various problems that included, among others, unnecessary delays, a high cost of doing business, non-tariff barriers, transit diversion, high administrative monitoring costs, and poor (or non-) information-sharing between the partner States.

In 2013, Uganda Customs decided to implement a real-time electronic cargo monitoring system to track goods transported in transit, and to ensure the integrity of consignments. Other countries of the region soon adopted a similar system, resulting in each country having its own e-tracking system, applied to the same trader. The non-acceptance of foreign seals forced operators to buy different seals along the transit route.

In 2014, the authority in charge of managing the Northern Corridor issued a Directive requesting all partner States to harmonize the e-monitoring of transit, to enable the seamless flow of cargo. The Customs administrations of Kenya and Rwanda agreed to adopt Uganda’s electronic cargo monitoring system, which led to the launch in 2017 of a regional system called the Regional Electronic Cargo Tracking System (RECTS).

The three administrations use this single platform, which enables them to have a single watch and view of cargo in the course of its movement along the Northern Corridor. Only one type of seal is used, which removes the need for arming and disarming the electronic seals at partner States’ territorial borders. The devices have been jointly procured by the three Revenue Authorities.

RECTS operates in real time, enabling any transit violations, such as going off route, seal tampering or breaking, to be detected. Every time such an incident occurs, an alert is sent to the central monitoring centres hosted in each country, and a rapid response team is sent to the scene. The teams have at their disposal fast vehicles and computer tablets to localize the violation scene with accuracy and precision.

The tracking system will soon rely on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) facilities that have been installed at port gates, borders, and at several points on highways. Additional technologies are expected to be deployed to support the system, including:

  • “smart gates” to allow truck drivers to scan a barcode to a barcode reader machine, which then identifies the truck and cargo to be collected, and advises the latter on where to pick up the cargo;
  • CCTV camera systems at Customs stations to improve transparency and the fight against corruption;
  • sensors for trucks transporting petroleum products, which can provide information on the product volume and the integrity of the cargo.

Not all cargo in transit is electronically monitored, only cargo that has been identified by the three Customs authorities as very high risk and sensitive. As of December 2018, about 21% of the cargo in transit does so under the electronic monitoring system.

The benefits far outweigh the investment costs, on the part of both the government and the private sector. As opposed to the average transit time that has reduced from 4.5 days (2014) to 3.1 days (2018) for non-tracked cargo, the electronic monitoring system has seen a reduction in the average national transit time for electronically tracked cargo correspondingly reduce from 1.9 days (in 2014) to 1.6 days( in 2018), posting an average transit time of 1.7 days.

The above average savings of 2.07 days as a result of electronic tracking of cargo has translated into an estimated total savings in demurrage and physical escort per consignment of 311 US dollars at a rate of 100 dollars per day in demurrage and 50 dollars per physical escort.

From July to December 2018 alone, just over 32,000 transit operations worth just under 370 million US dollars in revenue have been managed through the RECTS. Even if only 1% of this revenue was lost, for example, in cases of thievery or the diversion of cargo, the impact on revenue collection would be substantial.

Several cargo thefts have been detected by Customs since the implementation of the RECTS, with most incidents occurring when trucks are climbing steep lanes or are parked in the night parking yard. In many cases, Customs responded fast enough to avert the theft.

Plans are underway to deploy the RECTS in Tanzania and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This will enable Customs and tax administrations of the region to improve their control capacity and enforcement coordination, as well as make transit operations across the Northern Corridor seamless.

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