Botswana’s perspective on ensuring business continuity when transitioning from its Customs IT system to a more comprehensive national trade platform

22 October 2019
By the Botswana Unified Revenue Service

The Botswana Unified Revenue Service recently implemented a new, modern IT system to manage their foreign trade operations. The migration from the old to the new system had to be smooth to ensure business continuity. This article presents the rationale behind the migration, looks at the challenges and lessons learned from the process, and highlights the benefits that accrued to the government and the trade community.

As part of a strategy to improve the country’s trade competitiveness, Botswana’s Cabinet approved, in early 2015, the establishment of a national Single Window in the country. The Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) was designated as the lead agency in the operation of the national Single Window, which also replaced the existing Customs Management System (CMS).

At this time, BURS had been using ASYCUDA++ since 2002 for managing Customs declarations (for example, import, export, transit, and warehousing), suspense procedures, tariff and taxation, accounting (for example, cash, credit payments, and pre-payments of declarations), and reports. Additional application support features had also been developed over the years to meet business requirements.

To meet Botswana’s needs, the Trade Facilitation Platform (TFP) was selected as the most relevant solution as it offered an end-to-end web-based suite of products that manages and facilitates trade processes between government and the trade community. In addition, the TFP encapsulated international best practices and industry standards, such as those of the WCO, UN/EDIFACT, the IMO and IATA, including a better user experience and a more modern, user-friendly interface.

Rationale for migrating to a new system

Several factors influenced the decision to move to a new system. Botswana’s rankings in the World Bank’s flagship report, Doing Business 2011, prompted measures that were aimed at further developing a conducive environment for undertaking business. The country was ranked 74 for “ease of doing business,” and 157 for “trading across borders.”

Spurred on by the World Bank’s rankings and scores, Botswana recognized that the country needed to integrate more government agencies for better coordinated border management processes, while reducing costs for the government and traders, leading to a less burdensome trade regulatory environment that would stimulate economic growth.

Moreover, BURS needed a system that would be agile, easy to maintain, and with limited dependency on vendors. Faced with growing user requirements amidst an ever-changing global trade landscape, Botswana needed a system that would empower its users by enabling them to adapt easily and swiftly to changes in government policy and business rules, such as changes in tariff or Customs procedures, as well as to allow for integration with other systems, such as payment gateways, OGA (Other Government Agencies) systems, etc.

There was also a need to enable processes like ‘guarantees,’ ‘transit’ and ‘free zones’ to be fully handled end-to-end, to equip Customs with a high-performance and easy to administer risk management module, with the capacity to handle manifest and data reconciliation. The system also had to support business intelligence and post clearance audit-related activities, not forgetting that some functions like offence management and resource management (e.g., scheduling officers and officer productivity management) were lacking.

Main challenges and mitigations

It was of the utmost importance to ensure a smooth transition, and that there would be no business disruption when migrating from ASYCUDA++ to the TFP’s integrated CMS (i.e. the Single Window + the CMS + the onboarding of other government agencies). However, with big vision comes big risks that could potentially jeopardize the country’s trade ecosystem.

Some agencies may feel challenged with moving away from old habits when introducing a new system/user interface, and others may feel challenged by the entire new work process. Therefore, careful considerations and plans were put in place to identify gaps in advance, so that adjustments could be made to ensure a smooth migration and prevent any unplanned downtime.

Upon assessment, the project team, which was hired after a call for tender process, recommended that BURS follow a progressive roll-out approach The implementation took place port by port, starting with the port that had the least transactions, in order to minimize risk. In three months, systems at all ports and land borders had been fully migrated.

The functional modules of the system were rolled out in two phases, phase one was completed in 13 months, and phase two in 12 months. Phase two also involved onboarding other government agencies (training, data preparation, procedures and rules, system configuration, etc.), based on the readiness of each agency.

Moreover, transitioning to a new system entails complex data management. Data protection and retrieval were other challenges faced during the migration. This was a delicate task, especially since the amount and importance of data has grown significantly over the past 10 years, and will continue to grow in the years ahead.

Additional review with multiple levels of verification were also undertaken to prevent data loss during the migration. The TFP’s integrated CMS archives necessary data, and its user interface was designed in such a way that users are still able to view and access previous ASYCUDA++ declarations seamlessly.

The new integrated CMS addresses several gaps, including LPCO (Licences, Permits, Certificates and Other) management. The absence of a common form for trade permits and licences made managing and harmonizing large amounts of data across various agencies an extremely complicated and daunting task.

Prior to the integrated CMS, Botswana struggled to coordinate clearance processes as each agency involved in the trade clearance procedure had its own forms and back-end processes, which were difficult to harmonize for speedier clearance. It was quite a challenge to consolidate the processes by eliminating those that were duplicated or overlapped. Different forms meant that traders had to spend time submitting them to various agencies on separate occasions.

With sound knowledge of other agencies’ systems and processes, coupled with extensive experience in data harmonization and flexible LPCO data elements, the TFP consultants were able to effectively address the various agencies’ requirements for data harmonization. Their LPCO requirements were simplified and harmonized through a flexible template-based mechanism, and their approval processes can be easily mapped out and coordinated with Customs release processes.

The highly configurable integrated CMS empowers agencies to define their permits and customize templates according to their requirements, which minimizes manual processes and forms. With function templates, LPCO data can be applied automatically from the system and integrated into another agency’s host system, enabling users to submit data only once.

More notably, the TFP consolidates LPCO data and clearance declarations that are submitted electronically to the Customs authorities, helping to streamline all processes, improve coordinated action by Customs and other government agencies, and improve import and export clearance times considerably.

Benefits to the government

Fast implementation

The integrated CMS was implemented within a period of two years. Phase one of the implementation was completed in 13 months and connects seven key government agencies, with more agencies to be added as the project continues.

Reduced vendor dependency maintenance

Government agencies can develop new modules or enhance deployed modules on their own, reducing vendor dependency. The system’s high degree of configurability allows self-servicing to onboard other government agencies, and is able to integrate with various agencies’ existing systems, saving them from having to incur additional costs to develop a new system.

In addition, agencies involved in trade compliance management are empowered to adapt easily and swiftly to growing administrative requirements by configuring changes whenever there are revisions to trade regulations, Customs procedure codes (CPC), and tariff and business rules, without code changes.

Enhanced operational efficiency

The Dynamic Risk Management and Valuation Module enhances overall clearance speed by improving sensitivity to targeting, in order to reduce unnecessary intrusions. Customs, other government agencies and other key stakeholders are also able to coordinate and collaborate better as they all view the same data, and perform all their cargo clearance functions on a single central platform.

As Customs officers and officials from other government agencies are able to access data from a central platform (with different levels of access authorization, depending on the user), various stakeholders are able to collaborate better, especially when conducting inspections, which improves clearance speeds.

Leveraging data more effectively

With the implementation of all the CMS modules, BURS’ back-end Customs operations have better visibility and coordination across departments, thus reducing paper dependency. Non-permit issuing agencies have also been onboarded to the integrated CMS for data sharing across agencies. For example, Statistics Botswana can access trade statistics data, strengthening their policy and decision-making capabilities.

Benefits to the trade community

More cost-effective and less hassle for traders

Integrated with other government agencies, the single platform offers traders the convenience of filing declarations, applying for permits and licences, tracking consignments, settling payments, and managing interactions with Customs and other agencies without using multiple systems or making multiple trips to Customs.

Traders only need to print the release order once for Customs and other government agencies to release the goods, as the platform provides Customs and these agencies with enhanced visibility and facilitates their collaboration.

The systems of express courier services have also been integrated into the new system to enhance their productivity when submitting declarations, permits, etc. As no paper is involved, this enables them to offer faster and better customer service.

Traders are better informed

With improved predictability from effective cargo tracking, traders are able to respond quickly to shipment disruption and prevent unnecessary delays, claims and losses that potentially result in financial losses. If information is required by one of the parties to a transaction, it can be made available through the system. Various parties can access various data, depending on their authorization levels.

Traders are equipped to collaborate more effectively with their international trade partners

Traders can integrate their in-house systems with the integrated CMS, through what is called the “Cross-Border Services module.” The tool extracts data from the packing list, commercial invoice or any other supporting documents to pre-populate the export or import declaration form.

Funding and deployment

The project was internally funded. As many activities compete for funds within BURS, a degree of prioritization had to be made, and this process took about two years to complete. BURS formulated a budget, based on extensive market research of similar trade facilitation systems.

A working committee and a high-level steering committee were created. The latter included six agencies, plus BURS, the project lead: (1) Ministry of Agriculture – Trade, (2) Ministry of Agriculture – Business, (3) Botswana Police Service, (4) Botswana Bureau of Standards, (5) Ministry of Investment – Trade and Industry, (6) Ministry of Health, and (7) BURS’ Customs’ department for issuing Certificates of Origin. External stakeholders also participated in the committee meetings.

Together with the external consultants, the BURS team set out the project management guidelines and prepared the planning documentation for review and approval of all parties. Weekly meetings were also scheduled with all key stakeholders. Any matters that could not be resolved by the working committee were escalated to the steering committee for speedy resolution.

Configurations and developments were carried out, based on business requirements. User acceptance tests were also performed when all necessary configurations and customizations had been completed. More requirements were triggered when business users went through these tests, but, at the end, all business scenarios were validated. Contingency measures and back-up processes were put in place in case traders were not able to use the new system for some reason.

Lessons learned

Phased rollout mitigates risk and supports business continuity

Botswana had to migrate and harmonize large amounts of data from a legacy system, and onboard multiple government agencies, which posed both technical and management challenges. It was crucial that BURS employed the right strategy to maintain business continuity during this process. Yet there are no simple rules for deciding deployment strategies, which play a significant role in the final outcome of a system migration.

Well-versed in deployment strategies across different countries and in varying environments, the TFP consultants recommended a two-phase roll-out approach to mitigate risks and avoid potential downtimes. Phase one of the rollout ensured that the Single Window system complied with Customs regulatory formalities, and was completed in 13 weeks. While phase two involved onboarding multiple government agencies once the Single Window had satisfied all Customs’ needs.

Change management unlocks the full potential of the new system

Change management was an issue addressed early in the project implementation process. BURS conducted progress update meetings, workshops and seminars to keep all stakeholders informed about the new system and progress with the migration. Articles were published in the media and e-mails were also sent to individuals, to keep everyone in the trade community updated.

To ensure fast adoption and a smooth transition, the TFP consultants conducted training early and at key junctures while taking into consideration feedback and recommendations, to ensure user-friendliness. Train-the-trainer sessions were also conducted for Customs officers identified by BURS, who subsequently trained their colleagues.

Going forward with confidence

Moving from one major system, such as ASYCUDA++, to a whole new system, the TFP, was a bold move by the Botswana authorities. Many administrations prefer to rather plug more applications into an existing system, rather than change their system completely. The fact that Botswana actually did this, and in such a short time, demonstrates the buy-in that existed among all key stakeholders.

Moreover, what is also evident from the whole process, is the fact that service providers now have extended knowledge on how to build a Single Window system that includes an integrated CMS. The TFP is a “next generation” IT solution that will take Botswana forward in its efforts to improve its competitiveness.

“We are very glad that, despite a number of legacy issues, the project has been delivered on time and within budget. The TFP products incorporate international standards and best practices, which enabled us to jump-start our journey in providing world-class services to our trade community,” said Molemi Pule, General Manager of Technical Services at BURS.

Indeed, BURS hopes that by sharing its experience of moving from a well-established system into the “unknown” in a very short period of time will inspire others faced with similar challenges. Taking advantage of available technologies is critical if Customs wants to move forward with confidence. While the task may seem daunting, nothing is insurmountable. Botswana can testify to this.


More information
Luther Mabona