Clear vision

03 Oct 2016
Joined up: Morocco’s ports, including Tangier, benefit from a single window system through PortNet

Joined up: Morocco’s ports, including Tangier, benefit from a single window system through PortNet

A Single Window can be an important 'building block' for trade facilitation, explains Felicity Landon

Security, simplification, transparency, efficiency, cutting costs, reducing delays, pinning down or increasing customs revenue … speakers at the African Alliance for e-Commerce (AACE) fifth International Single Window conference left their audience in no doubt as to the benefits for governments and trade of introducing an electronic ‘Single Window’.

But perhaps the simplest illustration came in the form of a story about sardines. Virginia Cram-Martos, director of the economic co-operation and trade division at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), described how some friends bought a tin of Moroccan sardines while they were travelling in another African country – and found that the product had been imported not from Morocco but from the UK.

“It was cheaper and easier to export the sardines to the UK and import them back to Africa than go country to country in Africa,” she said. “This is true across Africa and a lot of Asia and Latin America too. It is extremely expensive for developing countries to trade with one another, as opposed to trading with developed countries – even though you might be talking about going just across the border to a country that probably shares the same language. That’s because procedures and costs are higher on both sides of the border.

She added: “This is where there could be particularly good benefits from a Single Window system, which would make it easier to export or import neighbour to neighbour – with the added benefit that neighbouring countries are more likely to have the same expectations in terms of products.”

The UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) Recommendation 33 defines a Single Window as ‘a facility that allows parties involved in trade and transport to lodge standardised information and documents with a single entry point to fulfil all import, export and transit-related regulatory requirements’. If the information is electronic, then individual data elements should only be submitted once. A Single Window constitutes an important building block in the area of trade facilitation, says the recommendation.

Across the board

The World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) requires all countries to implement a Single Window and places an obligation on developed countries to assist developing countries in this. However, it is not always the developing countries that are behind, Ms Cram-Martos emphasised, and the case studies presented by numerous African countries served to illustrate the fact.

“There are many reasons for the move towards the Single Window model, including resource limitations,” she said. “We see longer term trends towards lower classical growth, global warming, more awareness of climate change, and a more circular economy (recycling). We see energy infrastructure and financial shortages, and increasing competition. All of these mean that waste is no longer an option. We can no longer under-use infrastructure, over-pay financially through corruption, lose competitiveness through non-productivity, or lose time and money. All of these are issues that a Single Window helps to address.”

Today’s connectivity means you can sit at your desk in the office and see what your pet cat or dog is doing at home, she pointed out, and that connectivity can deliver transparency and efficiency in trade. “We are seeing greater and more affordable connectivity in developing countries.”

She told Port Strategy: “Because of the WTO TFA, countries have to make a commitment to developing a Single Window, with the result that many countries are now focused quite closely on trade facilitation. Given that tariffs have been reducing gradually over the years, the primary barriers to trade today are not tariffs but regulatory and procedural barriers.”

In fact, these types of barriers have increased, particularly since the recession in 2008, she said. “That is because countries were concerned about protecting their domestic industries and since it was no longer possible in many cases to raise tariffs, they looked to raise other types of barriers to trade. Also, there are health and security concerns in developed countries, which are valid.”

Politics count

Connecting foreign trade needs political will above all else, Aziz Rabbah, Morocco’s minister of equipment, transport and logistics, told the conference. Portnet, Morocco’s main Port Community System, has been extended to become the country’s National Single Window for foreign trade, with up to 25,000 users. “We can have a physical port – we also have to have the electronic port,” he said, describing Portnet as Morocco’s ‘e-port’. This is a key part of Morocco’s ambitions as a hub in international commerce, he said.

“We have invested billions of dirham in this process. But to me, as a professional in the field of digital technology, it isn’t a question of machines but of political will.”

The development of Portnet has dramatically reduced clearance times for containers, he said.

One business user said: “Portnet simplifies procedures. Before, we were talking about hundreds of documents and we had no perspective on what was going on and no control. Now we can track down what is going on and measure to find out how it is working. Clearance has reduced from 20 days to less than six days, but we still have a long way to go.”

Procedures for foreign trade are complex, added Julien Bornon, regional co-ordinator of the UNCTAD business facilitation programme for Africa and MENA. “As an operator of foreign trade, I would need to understand what is going on in a country for clearance and forwarding.”

A truck can’t wait for days for its load, pointed out another logistics professional. “You need to set that container free, for import or export,” he said. Morocco’s industries such as textiles, automotive and manufacturing all depend on a dynamic and efficient logistics system, he said.

Portnet has brought together operators, exporters and importers, said Rachid Tahri, chairman of the Association of Freight Forwarders of Morocco. “Before, we had a culture of ‘the other’. Now we work together. The fact that an importer knows exactly where his goods are and when they are going to be delivered makes trade much easier.

“And then there are [potential] investors. If an investor wants to come to a country and wants to be able to send goods, they need to know how long clearance takes, because that is the most important link in the chain for trading. This is not only because importers and exporters need to know when products are doing to be delivered but also because there might be added value on both sides.”  


Representatives from Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco and Senegal were among those giving presentations about their national Single Window projects.

Olivier Moreau, vice president business development of Bureau Veritas’ government services and international trade division, outlined the success of SEGUB, the system implemented in Benin. Average dwell time on the quayside for a container was 40 days in 2011; within three years, this had reduced to six days and last year (2015) 24-hour clearance was possible, he said. Meanwhile, customs revenue steadily increased from year to year.

Ghana’s GcNet system, a joint venture between government and private sector, connects two sea ports, one airport, seven borders posts and ten regions, and includes major banks, government agencies, customs and inspection authorities.

Before the introduction of Madagascar’s Gasynet Single Window system, customers languished for up to 20 days – that has been reduced to three or three-and-a-half days for maritime containers, or one day in the airport, said the Madagascar representative. In parallel, Madagascar has risen up the international ‘ease of doing business’ league and the aim is to be 100% paperless by the end of this year.

Kenya’s Kentrade system has more than 7,500 registered users and has brought together government agencies, manufacturers, freight and warehousing association, shippers’ council and shipping agents. “We brought in change management consultants to help push people to change; there was a reluctance to change from the known to the unknown,” said the representative. “Quick wins are important; we have increased visibility and transparency, and the system is enabling payments electronically. The average number of processes has been reduced by 50% and the number of documents is down by 30%-50%. The number of times traders need to visit government agencies personally has gone down to nil in many cases.”