Sao Tome and Principe links up border agencies to speed up clearing of cargo

December 15, 2015

Containers at the port of Sao Tome
Containers at the port of Sao Tome

From cooking oil to cars, Sao Tome and Principe, a small island state in the Gulf of Guinea, imports a lot of its consumables. Over 90% of these imports go through the Sao Tome port. As part of the goods clearing process, importers have to engage with different government border agencies in order to clear their cargo.

This used to be a lengthy and costly process for both importers and government agencies. Importers had to physically go to each relevant agency to process the clearance of their goods, make payments and obtain clearance certificates that Customs required before it released any goods. Government agencies had to deal with a lot of paperwork, inadequate information, and importers who were impatient with the long delays.

All this has come to an end, thanks to the introduction of a single window system for international trade which has been co-funded by ICF, the Government of Sao Tome and Principe, and the International Finance Corporation.

The single window system is an electronic portal that brings together all 12 government border agencies under one ‘electronic roof’ and allows them to link up to the CustomsDepartment’s computerized customs management system known as ASYCUDA World. This link up enables all the agencies to have access to the same information that Customs uses for the declaration and clearing of imported goods.

The government agencies involved in the clearing of imported goodsinclude the Sao Tome Port, Airport, Customs, Tax Administration, Department of Trade, Department of Public Health, Department of Livestock, Phytosanitary Department, Transport Department and Fiscal Police.

Benefits to border agencies

Access to the portal has brought great benefits to all agencies involved, including the Customs Department which has been responsible for implementing the single window system.In the process of rolling out the system, Customs worked with other agencies to streamline procedures, eliminate unnecessary processes and paperwork. “In the past, we had a lot of problems as each border agency had its own system and there was a lot of information mismatch,” said Leopoldina Fernandes, a Customs Systems staff who worked with the different agencies to roll out the single window. “Now that everyone is using the single window to input directly into the ASYCUDA World system, all information mismatch has been eliminated.”

The single window has brought better coordination among border agencies as each is now more aware of what other agencies need, they can access the same information, and they can see which clearances have been provided. This has been very helpful particularly to the Phytosanitary Department. 

A Phytosanitary agent takes a sample of imported cooking oil for testing
A Phytosanitary agent takes a sample of imported cooking oil for testing

Armando’s essay, which focused on “How to become a good citizen by paying taxes”, indicated that he clearly understood the link between taxes and the Government’s provision of social services. “Taxes are important because the money that is paid in taxes goes towards helping people with less means than us. It also helps in the building of schools and hospitals in Cape Verde,” he said.

Other benefits that agencies are experiencing include the reduction of paperwork. Agencies are no longer receiving paper documentation from importers as everything is loaded into the system electronically. “We used to be the champions in paper usage,” said Alexandre Guadalupe, Director General of the Port Authority. “Our invoices were issued in triplicates. We used to use ten to eleven reams of paper per week. With the single window, our paper usage for invoices has reduced by 70%.Now we use a maximum of two reams of paper per week, which is helping to reduce our costs.” More importantly, the single window has helped to improve the Port Authority’s relationship with importers. By streamlining procedures, the system has helped to minimize delays in the whole goods clearance process allowing importers to remove their goods from the port quickly so that they do not incur excessive port storage fees.

Slow start

Initially, most of the border agencies were sceptical about the single window system as they were worried that the system will interfere with the way they work and with their ability to collect proper fees.“We used focal points for each agencies, people who acted as intermediaries between Customs and the agency,” said Daniel Vaz, Project Director for the Customs Single Window. “These focal points were crucial in explaining to the agencies how the single window system worked, taking them step by step through the implementation process and in general removing all their doubts, including those on revenue collection.”The agencies quickly saw the value of better coordination, and especially the centralization of fee collection, as they no longer had to clash with importers over payments.

“We have partnered with the International Bank of Sao Tome (IBST) which has opened a branch at the Customs Office,” said Daniela Vaz. “The single window automatically calculates the necessary fees for each importer which they pay at the bank. Once the various fees are collected they are distributed to the various agencies the next day. All the agencies can see reports on the system and they receive their money on a daily basis.”

Closing revenue loopholes

The single window system has been of great benefit to the Internal Revenue Directorate. “The Airport, Port and Phytosanitary Department collect consumption tax on our behalf,” said Olinto Costa, Director General of Internal Revenue. “In the past we used to collect this tax from them annually and often we had to audit them to ensure we got the correct amount. With the single window, we get the taxes on a daily basis. We no longer have to do any audits as all the information is available in the system.”

The single window system has also brought an unexpected benefit to the Internal Revenue Directorate. By linking the system to the Internal Revenue’s system for Tax Identification Number, the single window now flags up if an importer has any outstanding taxes which they are then required to pay before they can clear their goods. This has enabled the Internal Revenue to collect a lot of back taxes.

Peace at the Port exit

All importers have to show their Customs Release Order at this Fiscal Police post located at the Sao Tome Port gate before they can remove their goods from the port.
All importers have to show their Customs Release Order at this Fiscal Police post located at the Sao Tome Port gate before they can remove their goods from the port.

Juliao dos Ramos Pinto is now a much happier man. As the Fiscal Police Commissioner, he is in charge of the paramilitary unit that is responsible for the security and protection of people and goods at Sao Tome’s ports of entry.His unit works with Customs and other border agencies to control the movement of commercial goods and to ensure that they are properly taxed. “The single window system has greatly improved our relationship with importers,” Juliao said. “In the past there was a lot of arguing over fees.” This is because the Fiscal Police were last in the payment chain. Importers interacted with them at the last stage when they presented the Customs Release Order that would allow them to take their goods from the port.

“At this stage, importers had already paid a whole host of fees and they were not happy when we presented them with yet one more fee. There were times when we had to take importers to court just to collect the fees due to us,” Juliao explained. Charged as part of the security service that the Fiscal Police provide, these fees form a crucial part of their administrative resources. His unit no longer has to collect the fee. The centralized collection of fees now means that by the time importers are interacting with them, they have already paid for their services. “It is much more peaceful here now,” Juliao said. 

Benefit for the country

The Government of Sao Tome and Principe is hoping that the single window system will boost the country’s image as an investment destination. Already, the improved coordination among the border agencies has drastically reduced the time needed to clear import goods through Customs from 10 days to 3.

“The single window system has brought credibility to the goods clearance process, not only for Customs, but for all the other border agencies as well,” said Ilza Amando Vaz, General Director for Customs. “When the private sector have one place to do everything then they are able to make savings in terms of time and costs. We hope that the improvement in trade facilitation will show investors that it is easy to do business in Sao Tome and Principe and encourage them to come and invest.”


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