Hanging in Together

Hanging in Together

There is a huge need for industry stakeholders to create effective structures for advocacy and negotiation with regional authorities to ensure practicality in future regulation and reformation around Covid-19 impacts.

Road freight transport in Africa has taken a severe hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, with many firms closed down and others in precarious positions due to debt and uncertainty about the future levels of business. In the Tripartite region (comprising COMESA, EAC, SADC), it is clear that authorities reacted with knee-jerk regulations, which in many areas aggravated the chaos related to the virus.

Borders were closed, opened, closed again. Some opened with changing and conflicting regulations. It’s become clear that authorities in most nations were unprepared for the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic. The medical responses that were developed and implemented were almost universally designed to shut down industry and transport of all but “essential goods”, which were often hastily ill-defined. The result was to close the borders, lock down people movement, and exclude foreigners. In South Africa a further extreme measure was to ban liquor and tobacco sales.

Across Africa, but particularly in East Africa and SADC, the costs associated with border restrictions will be felt for years to come with industries being throttled by the over-restriction of transport. In the port of Durban for example, the ill-informed and illogical actions of police and military created chaos as they attempted to prevent the movement of cargo ships unless such was defined as carrying ‘essential goods’. All other cargo was directed to depots. This caused immense congestion at depots with overflowing container storage. Huge bills for demurrage and detention resulted, which are still subject to litigation.

All of this mayhem, and ofttimes despotic intervention, is contrary to best international practice and World Bank recommendations as per this quote: “Countries in Africa should strive to maintain trade flows during the crisis to secure access to medical goods and services, and food and other essential items such as farm inputs. This requires keeping borders open to the largest extent possible and avoiding measures such as export bans or taxes”; “reduce taxes and duties on trade, to streamline trade procedures and to support transport and logistics services in maintaining cross-border and international value chains.”

Private sector road transport, which is the primary tool for industrial logistics, has come under much pressure across the continent, due to the restrictive actions of governments and the resulting reduction in business activities. Generally there appears to be limited appreciation by governments that the logistics sector must be supported for all economic activity to survive.

In contrast to the attitude in developed countries, African transporters and drivers (especially foreigners) have been ‘demonised’ as spreaders of Covid-19, with flimsy evidence in support and regardless of the relative isolation of truck drivers  whose interpersonal contact is restricted.

The authorities appear to ignore that transporters are committed to avoiding the impacts of Covid-19 and have introduced all possible defensive measures to protect their businesses. All sensible, trained drivers are equally dedicated to avoiding infection and have staged demonstrations when not supplied with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). When in the cab of a truck, a driver is isolated. Similarly when leaving and entering the cab, drivers observe all the recommended safety disciplines such as hand washing, sanitising the cab and wearing a mask. At borders, if passage is facilitated, it should be possible to pass through in less than 30 minutes with minimal people contact.

Also there is no need for a departure country to test for Covid-19 given the entry country will do this. If a temperature test is negative and drivers present required documentation with details of the trip, route, destination, and contact numbers, they should be allowed to proceed. There is no doubt that the firm to which the delivery is being made, or indeed the next border, will insist on all Covid-19 precautions, and minimise contact with the driver.

The actions of most enforcement authorities appear to be based on the idea that drivers should be coerced into compliance, yet the main problem causing days of delays is with the system and capacity for processing cross-border cargoes. The result is that drivers are forced, sometimes over several days, to source food, drink, and purchases from the local population, most of whom are not complying with regulations.

There is thus an urgent need for a regional, concerted, standardised and enforceable measures of logical and efficient border control measures that are practical and manageable by border personnel.

Over the past 10 months of confrontation and negotiation, the sole support for the road freight industry on the trade corridors in the region has come from the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Association’s (FESARTA) Transist Bureau, which has direct links to border and road transport authorities throughout the ESA region. It has been assisting transporters to unravel obstructions, and persuading authorities to apply practical solutions.

The cost of delays at Beitbridge between 7 and 17 December was some R295 350 000; equivalent to R59-million per month. This does not include the cost to industry, which could be double. Border restrictions and customs obstacles make mockery of the much vaunted intentions to open up the Tripartite Free Trade area and AfCTFA.

Private sector road transporters with struggling businesses receive minimal assistance from the government and the banking and financial sectors. As a result transporters’ primary assets, the vehicle fleet, is almost worthless and creates conditions of oversupply of used vehicles. For the smaller transport operators the immediate closure of industries and resulting lack of business manifests in retrenchments of drivers and overhead staff.

The extensive damage to the transport and logistics industry may prove to be a barrier to economic recovery in many countries. Most regional transport companies are uncomfortably aware that the relevant authorities do not appreciate the role of transport in the economy. Transport is perceived as fragmented and almost invisible compared to mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and other sectors that challenge governments on behalf of their constituents.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the necessity for the road freight industry to support and strengthen regional associations to elevate the level of advocacy and engagement with authorities. Stakeholders are urged to establish strong and viable industry representation to interact with the authorities.

Before governments complicate the future with further impracticable enforcement plans, the industry needs to get its act together and coordinate strategy for the future. The money that is now currently being wasted could fund a future of well-coordinated transport for the entire continent if conserved and professionally managed.

Published by

Nick Porée

Nick Porée is a transport economist and freight transport consultant; he has more than 30 years of experience as a consultant in freight operations management, systems development, training and transport research. His company, NP&A, has for the past four years been the lead consultant engaged in cross-border and corridor studies in Sub-Saharan Africa. He was the freight transport consultant for the SADC/Tripartite project on “Liberalisation of Road Transport” and harmonisation of the Road Transport Regulatory Systems in ESA.
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