Over the years, South Sudan has been a major destination for Uganda’s formal and informal exports.
According to a March 2020 Ministry of Finance Performance of the Economy report, Uganda in February 2020 alone had a USD 54.9 million (about UGX 199.6 billion) Trade surplus with the rest of the East African Community (EAC) with South Sudan being the second biggest contributor to this performance.
“On a country specific level, Uganda traded at surplus with all East African Partner States except for Tanzania. Kenya remained the biggest destination of Uganda’s exports. South Sudan was the second largest destination of Uganda’s exports in February 2020,” the report noted.
It all looked good until the Covid-19 pandemic forced governments to close their borders, put in place stringent movement restrictions and curfews.
Even though formal trade was allowed to continue, these lockdowns massively affected women traders who make up to 70 per cent of informal trade at Elegu-Nimule border.
In this exclusive interview, John Bosco Kalisa, the country representative of TradeMark East Africa in South Sudan decodes the highlights and challenges of the year 2020.
How was the year 2020?
John Bosco Kalisa: I thank you for this initiative, a very noble initiative in the sense that the 2020 year was a challenging year due to the impact of Covid-19. But we are glad that we managed to navigate through these difficult circumstances and through our trade facilitation initiative, we are looking for a solid, positive recovery, having done quite substantive work around the border, supporting the trade facilitation infrastructure, as well as supporting the women who have been heavily affected by Covid-19. So I am happy that we are on the right track despite the challenges we experienced in the 2020.
What were the Trade Facilitation highlights for 2020?
John Bosco Kalisa: There were a number of highlights in 2020. As I stated, this has been an unprecedented time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the key highlight from the TradeMark South Sudan program is that we managed to complete and handover the USD 5 million Nimule one stop border post (OSBP) funded by United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through TradeMark East Africa. It is such a big achievement given that it anchors the trade facilitation initiative as it is able to reduce a number of barriers that were hindering the movement of goods and services along the Nimule border.
The second important achievement has been the support South Sudan program. We continue to support South Sudan to engage in to the East African Community (EAC). Given that now South Sudan is a new member of EAC, there are a lot of trade policy initiatives that are on-going and those trade initiatives are being supported heavily by TradeMark East Africa.
The third important achievement is our support in terms of private sector advocacy, where we have built and strengthened the capacity of the private sector in South Sudan and they are actively engaged in the East African Business Council (EABC). They are working with their counterparts in the region.
Another aspect which is very critical is the standards harmonization. These are sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, given that South Sudan depends heavily on imported food. So these measures are very critical in terms of health and safety of human beings. This has also been a very critical and important achievement by Trademark in South Sudan.
Another important milestone that we achieved in 2020 is our support to the women traders. You know that Covid-19 has heavily affected the women, especially the informal cross-border women. I would like to thank the board and council of TradeMark EA for the continued support to the South Sudan women to ensure that they are able to recover from the effects of Covid-19 by supporting them in terms of having the necessary tools and equipment that helped them to continue to trade across the board.
You witnessed that there was a launch, which we did with AMREF. AMREF is doing a commendable job in terms of sensitising and raising awareness for women to ensure that they are able to social distance while trading. The women of South Sudan have really applauded this initiative. We are also planning to organize the women to have safe cross border markets at Nimule under the Safe Trade Zones Protocols. It is an on-going initiative and we thank our donors, especially EU-IGAD, which is supporting that initiative.
We also did a lot of work in 2020 with the Shippers’ Council. We supported Shippers, Freighter and Forwarders to understand the protocols related to Covid-19. There has been a lot of on-going sensitization in terms of strengthening the Freighter and Forwarders association.
TradeMark EA launched the Safe Trade Emergency Facility in mid-2020 to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on Trade. How has this been received in South Sudan?
John Bosco Kalisa: The Safe Trade Emergency Facility (STEF) has been well received in South Sudan. South Sudan was the first country to launch the Safe Trade Zones at Nimule in October 2020 and this initiative will benefit over 2000 women at Nimule alone. The women and the youth have been heavily affected by Covid-19. I am happy that we are doing value addition to ensure that they are able to recover. The government is very happy with what we are doing on matters Trade Facilitation.
While in Nimule and Elegu in December, the women of Elegu said they had received personal protective equipment (PPEs) to combat Covid-19 but the Women in Nimule said they hadn’t received any. When are you distributing in Nimule?
John Bosco Kalisa: We have already received the PPEs. They were delivered to our stores at the border by World Food Program. So we are waiting for the official handover before the end of January after which the frontline staff and traders at Nimule will receive their PPEs.
While at the Nimule-Elegu border, the women complained about being harassed, assaulted and some raped at the border by security officials and other law offenders. As TradeMark EA and your partners, what are you doing to address such issues?
John Bosco Kalisa: You are right. Indeed these are some of the issues we are addressing under our non-tariff barriers (NTB) program. These are some of trade restrictiveness issues we are encountering. You would understand, South Sudan is emerging from the conflict so it requires a number of efforts to sensitize the soldiers and officials that are harassing the traders especially women. The good thing is that we are working on a program with our counterparts in Uganda to ensure that especially the truckers and the women are able to report these cases through a real time sms system. In the past, it has been difficult due to a number of NTBs on the Nimule-Juba road but this program we are undertaking now will ensure that there is a toll-line for reporting these issues. This system is going to be rolled out in 2021.
The women at Nimule and Elegu complained that the borders are closed and for one to cross, you must have a Covid-19 certificate. But the Covid-19 tests cost USD 50 and above. How can they be helped? Can TradeMark EA and Amref come to their rescue?
John Bosco Kalisa: That issue of Covid-19 certificates is not only at Nimule and Elegu. It has been an issue across the East African region. I am happy that our EAC heads of state and ministers of health are working on a solution to have only one test across the region. If you are tested in Uganda, you don’t need to be tested again in South Sudan. That certificate can be valid for up to 14 days. Again, the cost of these tests is very high. Fifty dollars is a lot for informal women. This is like their livelihood. It doesn’t make business sense to pay fifty dollars for a test because you are selling a tomato across the border. Under our safe Trade zones, we are proposing that such traders shouldn’t be tested so long as they are adhering to the Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs). They can cross the borders so long as they can observe the Covid-19 guidelines.
After a very hard 2020 characterized by Covid-19, what do you see happening in 2021 and what should be done better?
John Bosco Kalisa: There are a lot of positive expectations and positive strides for 2021. As I mentioned, our safe trade initiative has produced tangible results across the region. You witnessed the PPEs that have been delivered. You witnessed the trade policy program we are doing across the region. We are working on a plan with the EAC Secretariat to have an economic recovery program where we want to strengthen our regional value chain. So I see a lot of positive trends with 2021. As I said, 2020 has been a very challenging and unprecedented year. It has triggered some of those unknowns, for instance, social distancing and lockdowns. These have had a negative impact, especially on the people’s welfare. There is positivism now that the Covid-19 vaccines are being tested and awareness is improving. In December 2020, we introduced the equal masks program in South Sudan. Those are some of the new tools that will enhance the recovery agenda. That is why I am saying there is a lot of positivism for 2021.