COMESA: Ensuring sanitary and phytosanitary standards in the region

Martha Byanyima, COMESA
Martha Byanyima, COMESA

Martha Byanyima is a food science and trade expert from Uganda. She has worked in the region on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and agricultural trade programs, supporting countries to carry out the necessary policy and legal reforms and strengthening private sector/industry systems.

Currently, she is the Regional Process and Partnerships Facilitator of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) at the COMESA Secretariat. CAADP is the Africa Union Commission and the NEPAD Coordinating Agency (AUC/NPCA) continental program aimed at increasing agricultural productivity in Africa.

She supports development of the regional CAADP process and establishes partnerships for regional investments in key areas prioritized to address the challenges of food security and poverty in the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) region. She also leads COMESA’s SPS work program.

What is COMESA all about?
COMESA is a regional economic community (REC) of 19 countries. Our mandate is to create a vibrant and dynamic common market in which business will thrive and expand regionally. We improve the competitiveness of the farmers, entrepreneurs, and traders. In this regard, compliance with international standards, particularly SPS measures, which are a prerequisite for agriculture and agro-industry competitiveness and access to regional and global markets, becomes very important to us.

Why are SPS measures important?
SPS measures are mandatory requirements instituted by governments to protect human, animal, and plant health. These commonly take the form of legislation, inspection, and testing requirements and border controls. Measures similar to SPS had been in place for several decades; however, they became more important under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement in 1995, which recognized the right to protect the agricultural sector and biodiversity. These measures ensure that products produced domestically or imported conform with the regulations and standards of the territory.

The SPS agreement of WTO encourages countries to use common standards, guidelines, and recommendations as developed by the International Plant Protection Convention for plant protection, the Codex Alimentarius Commission for food safety, and the World Organization for Animal Health for pests and animal diseases and zoonoses.

How can compliance with SPS standards facilitate trading and marketing of agricultural goods?
Compliance with SPS standards promotes economic development and trade. SPS is a very important area as we deepen regional integration to reduce barriers to transacting business and to free the movement of agricultural and food products among member countries. COMESA has slowly progressed from a Preferential Trade Area with lower duties charged on goods originating from member countries to a Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2000 where no duty is charged on goods from member countries as long as they comply with the rules of origin and to a full Customs Union in 2009 where a common external tariff is applied to goods imported from outside the region.

How do you promote these standards?
While such a progression is based on tariff reduction and/or elimination to reduce the cost of transacting business, SPS barriers constitute an added cost to business that is not easily quantified, requiring scientific and technical capacity that is often lacking. In this regard, strengthening SPS infrastructure, such as laboratories, and the harmonization of SPS laws, regulations, procedures, and standards are essential for intra-regional trade and successful regional integration.

What is the Green Pass system?
It is the harmonization of SPS measures across COMESA countries and the establishment of equivalence through common certification schemes. The Green Pass system is intended to restore confidence among trade partners and remove SPS barriers to facilitate trade and the marketing of food and agricultural products within the region.

How can Green Pass help trade and markets in East and Southern Africa?
Since SPS is an important area for effective markets in the context of regional integration, COMESA has a regional work program aimed at mobilizing resources to address the critical gaps in the SPS systems of regional member countries. The work program has four result areas: (a) common certification schemes (standards), (b) monitoring, surveillance, and preparedness for emergencies, (c) improved exchange of SPS information between the public and private sectors, and (d) improved regional leadership and coordination.

Our activities include encouraging the adoption of regional standards, establishing regional SPS databases and information systems, establishing modalities and piloting mutually agreed certification schemes such as the Green Pass, awareness and training workshops, and strengthening SPS infrastructure, such as laboratories.

How are you implementing the Green Pass system?
The first step in creating awareness and motivating countries to step up harmonization efforts is the establishment of the SPS legal framework to guide countries on the necessary policy and legal reforms. At the heart of the legal framework is the Green Pass system.

Enforcing phytosanitary policies and regulations in the region would benefit  trade and commerce, and ultimately the farmers and consumers. Photo by IITA.
Enforcing phytosanitary policies and regulations in the region would benefit trade and commerce, and ultimately the farmers and consumers. Photo by IITA.

What can international organizations or networks do to help promote standards and the Green Pass system?
Currently we are developing proposals to pilot commercially driven Green Pass certification schemes. For example, we will support the member countries to develop common protocols to address the problem of fruitflies in banana, passion fruit, and avocado, or aflatoxins in maize. Such protocols, developed and piloted by the private sector and governments, with support from COMESA, will constitute the science to inform the Green Pass certification scheme. The protocols and related infrastructure, such as reference laboratories, are regional public goods that serve both the private and public sectors.

Who are your partners in implementing the system?
In piloting the Green Pass certification scheme, we envisage partnerships with the private sector, regional institutions with relevant expertise, such as IITA and governments. The decision to implement the Green Pass was endorsed by ministers of agriculture in July 2010, and thus all countries will be involved to the extent that the Green Pass is the viable option to resolve the existing SPS problem.

What are some of your challenges?
The greatest challenge is to create a common understanding of the Green Pass concept; there are variations in the way it is understood by experts, governments, the private sector, and other stakeholders.

Another challenge is traditional certification schemes that are based on international standards but may not respond to intraregional trade challenges. For example, South Africa (SA) demands a certificate of origin from Zambia honey exporters in addition to the animal health certificate issued by the Government. The Zambia market, however, has lots of food imports from China which treats bees with antibiotics. SA regulations restrict antibiotic residues in honey. Therefore, SA demands full proof that the honey originates from Zambia and not China, where the honey is not organic. In this case the Green Pass would come in handy to establish a certification scheme that includes traceability protocols and a certificate of origin in addition to the animal health certificate from the Government.

Of course, there are also constraints in both human and financial resources.

Food supplies being loaded on trucks for transportation to urban centers. Photo by IITA.
Food supplies being loaded on trucks for transportation to urban centers. Photo by IITA.

Why a common market for East and Southern African?
On 22 October 2008, heads of States and Governments of the 26 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa that have membership in COMESA, EAC, and SADC, made a landmark decision that the three RECs should immediately start working towards a merger into a single FTA to deepen regional integration. The three have a combined population of 565 million, and a gross domestic product of US$875 billion. These are 57% of Africa’s population and 59% of the GDP. The total land mass of the COMESA-EAC-SADC region is 14.8 million km² or 49% of Africa’s total land mass.

The decisions of the Tripartite Summit have far-reaching implications on the operations of the three RECs with regard to joint planning, programming, and implementation of the common agenda. In addition, there will be a need for development partners to rationalize and harmonize their support in the tripartite framework.

Since then, the Agreement to establish the Tripartite FTA has been developed and will be signed in mid-2011. The purpose of the Agreement is to enhance collaboration (through joint investments) and avoid the duplication of effort that has characterized the COMESA region as a result of multiple membership of the regional communities.

Annex 14 of the Agreement to establish the Tripartite FTA specifically addresses SPS, requiring Tripartite member countries to harmonize SPS measures and, where necessary, to implement joint programs.

What role do you envisage for IITA in COMESA?
IITA and other regional specialized scientific institutions have a huge role to play They can ensure that the best science informs agricultural planning and development, using the CAADP framework that has proved to be an effective instrument in harnessing knowledge and bringing it to sector planning processes at the national and regional levels. However, governments are responding slowly to the all-inclusive principle of CAADP; non-State actors such as IITA, farmers, and the private sector have not been engaged to the extent necessary to achieve the effective transfer of scientific knowledge and expertise.

What support do you need?
At this stage, it is important for all players to recognize the transformation taking place in the agricultural sector on this continent—the bumper harvests and the increased investments. This is largely driven by RECs through support to country CAADP processes and regional integration programs. Policy reforms and technical support are important elements of the transformation process that cannot be achieved by RECs acting alone; specialized institutions such as IITA and other nonstate actors need to fill this gap. It is, thus, important that development partners, donors, and other actors respond positively to the call by the African Union to align with regional priorities embedded in the RECs’ regional integration programs and in so doing support the transformation process currently taking place on this continent.

What is your vision for African agriculture, trade, and economy?
I look forward to deeper regional integration among the African countries. The Tripartite framework provides the best means to achieve this. By strengthening infrastructure on key trade corridors and facilitating the transport of goods while strengthening the countries’ SPS systems through the best science available, agricultural value chains will expand beyond the COMESA region. New opportunities will be opened for the private sector. At the same time, it is my hope that the Tripartite framework will encourage collaboration in scientific research and innovations to further strengthen value addition and trade in value-added food products.

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