Eston Sakala set up his own clearing and forwarding business in 2016 helping traders to move their goods in and out of Zambia – a profession he has been in for 17 years. In three short years he has grown his business from scratch to employ 18 staff with a customer base spanning Zambia’s key import and export sectors.
“My goal now is to build capacity in my business, embrace technology and deliver my service to the level of a DHL,” says Eston. “I’d love to see the day when I can sit in front of my screen and watch trucks being processed by Evolution in real time, every minute, every hour. I want to be the go-to business for quick and correct clearances.”
Customs clearing agents like Eston, also known as customs brokers, are the oil in the engine that keeps goods moving across borders. They support traders by handling the documentation needed to gain clearance for goods arriving and leaving the country.
“My customers want to focus on their core business. By out-sourcing the job of clearing and forwarding their goods to a professional who understands the rules and requirements – me – my customers can reduce their costs and increase their profitability.
“I have a duty of care to both my customers and my country, to ensure there is no loss of revenue to either as goods enter and leave Zambia. We work as tax agents for the government who trust us to process customs declarations and collect the correct revenue, and at the same time we work hard to save our customers unnecessary costs like penalties, fines or lost business that can result from errors in classification or late clearances. Getting trapped at the border means costs are piling up for business and later get passed on to the consumer.”
The Alliance’s project in Zambia is working with the Zambia Revenue Authority to introduce a new licensing framework for customs clearing agents, with a training course and exam delivered by qualified trainers.
There are currently an estimated 830 customs clearing agents operating in Zambia and no standard qualifications required to obtain a license. Any incorporated entity under the Companies Act qualifies, so new entrants from outside the industry sometimes lack proper knowledge of how to clear goods in line with the rules and regulations. This leads to errors in documentation and a blanket higher risk rating on most classifications of goods. That, in turn, means numerous physical inspections and ultimately delays at the border. It is not uncommon for trucks to be stuck for 10 days or more as a result of these, and other technical and administrative reasons.
“As an industry, our public image is at times tainted,” Eston explains. “I’ve had experiences where I have explained to a friend what I do and they have reacted by saying: “you are the guys making all the money!” As I like to remind people, at least 90% of the money we collect is not ours – we provide a service. It is true though that some importers have had unpleasant experiences where unprofessional brokers have made errors in classifications and declarations and have lost the importer’s and the government’s money.
“Proper licensing of the industry will weed out the non-professional agents and create business for legitimate companies like mine. If I can increase my market share, I can create more employment and contribute more taxes to the government.
“Proper regulation will also have a great impact on the industry as a whole. An accredited training programme will make the industry more attractive to new entrants and we will have graduates looking to take up customs clearing as a career path. That will help Zambia to build the expertise it needs to facilitate greater volumes of trade in the future.
“And, of course, there are huge national benefits at stake. If we can reduce the overall number of errors being made and enhance service delivery by customs, we can reduce delays and make trade with Zambia more cost-effective and attractive. That means the government will collect more revenue and we will see greater economic growth.”