Easy times for cross-border travellers, traders
Long and winding queues of trucks weighed down with farm produce used to be a common sight at Mchinji Border Post along Malawi’s western strip.
On the other side, at Mwami Border Post in Zambia, the picture was not different.
The drawn-out customs processes that Malawian traders and travellers used to go through when crossing into the country’s western neighbour meant more time lost.
“On unlucky days, we could spend up to five days before crossing to the other side. Clearing our goods for exit from Malawi and entry into Zambia used to be a huge hurdle,” Esau Salamu, a truck driver who frequently crosses into Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, says.
Four years ago, we visited Mchinji and Mwami border posts, where we found dozens of trucks carrying all manner of merchandise chained to nothing, their bodies covered in dust, tyres slowly losing air and drivers yawning behind the wheels.
One driver, Haswell Bauti, admitted that spending too much time at the exit or entry points was dangerous.
Bauti said while the most prominent risk was that of vicious thugs tearing down the tarpaulin covering the farm produce that was being exported into Zambia and beyond, a phenomenon lesser thought of was ubiquitous at the places.
“Spending a day at the border would be fine but spending four or five days is dangerous. Away from your wife, nights can be particularly cold and lonely here; so, you are sometimes forced to seek comfort in the company of sex workers,” he said that time.
Bauti further stated that he was aware that border areas were among those with high HIV infection rates in Malawi, a fact confirmed by the Ministry of Health that time.
On our return to Mchinji Border Post earlier this month, we met truck drivers and other cross-border traders who were optimistic that they would enter 2023 without the hurdles they have been facing when crossing through the post.
“We understand that we will no longer be spending hours or even days clearing our goods because the processes that were supposed to be done on the Malawi and Zambia sides will all be concluded in one post,” Jessica Longwe, a cosmetics trader from Lilongwe, says.
Four days later, President Lazarus Chakwera and his Zambian counterpart Hakainde Hichilema opened the Mchinji/Mwami One-Stop Border Post (OSBP) which is expected to significantly improve trade and transportation between the two countries.
Salamu claims during the periods he could spend at the borders, thieves could sometimes steal some of the goods he was carrying.
“We could also spend a lot of money due to the long period we used to spend at the border,” he says.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa)—which both Malawi and Zambia belong to—states that border posts can act as constraints or facilitators to smooth flow of trade and people “which is essential to creating regional value chains across the continent.”
At the opening of the Mchinji/Mwami OSBP, Comesa Secretary-General Chileshe Kapwepwe said the facility will help create jobs and fasten the movement of people not only between Malawi and Zambia but surrounding Comesa member states as well.
Recent data from the United Nations on international trade indicates that Malawi’s exports to Zambia in 2020 were pegged at about $27 million while Zambia’s exports to Malawi in the same year stood at around $104 million.
Chakwera and Hichilema made proposals that they believed would make the OSBP more effective in a region whose intra-country total exports hover around $10 billion.
“Considering that this is a leading and model border post, I wish to reiterate the statement I made during the Kulamba Ceremony in August, 2022, at Mkaika in Zambia, that our two countries should introduce the use of National IDs as cross-border permits to ensure easier facilitation of movements for our citizens,” the Malawi leader said.
On his part, Hichilema urged both countries’ ministries of home security to work on reducing roadblocks along their roads to ease the movement of people and goods.
“In the same vein, this should not compromise security and encourage trafficking,” Hichilema said.
A truck driver, James Singano, who has already gone through the OSBP after its inauguration, is happy that he can now spend just a few hours before be crosses into Zambia.
He reckons that he once had a rude awakening a few months ago when thieves drained diesel from his truck’s tank while he was sleeping.
“Now, my goods are cleared in less than three hours. This is a very big plus because in business, every minute counts; it is money,” Singano says.
Elsewhere in Malawi, there are travellers and traders who wish they had efficient border posts which would easily facilitate their movements.
Elena Simbi, who regularly travels to South Africa to buy goods such as garments which she later sells in Malawi, says the experience at Mwanza Border Post is torturous.
“We go through so many daunting processes and end up spending too much time at the border post. We hear our colleagues who travel to Zambia using Mchinji Border no longer face such problems,” Simbi says.
She claims that some of her colleagues have given up on their businesses because of the long processes they are subjected to at the border post.
Such sentiments are shared by another small-scale trader, Hellen Kaliati, who says she is contemplating switching from purchasing her merchandise from South Africa to Zambia.
“When a border post is inefficient, we, as traders, get demoralised and some even reach the point of giving up,” Kaliati says.
Last week’s inauguration of Mchinji/Mwami OSBP means Malawi has one functional OSBP out of the country’s at least four major exit and entry points.
The country, however, has another yet-to-be-opened OSBP in Dedza, which Malawi Revenue Authority Commissioner General John Biziwick says will reduce time taken to process imported and exported goods and vehicles by 70 percent.
The OSBP will be allowing officials from Mozambique and Malawi to be working from the same building such that there will be no duplication of clearance processes.
“Goods and people will be stopping in a single facility where they will undergo necessary controls using the applicable regional and national laws for people’s and goods’ entry,” Biziwick said a few weeks ago.
The full operationalisation of the facility awaits the construction of a similar one on the Mozambican side, Biziwick said.
Truck drivers such as Salamu and Singano and cross-border travellers such as Simbi and Kaliati hope that the other borders, especially those that handle large amounts of cargo, will soon be as efficient as Mchinji is following its transition.
The African Union (AU) indicates that while the continent has experienced rapid growth in trade over recent decades, intra-African trade has lagged due to low levels of trade facilitation and industrialisation.
“[OSBPs] are central to implementation of transport projects in the AU Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (Pida),” the continental body says.
Pida is a continent-wide programme to develop a vision, policies, strategies and a programme for the development of priority regional and continental infrastructure in transport, energy, trans-boundary water and information and communications technology.
The Mchinji/Mwami OSBP has added to dozens of OSBPs that have already been constructed in the Comesa region and Africa as a whole the past 14 years before which there was no single OSBP in Africa.
“We need such border posts. I also support the proposals by both Chakwera and Hichilema, that other bottlenecks such as unnecessary roadblocks and the insistence that we should use passports as travel documents between Malawi and Zambia, should be removed,” a truck driver Peter White said.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje