Plant and animal products traded across the world are subjected to global standards under what is known as Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures set by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a body that deals with global rules of trade.
These measures are generally meant to protect human, animal and plant health from risks arising from contaminants, toxins, additives, or disease organisms.
They are also meant to protect animal or plant life from pests, diseases, and disease-causing organisms.
In essence, if a Rwandan trader exports fruits to the European market or any other market, the products are usually subject to inspection to check if they live up to those standards.
In other markets, the products will be subject to testing of packaging and labeling standards, processing methods and certification.
In many cases, countries with stronger SPS standards tend to trade less with countries that have weaker SPS standards.
More developed nations normally have stronger standards and demand a lot from less developed countries and less developed countries end up being victims.
For instance, between 1995 and 2017, developed countries raised 242 SPS trade concerns as opposed to only 7 concerns raised by least developed countries. 226 measures were maintained as opposed to only 1 measure, according to WTO.
Rwanda has particularly experienced these issues as exporters of food and other agricultural products have had their products rejected at the borders of the European Union country, the country’s largest export destination of horticulture products.
According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Rwandan traders experienced significant interceptions of their products at the EU market over the last three years – 3 interceptions in 2016, 12 in 2017 and 11 in 2018.
According to Beatrice Uwumukiza, the Director-General of Agriculture and Livestock Inspection and Certification Services (RALIS) at the Agriculture Ministry, this was because of pests and diseases that had been identified in the exports but also lack of Phytosanitary documents by traders.
Experts like Uwumukiza suggest that low levels of food and agricultural product standards arise due to weak linkages that exist between exporters and farmers, as well as inadequate facilities and skills in the whole value chain.
“Our farmers still have low capacities to acquire facilities such as greenhouses and other physical plant protection equipment in order to prevent the introduction and spread of pests. There are also skills gaps in pest management and market import requirements,” she noted.
George William Kayonga, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), admits that Rwandan export products have indeed been subjected to heavy-duty inspection at international markets and that has had an impact on traders.
“Previously, our agricultural products to the European Union markets were subject to 100 per cent inspection. What this means is that exporters spent more time and financial resources in the process,” he said.
Today, he added, the country’s agricultural exports to EU markets are now subject to 50 per cent inspection, thanks to the country’s partnership with the EU which has provided capacity development for SPS measures.
Kayonga said the country was working to invest more in strengthening standards to make sure that domestic products that are taken to international markets get random checks when they get to border posts.
Rwanda is working with the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), an institution in charge of food safety and health in the EU to equip traders with necessary capacities.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a 21-member trade body which Rwanda is part of, on Tuesday unveiled a new initiative in Kigali to support members to mainstream SPS priorities into their national policies and investment frameworks.
COMESA designed a framework dubbed Prioritizing SPS Investments for Market Access (P-IMA) to help inform and improve SPS planning and decision-making processes among member countries.
According to Martha Byanyima, the head of Comesa sanitary and phytosanitary, the framework offers an evidence-based approach to inform and improve SPS planning and decision-making processes.
“It helps to link SPS investments to public policy goals, including export growth, agricultural productivity, and poverty reduction,” she said.
In the process, she added, the framework encourages public-private dialogue, boosts transparency and accountability and improves the economic efficiency of investment decisions.
Officials said the idea was to enhance trade capacity for member countries.
Robert Opirah, the Director-General of Trade at the Ministry of Trade and Industry observed that the project would help bring down agricultural losses that local farmers go through, but also reduce the challenges faced by exporters when it comes to complying with SPS standards.
The project has a budget of $464,075 of which $390,075 is provided by the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), a World Trade Organization (WTO) agency.