Samoa's digital quarantine a Pacific first

In a first for the Pacific region, Samoa will be moving to a digitised customs system for processing organic goods moving in and out of the country. 

Paper certification for organic exports will become obsolete thanks to a new web based system built by the International Plant Protection Convention.

The country's Principal Quarantine Officer, Talei Fidow-Moors, said the shift will save time, costs and reduce the risk of pests sneaking in via consignments of fruit, vegetables or timber.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' Quarantine Division has been working with the United Nations to improve certifications, or "phytosanitary" certificates. The new digital certificates have been dubbed "ePhyto". 

According to the International Plant Protection Convention, which developed the ePhyto system, paper forms delay deliveries, affect trade and increases the risk of mistakenly spreading diseases and pests. 

Samoa has been piloting the program since 2017, during which time the software was refined and redeveloped according to the needs of Samoa's immigration and customs regulations. 

The ePhyto systems works through a regional certification hub. 

Samoa does not have a national certification system so can use a centralised, generic web based system routed through a digital hub built by the I.P.P.C with the U.N International Computing Centre (U.N.I.C.C), which works as a “post office” for certificates sending and tracking certifications. 

“This is more advanced for us,” Ms. Fidow Moors said.

Without the Hub and GeNS system, countries need expensive bilateral systems to connect their certification systems.

And, in Samoa’s generic system, all the information be stored in a database, so that trade information can be stored, collated and analysed, she added.

It should make work easier for exporters too. While today just the quarantine staff have been learning to use the generic system, soon they will train exporters to load their information into the web based system.

“Then they have to wait for us to do our inspection,” Ms. Fidow Moors said.

“We want them to access the system from their businesses,” saving time and money, she said.

The Chair of the I.P.P.C ePhyto Group, Peter Neimanis, said Samoa, as the pilot country in the Pacific will begin to see the project’s benefits quickly.

Samoa’s quarantine services have also been resourced with a project officer and technical assistance, with T$383,193 (AUD$211,165) in funding from the Australian High Commission for two years. 

As the first country to implement the system, Samoa’s feedback will be essential to its development and application across the region.

“It’s really the beginning of the system and we are looking at how we can improve it for other parts of export processes like inspection, treatment and things like that” Mr. Neimanis said. 

“We’ll be using feedback from Samoa to enhance the system.”

Each enhancement will come with training and manuals, to keep its users up to date with how it works.

The ePhyto project has also won a trade facilitation innovation award, from the U.N Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, for the pilot and implementation in Samoa and Sri Lanka. 

Mr. Neimanis, who is also the director of Plant Export Operations in the Australian Department of Agriculture, said funding the project long term come with its own unique challenges, and hopefully the new award will help with that.

As a global system, for multiple governments, it is hard to choose who pays for it, Mr. Neimanis said. Various donor countries have pitched in funds and the project is supported for at least two more years.

The Hub and generic system were built for just half a million US dollars, which is quite cheap for a system of that size, Mr. Neimanis said.

“Realistically to run both systems we are looking at about 750 000 US per anum,” he said.

“It’s not a great deal of money.  If we had the top 20 countries in the world contributing $50,000 we have a million. It shouldn’t be too hard for us to get the money.”

Developing countries using the generic systems will not be asked to pay for it, the I.P.P.C has already decided. But there will need to be a way to include the industry itself in paying for the system to be sustainable.

And though they won’t pay for the system, countries like Samoa will need to invest in internal resources to be able to use the system well.

Ms. Fidow Moors said the ministry is already addressing this, and that eventually any additional charges may have to be put onto the users. But in the meantime, the piloting and training is all done for free.

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