Mile­stone as Comesa sum­mits go dig­i­tal

The Star (Kenya) - - News Business - DR FRAN­CIS MANGENI The au­thor is the Di­rec­tor of Trade and Cus­toms at the Comesa Sec­re­tariat

The Com­mon Market for Eastern and South­ern Africa held its first ever pa­per­less meet­ing of pres­i­dents and min­is­ters on Oc­to­ber 10 to 19, 2016, in An­tana­narivo in Mada­gas­car, mark­ing yet an­other first for Africa.

While other or­gan­i­sa­tions may have gone pa­per­less in the sense of pro­vid­ing par­tic­i­pants with elec­tronic copies of doc­u­ments, Comesa went an ex­tra step of pre­par­ing re­ports of meet­ings in real time in three lan­guages beamed on large screens in the course of the meet­ings.

Comesa has been no stranger to in­sti­tu­tional en­gi­neer­ing. As the largest free trade area in Africa, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has a num­ber of trade fa­cil­i­ta­tion ini­tia­tives and spe­cialised fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions to fa­cil­i­tate trade and in­vest­ment. These in­clude sim­pler and har­monised cus­toms doc­u­men­ta­tion and a re­gional bank, in­sur­ance for non-com­mer­cial risks, and a re­gional pay­ment sys­tem un­der which cross bor­der trans­fer of funds is com­pleted within 24 hours.

The 19th Sum­mit of Comesa pres­i­dents and min­is­ters was pa­per­less. Work­ing doc­u­ments were up­loaded to a se­cure cloud and pass­words pro­vided in ad­vance of the meet­ing to the coun­tries and reg­is­tered par­tic­i­pants. At the meet­ing it­self, the doc­u­ments were up­loaded onto lap­tops and each of the 19 coun­tries pro­vided with three lap­tops, each cost­ing $300 (Sh30,400). The doc­u­ments were saved as well on pen drives, which were pro­vided to par­tic­i­pants. This saved tonnes of pa­per and trees.

The sys­tem was ef­fi­cient and saved time. The sec­re­tariat pre­pared draft re­ports of the meet­ings in ad­vance. The drafts were beamed on three screens each for one of the three work­ing lan­guages of Comesa – French, English and Ara­bic – when the meet­ings were in ses­sion. Sec­re­tariat staff, work­ing in the three lan­guages, then made all the ad­just­ments as the dis­cus­sion hap­pened, in the full view of the meet­ing. This amounted to fi­nal­is­ing the re­ports of the meet­ings in real time in the course of the pro­ceed­ings.

Sec­re­tariat staff was happy to com­plete re­port writ­ing at the end of each ses­sion, agenda item by item, and so were trans­la­tors who were able to com­plete their work ses­sion by ses­sion. For they too did not have to stay up work­ing late into the night on the re­ports as was the case in the past.

Pres­i­dents and min­is­ters were seen crouch­ing at the lap­tops in­tensely read­ing the meet­ing doc­u­ments. Many young of­fi­cials down­loaded the doc­u­ments onto their mo­bile phones and joked about be­ing gen­uinely pa­per­less. It was a risk. It was taken and it paid off. Yet an­other break­through for Comesa.

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