Customs Clearance at Tabanovce

SAI inspection facility at Tabanovce (North Macedonia-Serbia border). Photo: Shane Sela/World Bank

Banana importing is big business in North Macedonia. Whilst the country imports US$54 million in fruits from around the world, bananas represent 30 percent of this. Yet, not long ago, Azem Ismaili, Manager and Owner of Atlantik Dooel, a local fresh fruit and vegetable import company, was at the end of his tether. The quality of his bananas was being affected by the clearance wait time at the border, and by the time they reached their destination, they were often spoiled. This was costly for Ismaili’s business.

These delays not only impacted his business, but also the entire supply chain. “After clearance, the bananas arrive at our warehouse in Skopje and are then delivered to clients nationwide. The inefficiencies in the clearing process impacted the whole chain: we lost, the markets lost, and the agents lost. We also lost clients due to these delays,” Ismaili said.

Things have changed since then. As part of a new and improved process, low-risk fruits and vegetables such as bananas receive expedited entry, whilst those imported from the European Union, Turkey, Asia, and Latin America require only document checks. “Before, all products regardless of what they were, required identity and physical checks. This was time consuming and risky for our goods,” added Ismaili.

A tariff list now categorizes commodities based on their risk level – only those that present the highest risk receive phytosanitary inspections, testing, sampling, etc. North Macedonia is the first country in the Western Balkans to develop a rigorous, methodological risk management approach for the import of plants.

These recent improvements spearheaded by North Macedonia’s State Agriculture Inspectorate (SAI) – the country’s authority for phytosanitary measures – have helped tackle clearance issues for perishable goods at the border. SAI, like many sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) agencies around the world, is faced with managing the risks of increasing regional and international trade. 

With support from the World Bank Group via IFC, the agency developed a more risk-based approach for the import of plants and plant products. The new and modernized process has led to smarter and more effective ways of working within SAI. Ultimately, it has resulted in faster, easier and cheaper clearance procedures for traders.

A team of local and international IFC experts spearheaded this effort over more than two years. They started with sharing information about best practices on risk-based border controls for phytosanitary border agencies, provided a series of trainings, and worked closely with SAI staff to develop the standard operating procedures.


“This new approach makes SAI a leader in the Western Balkans. The agency is now able to leverage limited resources more efficiently and with greater impact. Other plant protection agencies in the Western Balkans have taken note and have expressed their interest in emulating this approach,” said Violane Konar-Leacy, IFC’s team leader.


Manual for inspectors

A new electronic manual, developed by IFC in conjunction with a small and dedicated team at the SAI, has been especially helpful. The manual guides the implementation of the new operating procedures at the border, while covering topics like legislation, risk prioritization of plant commodity classes, inspection of documents, sampling for laboratory testing, and others.

Prior to the manual, the process was highly reliant on individual expertise of officers at each border crossing. “It contains all the necessary information. Now we don’t have to ask anybody for advice,” said Ljupcho Djalev, SAI Senior Inspector, working at the Greece/North Macedonia border. Djalev added that earlier all shipments were treated the same because it was challenging to know what constituted low versus high risk. “Everything was stopped, checked, and then released.”

Biljana Taleska, Head of Phytosanitary Inspection at SAI, agreed, recalling, “I used to receive dozens of calls a day from inspectors at the border clarifying processes and requirements. This too would slow procedures at the border, as officers waited to ensure that the action taken was in line with other offices.”

Once the manual was finalized, training was rolled out for border inspectors to introduce it and implement the new guidelines. The new approach is now delivered by all border inspectors. It helps the agency to provide a more transparent and consistent service while focusing on what matters most at the border – high-risk commodities.

For new inspectors, the manual has made their jobs easier. Vesna Velinovska is an assistant inspector with SAI at the Bulgaria/North Macedonia border and is a new staff member. “In the manual, everything is nicely explained. Diagrams illustrate the procedures and are easy to understand. If you just follow the steps, you get the job done well and very quickly.”

The new risk management processes bring North Macedonia closer to international trade standards, such as the European Union regulations, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement, and the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, but also help in reducing food waste. “SPS measures are very important for protecting human and environmental health but can also be a barrier to trade when operational procedures are inefficient. SAI’s work in eliminating these inefficiencies allows trade to flow more freely and to reduce spoilage losses” said Shane Sela, Senior Trade Facilitation Specialist, World Bank Group.

For SAI, the manual is a living document that continues to grow and respond to needs of the organization but also to the needs of traders and inspectors interacting at the border. “As gaps are raised to headquarters, the manual gets updated and delivery becomes even more consistent,” said Taleska. “In the world of SPS, things are always changing. Having a central tool to understand the current environment allows us to be more effective and efficient in our work and ultimately, more responsive to traders’ needs.”

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This World Bank Group project was implemented by IFC with funding from the Trade Facilitation Support Program (TFSP). The TFSP is funded by nine donor partners: Australia, Canada, the European Commission, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and the United Kingdom.