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Honduras: New automation policy streamlines export of fresh tomatoes

Stranded at the border between Honduras and El Salvador enduring 40 degrees temperatures, Ricardo Melgar could only think about his tomatoes slowly rotting. His truck was carrying eight tonnes of tomatoes, from Comayagua, ready to be delivered in the central market of San Salvador. However, a simple error in the handwritten export documents would cost him time and money. He would have to spend the night at the border, waiting for the customs office to open in the morning so they could fix this mess.

"A single mistake could cost us eight to ten hours. This meant having to pay the driver an extra night and, in many occasions, having to lose the entire cargo," he recalled. Ricardo Melgar coordinates the administrative procedures of 17 small Honduran exporters and has spent countless sleepless nights camped at the border due to bureaucratic obstacles.

All this changed in September, when the Government of Honduras with the support of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) launched a new program that connects three computer systems to streamline the process of obtaining an export license. Now, more than 700 Honduran companies that sell abroad can get their permits in a single day. By helping government agencies to more efficiently interconnect, the new system reduces bottlenecks and excessive delays that limited trade flows. Facilitating trade and economic integration are very important issues in Honduras, where more than 59 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

"It's a new world," says Lorena Facussé, president of the Vesta Group, a Honduran logistics company that handles more than 2,400 trucks per month. Up until September, the company needed a small army of people to face three governmental institutions that would write the export permits by hand. The result was that it often took up to three days for a single shipment to be cleared for export. "I never thought I would see these three institutions working together, we are now saving up to $ 30,000 per month," admits Facussé.

Besides reducing time and costs for companies, the new process is also more secure and transparent, since the institutions can now share and process all of the exporter's information in live time. Honduran exporters are now able to enter the information for the customs administration and the environmental health and veterinary certificates in one form instead of filling multiple documents.

"I currently write all the information of each shipment on my computer and all of the institutions involved receive the data instantly," said Melgar. "This eliminates the possibility of human error in the process and ends the uncertainty."

The agencies that have begun to share information in live time are: The Electronic System for Foreign Trade of Honduras (Centrex), the Automated System for Customs Revenue Administration (DIA) and the Department of Agriculture - National Agricultural Health Service system (Senasa).

Although there are still some paper documents that need be submitted in person, Ricardo Melgar recognizes that the new system has changed almost everything. His tomatoes no longer rot, but arrive on time, at a competitive price, to the central market of El Salvador. He is g new partners, started hiring employees, and can finally sleep at night.

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