Published on The Trade Post

ePhyto: Promoting safe and efficient trade

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Commercial Maize Farming in South Africa. Credit: By Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock Commercial Maize Farming in South Africa. Credit: By Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock

When it comes to trade in agricultural products, small insects can be a big problem.  Take, for example, the fall armyworm, a crop-damaging pest that the FAO has dubbed a “food chain crisis.” Native to the tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas, fall armyworm was introduced to West Africa in 2016 as eggs on produce and since then, has spread to more than 40 countries – throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and as far as Yemen and India. Fall armyworm feeds on more than 80 different plant species, including maize. The FAO warns that it could threaten the food security of 300 million people in Africa alone who depend on  crops for food and livelihood, and cause significant economic damage – up to US$4.8 billion in lost maize production alone.

Cape Verde is one place where farmers were hit hard as these hungry caterpillars attacked their maize and other crops. What started as a local outbreak near farmers’ houses spread to larger agricultural lands. “We can’t calculate the huge loss,” said Maria Arraujo, one of the farmers featured in an FAO video. Local radio programs warned farmers of possible destruction to their staple crops, but the fall armyworm difficult to control. The devastation left farmers short on food, money and seeds for future growing seasons.

The impact of the fall armyworm could be much greater in developing countries given that some may not have the infrastructure, manpower or budgets to meet quarantine requirements imposed by trading partners in developed countries, particularly Europe and Asia.

The fall armyworm is just one example of a pest migrating across borders via trade, but there are many others. The damage caused underscores the importance of phytosanitary controls and the need to certify plants and products of plants free of pests before they move internationally. Phytosanitary certificates are official documents issued by governments to confirm that shipments of plants and plant products moving in international trade are free of pests and diseases and therefore safe to import.

corn hanging to dry
Drying corn. Ghana. Photo: © Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Tackling plant health in trade: From a manual to automated process

Traditionally, phytosanitary certificates have been issued in the form of physical documents. In this scenario, exporters receive the phytosanitary certificate from the national authority then provide the paper to various intermediaries in the commodity’s chain of custody until the certificate reaches the importer. Importers then transfer the document to the country’s phytosanitary authority usually at the time of importation. This process is time consuming, costly and prone to the certificate being lost, damaged or fraudulently changed.

In recent years, many developed countries have automated the manual paper process and adopted the use of electronic phytosanitary certificates, called ePhyto, to facilitate trade. By removing the need for printing, reproduction, storage, filing, postage, and document retrieval along with administrative costs associated with these functions, businesses can reduce operating costs. With ePhyto, countries can connect their electronic phytosanitary certification systems through a single online hub, like an Internet cloud. ePhyto certificates use  a standard format and enable countries to  exchange certificates quickly, accurately, at a low cost and with multiple countries. But the benefits of going digital extend beyond simply saving money.  

maize seeds
A farmer in West Africa holds maize seeds. Photo: Daniella Van Leggelo-Padilla / World Bank

Benefits for government and traders

ePhyto aims to modernize the phytosanitary certification process and holds tremendous potential for trade facilitation. Beyond cost savings, ePhyto offers three additional key benefits for governments and traders:

  1. Combats fraud and increases transparency: Bringing phytosanitary certificates onto an electronic platform reduces the risk of fraudulent certificates and enables greater transparency into the import/export process.
  2. Saves time: ePhyto enables governments to share official trading information well in advance of a commodity’s arrival. Importing countries save time in determining compliance and can address any documentary issues directly with the exporting authority and can pre-plan their inspections, logistics and testing. Furthermore, ePhyto removes the process of validating a paper certificate’s authenticity, which results in holding the goods at the port of arrival for several hours or days.  For perishable goods, these time delays could mean the difference between a tradable commodity or spoiled produce.
  3. Equalizing access: Many developed countries have implemented ePhyto because they have the resources required for the digital infrastructure and the capacity to negotiate the bilateral arrangements required. However, developing countries are often at a disadvantage when it comes to adopting these technological advances and continue to rely on paper certificates. Support for developing countries to implement ePhyto effectively can help them access  markets that might otherwise be difficult without electronic certificates.    

a pile of corn, with farmers' hands in the background
Gathering corn. Kenya. Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Making ePhyto accessible for developing countries

The International Plant Protection Convention Secretariat (IPPC) undertook a feasibility study on the exchange of electronic certificates. The study recommended the creation of a hub, like an Internet ‘cloud’, to facilitate the exchange of certificates.

In addition, the IPPC is piloting a web-based multi-tenanted platform – a single software application that serve multiple customers - a simple means for countries without the necessary infrastructure to create, send and receive ePhyto certificates. In this way, each country using the application receives its own workspace, but benefits from the economies of scale and simplicity of software production that comes from a multi-tenanted environment. The platform is called the GeNS and the components together are referred to as the ePhyto Solution. It provides a negligible cost option for developing countries to implement ePhyto and allows any country connected to the platform to exchange with any other country connected to it without the need for bilateral arrangements.

The funding to develop and test the hub and GeNS technology was provided by the World Trade Organization's Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), a global partnership that helps developing countries to gain and maintain access to markets by tackling the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) gap, and promoting food safety, animal and plant health. One of the areas of focus of the STDF is increasing the use of electronic SPS certificates, in the context of paperless trade and the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Although ePhyto can result in many benefits for both the public and private sectors, it can be costly to implement. In the past, it has been limited to developed countries that could afford the costs associated with developing individual agreements with each trading partner.  A recent study commissioned by the IPPC estimated that these costs could exceed US$50,000 per connection per country. Therefore, if a developing country trades with 20 countries, it could cost US$1M. This does not include the cost of infrastructure, business process realignment, integration of other existing business systems, etc.

To combat these challenges, the World Bank Group is partnering with the IPPC to support the implementation of ePhyto in developing countries. A critical portion of this work will be assisting countries to integrate the ePhyto technology into their existing infrastructure, into planned government-wide digital initiatives such as single windows and business processes.

The infrastructure behind ePhyto is complex, but the aim is simple. Helping more countries modernize trade processes to recognize digital certifications, the World Bank Group and the IPPC hope to work together stop the spread of future pest epidemics – like the fall armyworm - before they start.


Bill Gain

Global Product Specialist

Shane Sela

Senior Trade Facilitation Specialist

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