Professor John Manners-Bell, Chief Executive of market research organisation, Ti, recently moderated a Special Session at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva as part of UNCTAD’s ‘e-Commerce Week’. The session, entitled e-Commerce and Trade Logistics: New Challenges and Opportunities for International Transport and Trade Facilitation, involved industry experts, practitioners, trade and governmental representatives from around the globe.

In his introductory remarks, Manners-Bell set out the importance of e-commerce for both developed and developing nations.

‘Not only is the e-commerce logistics market vast in size, but it is also growing extremely quickly. According to Ti’s latest report on the subject, Global e-commerce Logistics 2017, the market grew at 18.1% in 2016 and is set to expand with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.6% between 2016 and 2020. Asia Pacific is the largest region but also, perhaps surprisingly to many, Africa is forecast to grow the fastest over the coming years. Cross-border sales are playing an increasingly important role in this segment, making up a fifth of total volumes.’

However, he warned that there were many barriers holding back the international market’s growth prospects and consequently reducing the benefits of economic growth in the developing world. ‘The private and public sector needs to address considerable challenges if the full potential of e-commerce is to be exploited. Inadequate technology and transport infrastructure, unreliable power supplies, undeveloped financial processes combined with fragmented legal systems, bureaucracy and disparate taxation policies are preventing the economic benefits being shared equally around the world. This has been called ‘asymmetric access’ and there is the risk that the gap between developed and developing countries widens.’

He went onto highlight the opportunities which e-commerce presents. ‘By reducing these barriers, developing nations will be better able to participate in international value chains, improve their market efficiencies, lower transaction costs and create higher value employment.’

The Session concluded that considerable progress also had to be made in other regions. All Customs organisations are struggling to deal with traditional volumes, let alone with increased e-commerce shipments. Minimum thresholds for duty (‘de minimis’) which countries levy on imported goods need to come into line and be increased to allow for frictionless trade. Efforts to harmonize customs and import documentation processes through ‘single window’ initiatives are on-going, although in many cases progress has been slow.

Speaking after the event, Manners-Bell added, ‘There is a lot to do to make cross-border e-commerce and trade more efficient. Unfortunately the protectionist headwinds which we are seeing will only hinder the economic benefits which could be released.’