Atacora just successfully imported our first shipping container of our new bulk super foods and body butter, from Benin to our warehouse in Olympia, WA! I would like to explain how incredibly complicated the whole process has been. No one taught us how to go about this, we learned it all experientially and by garnering tidbits of information from people in the business. We are hoping that what we have learned from the experience will make future shipments much easier!!
We imported Baobab Fruit Powder (conventional and organic), Baobab Oil, Neem Oil, Virgin Red Palm Oil, Shea Butter, Moringa Leaf Powder, Fonio, Wild African Amber Honey and hand-woven Timuti Bracelets on a 20 foot container from the Port of Cotonou, Benin to Newark, NJ by maritime freight, then moved the container by rail to Seattle, WA, then on to Olympia by truck…over 6 metric tons in total.
Atacora’s Beninese branch produced the bulk Baobab Powder and Oil in our home region in Northwestern Benin; a process that is for another publication. It had to be sealed in exactly 20 kg plastic bags, then each bag sewn into a grain sack. Two local women’s co-ops produced the Fonio and bracelets, and they were neatly packaged at our facility.
The Palm Oil was produced by and agriculture education group in the Ouèmè province in Southeastern Benin. The Neem Oil was produced at a cooperative in the Collines province center of the country. The Shea Butter was made by a great women’s co-op in the Northeastern Borgou province. The Moringa was grown and packaged by a co-op in the Southeastern Mono province.
Each partner organization had to be vetted by our team to ensure the quality of their product, and that they adhere to Fair Trade practices. Joining forces with like-minded organizations helps to proliferate our Fair Partnership mission and bring benefit to more Beninese families.
God bless Jacob (first and foremost), Abalo and Masta of the Beninese team for supervising production and acquiring necessary materials all over the country! Most of the production went smoothly, except for the Palm Oil, where we discovered an intermediary was trying to skim money off of every detail. Jacob put his foot down, and he was duly shut down. He even tried to get Jacob to participate in his underhanded dealings! What a jerk! When everything was ready to ship, our big truck made the rounds and collected all the material for delivery to the Port.
A past experience using the same intermediary to organize a container shipment was a fiasco in every way. We were not about to do that again. I went directly to the giant international shipping conglomerate, Maersk to see if we could tighten down the system and make things work smoothly. Working with their US branch, we made contact with the Beninese branch for direct payment to their account; no middleman to gum up the works. The Beninese Bureau Chief connected us with a Freight Forwarder who he trusts to take care of documentary details and loading the container. Fair and Square for a clear, contracted price.
Every shipment needs to be accompanied by a commercial invoice, and all packages must be appropriately labelled. On the invoice, each product needs to have a HTS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule, for customs purposes) number and an FDA code. Often, the codes will be governed by precedent and official determinations. Sometimes you just have to figure it out yourself, which can be a real trick.
There was a determination that Baobab Powder was considered as a milled flour product, rather than as dried fruit, as I had done before. This seemed to indicate that we would have to pay a 9.6% entry duty, which would effectively nullify any profit we might enjoy. I asked lawyers and customs brokers what I might do to avoid the charges, and they all seemed to think that I was stuck with it. Being a stubborn New Englander, I did not roll over. I did a TON of research and discovered a loophole referencing various trade agreements, and sure enough, it entered duty-free! Score is Dave 1, US Customs and associated experts, 0!
Based on the invoice, there are some other obligatory documents. First is the Phytosanitary Certificate, which pertains to all botanical products. It shows that they have been sampled and inspected for safety and quality. It is a simple enough document, but I had to send the freight forwarder back to the government issuing office 3 times, because they could not come up with the due diligence to correctly list all of the products to be shipped. They just don’t seem to care that the job is done right. I had exactly the same experience trying to obtain a correct Certificate of Origin. Infuriating, and a waste of valuable time. The container got loaded on the ship, and I got a draft Bill of Lading.
Now, it was time to pay Maersk for the freight, customs and other charges. They gave me incorrect bank information, and the transfer failed. Neither they nor the bank could seem to get me the right, 28 digit IBAN number for the transfer. Even the foreign exchange company I deal with could not figure it out. I called their bank in New York and Paris, to no avail. Finally, I got a hold of someone at the bank in Benin who gave me a number he THOUGHT would work. It SEEMED to work, until the cargo got to the US, and I was told it did not! I went through a whole other round of time-sucking communication to find out that it, in fact did work. The bank had simply not yet credited the account…weeks later! Utter incompetence! Again, none of the experts were much help at all, and my own perseverance saved the day!
The USDA and the FDA put the shipment on documentary hold, but it did clear customs quickly. These holds could be easily resolved, or be a giant pain in the neck or even a total disaster. Everything cleared just fine! WHEW!