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Concept Note

African Continental Conference on the Harmonized System

EU-WCO Programme for Harmonized System in Africa

23 – 24 November 2021

WCO Headquarters, Brussels (online meeting)


Introduction and background

The World Customs Organization (WCO) will host the first Continental Conference on the Harmonized System (HS) for Africa, in collaboration with the Secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), on 23 and 24 November 2021, in a virtual format. The Conference is funded by the European Union (EU) within the framework of the EU-WCO Programme for Harmonized System in Africa (HS-Africa Programme).

The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System, commonly known as the Harmonized System (HS), is an international trade nomenclature that classifies all goods based on a set of rules that is the same for all countries. The intent of the HS is to facilitate international trade, to streamline the collection of data and statistics, as well as to standardize trade documentation and information exchange. Customs tariffs of more than 200 economies world-wide are based on the HS.

The success of the Harmonized System owes much to its built-in review mechanism whereby the HS Nomenclature is regularly updated. This allows to adapt the HS to changes in technology and constantly evolving patterns of international trade. So far six editions of the HS have been implemented.

On 1 January 2022, the new version of the Harmonized System enters into force. This means that Customs tariffs, all other HS-based instruments and IT-management systems must be migrated to the new standard. Some organizations find this task daunting and are at risk of missing the deadline for implementing the required changes.

Almost all African countries are Contracting Parties to the HS Convention and thus have an obligation to use the latest HS version. With the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area, this obligation has been further reinforced as under the AfCFTA Agreement State Parties undertake to adopt Customs tariff nomenclatures and statistical nomenclatures which are in conformity with the latest applicable version of the HS.

The AfCFTA is already a reality with trade under the agreement officially started on January 2021, laying the foundation for liberalized single market and ultimately a continental Customs union. African countries that ratify the agreement agree to liberalize 90% of tariff lines. This means that countries will reduce, and eventually eliminate, tariffs on 90% of products traded under the AfCFTA. The Harmonized System, beyond being the essence for cross-border trade, is relevant on other key aspects of the operationalization process of the AfCFTA, namely with regard to rules of origin, tariff negotiations and data collection for non-tariff barriers.

In the African continent, experience from the implementation of the current (2017) version of the Harmonized System has shown that there are discrepancies in the application of the HS, with some countries still applying the HS 2007 or HS 2012 and others having big delays in implementing the HS 2017. With the advent of the AfCFTA it is of utmost importance to ensure harmonisation and that all countries engage to implement the HS 2022 and future versions in a coordinated and timely manner.

The objective of the Conference is to create a platform for a wide audience of stakeholders, both from the public and the private sectors, to address a broad range of issues around the implementation of the HS 2022 amendments in Africa and tariff-related work in general, to ensure that both Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and individual Members alike are well informed about the upcoming changes in the HS and feel confident about the road to take.

These issues will be discussed in a broad context of regional and continental integration and trade liberalization dynamics in Africa, in particular, the advent of the AfCFTA, as well as the trade facilitation agenda under the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and Customs modernization processes.

Event title

African Continental Conference on the Harmonized System.

Dates, schedule and format

The Conference will be held over two days, on 23 and 24 November 2021. Conference sessions will be held between 12.00 p.m and 3.00 p.m., in an online format.

First day: Directors General and experts sessions

Second day: Experts sessions


The Conference is organized by the WCO, in cooperation with the AfCFTA Secretariat, within the framework of the HS-Africa Programme funded by the European Union.

Target audience

Representatives of international organizations, Customs administrations, relevant government agencies, RECs, traders, Customs brokers, academia, international expert community.


English, French and Portuguese interpretation.

        What to take from the Conference

Participants will benefit from presentations and insights by policy makers, senior managers and international expert community on the most urgent and acutely relevant issues related to the HS, tariff classification work and the role of the HS as an enabler of the regional and continental integration in Africa.

The Conference will be a platform of information on the new version of the HS, the tools and instruments supporting its use, and of the best practices in the areas of HS implementation and digital transformation of Customs work. It will also be an opportunity to deepening participants’ understanding of the renewed commitment to regional and continental integration in Africa under the AfCFTA and the role of the HS in this process.

About the EU-WCO HS-Africa Programme

The EU-WCO Programme for the Harmonized System in Africa (HS-Africa Programme) is a multi-stakeholder initiative, funded by the European Union and implemented by the World Customs Organization. The anticipated outcome of the Programme is that partner African countries implement and apply the 2022 version of the HS, in line with the HS Convention, relevant international standards, and in conformity with continental and regional commitments. The longer-term objective is to provide African countries and other stakeholders involved in the HS implementation process with the required organizational capacities and resources to apply future HS versions in a timely and coordinated manner throughout the respective regions and the entire continent. By the launch of the programme in 2018, it has been recorded that only 28 African countries were implementing the HS 2017, as of now and with the support of the programme 49 countries in Africa are implementing the HS 2017 and the objective is that by 2022 all African countries apply the HS 2022.

Organizations interested in technical assistance, capacity building or partnership are invited to contact the Programme team at wcoHSAfrica@wcoomd.org.