DHL + Customs = a lethal mix!

DHL + Customs: A Recipe for Delays

While I was successfully bullying the dreaded container of Kyoto Box solar cookers through Customs in Mombasa, people from the same useless government institution were doing their best to delay our business in Nairobi.

Kyoto Flash torchlight, by Jon Bøhmer
Kyoto Flash torchlight, by Jon Bøhmer

A consignment of our latest product, the Kyoto Flash Mini torchlights is currently on the way to Kenya by sea.  As we wanted to have samples out in the market well ahead, Jon Bøhmer had 200 of them flown in with DHL.

As we deal with solar energy, the products we bring in are 0-rated (no import duty and no VAT), as the government wants to promote the growth of renewable energy in Kenya. The Customs Service Department (note the irony of including the word “service” in that name!), on the other hand, perceives it as a direct and malicious attack on them whenever someone actually attempts to bring in something 0-rated. Information about how to proceed to actually get the 0-rating is also meticulously withheld, to prevent people from using those procedures, that is, unless they are ready to pick a fight.

When the torchlights arrived in Kenya, about a month ago, the first encounter with Customs was that a C52 form was needed. To delay things, they require that the form be stamped with the company seal. A signature is not enough. My boss being out of the country, and the stamp being at his home already delayed things by a few days, as I was informed about that requirement on a Friday afternoon. No chance to get it stamped and delivered until Monday. Thanks, dear Stone Age people in Customs. I love you too!

Monday: DHL of course did not contact me in the morning, but I had expected the need for following up anyway.

“I will need a banker’s cheque”, the lady at the imports department told me.

“For what?”

“KSh 83 000 for import duty”

“Did you read the accompanying documents? These are solar products. They are 0-rated!”

“Really? I didn’t know that..”

No more feedback from DHL that day or the next day, and no meaningful answer to be extracted during my follow-ups.  On Wednesday somebody called me to confirm whether I was contesting the import duty on the shipment.

“No. There’s no import duty – or VAT for that sake, so there’s nothing to contest. Can you kindly get this cleared and deliver it?”.

He said he would get back to me, which he actually did towards the end of the day. Quite impressive indeed!

To get the exemption from the import duty, an exemption PIN from the Kenya Revenue Authority was required. For something that is supposed to be 0-rated in the first place!

It took them until the next Monday to get the exemption PIN (pushed by frequent, and increasingly angry follow-ups from my side).

From there, it took them another full 3 weeks to get the shipment cleared, and it would probably have taken 3 months had I not been on the phone with them every day during that time.

By that time, I had learned that the only thing that moves things through Customs is ruthless bullying. That may include sitting down at people’s offices, refusing to leave before you get what you want, and even storming offices, interrupting meetings, to avoid queuing all day. The only thing you cannot do, is to respect the procedures because you’ll be stuck forever!

Finally, my last piece of patience was gone. I told my contact person in DHL that I believed someone in Customs was deliberately sabotaging the entry to extract a bribe and that I perceived DHL to have done nothing to push it through.  I gave them a deadline until the end of the day to have the shipment cleared, failure to which we would involve a lawyer, at DHL’s expense, to get a court order forcing customs to release the torchlights, as they had no authority to hold 0-rated goods for that long in the first place.

Whether the threat really worked, or whether Customs had simply decided to get serious, I will probably never know. The next morning, though, I received a call with pleasant news from DHL: The torchlights were through Customs, and were going to be delivered later the same day.

I was hardly surprised when I called them again later in the afternoon, wondering where my package was: “Sorry, we can’t deliver it until tomorrow morning!”.

No delivery and no phone call the next morning, so I called them again.

At first, they insisted that someone had tried to deliver it in the morning, but that no one was there.

“Why didn’t anyone call?”

“Your phone was off.”

“It has been on the whole time. That phone number is never switched off, so I doubt he even tried calling! Now, get him to turn around wherever he is, and bring me my stuff ASAFP!!”

“OK. Can you please give me your address and telephone number, sir?”

That question didn’t exactly add to the credibility of their claims: So they had tried to deliver it, I hadn’t been there, yet they weren’t even sure whether they had the correct address or phone number!

By the afternoon, I still hadn’t received anything, so I called again, this time demanding to speak with a manager.  The gentleman on the other end was obviously reading the same statements in the system as the lady I had previously spoken with. First, he repeated the same claims, that they had tried delivering it to some address that they weren’t even sure of. When I asked what address that was, he told me he couldn’t see that in the system, so I really wondered where, or if at all, they had tried delivering it.

“We can deliver it between 7 and 8 tonight, sir”.

“That will be too late.  I won’t be in”.

“OK, then we will deliver it tomorrow”.

“This has already taken more than 4 weeks, and DHL did nothing to push this through Customs! We have customers waiting for the samples, and I’m not willing to lose another day. Get a driver to pick up the package now, and send him over! I want it here within 30 minutes!”

“All our drivers are out, sir”

“Then get a taxi!”

“Will you pay for that, sir?”

“Are you joking?! This is a door-to-door delivery, that you have taken 1 month to bring in, that you have failed twice to deliver when you said you would, and now you want ME to pay more? GET IT ON THE ROAD, NOW! AT *YOUR* EXPENSE!!!”

Less than 45 minutes later, the taxi driver called, because he couldn’t find the way, so I had to meet him at the nearest petrol station.

My threat about getting a court order, and forcing Customs to release the shipment, wasn’t an empty threat, by the way. After discussing this with several lawyers, I have realized that it’s a very real option, and probably the best one. Attempting to deal with Customs through the ordinary channels is a massive waste of time when bringing in zero-rated goods anyway! This time, it was a door-to-door delivery, so storage costs while clearing Customs were covered by DHL. For containers through the port, a 1-month delay means thousands of dollars in demurrage and CFS storage costs, more than the lawyer fees required to get a court order.

This was my second experience with Customs, and a 3rd shipment is already stuck with them. I have always found it a bit weird that any imported goods are so expensive in Kenya. Having seen how Customs operates, I am no longer surprised, as I now know what it takes to bring in anything!


  1. Denis August 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Hi Howard, I’m sorry to hear about your frustrations while dealing with our customs and DHL at the same time. I personally want to start importing some computers & accessories and its wonderful to learn from someone who has jumped a few ropes ahead 😛
    I always thought that DHL were the best people in handling imported cargo? I think I will opt for EMS or something….new computers are zero rated so I think this will be a good thing but like you have mentioned that in order to get things moving in the customs I will be sure to threaten them with a court order..
    Great site with loads of information by the way!

  2. kyle September 3, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Hilarious! and totally accurate. Every part of doing business in Kenya is like that. It is impressive that you managed to do all of this without bribing anyone. Definitely that would grease the rusty rollers of Kenyan bureaucracy. Very impressive.

  3. Irene January 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Am sorry for what you went through but am glad you pulled through it. Thanks for the post, I have learnt a lot and I will be sure to put it into practice.


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