Stuck with an unexpected import bill – 4 tips for less financial risk

Banana Leaves - unexpected import bill -packaging material - Import bio-security

They trucked the crate elsewhere for fumigation because it was too large for airport facilities. The banana leaves inside were a definite no-no.  It took me some time to recoup this unexpected $1,200 fumigation import bill.  

So why banana leaves after four perfect imports?

I source direct from small cooperatives and the crate contained ebony carvings from Tanzania. I had all export paperwork including a certificate of origin and fumigation. 

This was my fourth import with all paperwork correct.  Why the banana leaves this time? And why did I get stuck with an unexpected import bill?

It came down to expectation and trust. 


A strong belief that something will happen or be the case.


Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

Things went well and I expected and trusted it to continue. I developed complacency and took my eyes off the ball.  There were pitfalls I did not prepare for.  

I took my eyes off the ball and I ended up financially disadvantaged with an unexpected import bill.  Cover these four bases and you may lessen financial risk in trading with overseas makers.

Base 1 –  Know the import rules for your own country

The Australian Border Force is a good resource on how to import.

Australia has strict import conditions to protect its bio-security. It prohibits some goods and others must meet stringent tests. Glazed ceramics for example need a certificate on levels of metal release. Pencils, brushes and painted toys must meet tests for toxic compounds.

Fair trade handmade products may contain natural materials like raffia, timber, paper pulp with leaves/flowers, cork, cane, bamboo etc. These all carry bio-security risks.

It is important to know that import products without a required BICON import permit, results in export or destruction of the goods.  

Some developing countries also receive preferential rates on import.

Base 2 – Know the product you want to import

This is not as simple as it sounds.  I wanted to import zebra skin cushions and ran into a snag. Some zebras as protected and as I was unclear about the zebra type I could not get an import permit.

I ask these questions before every purchase:

  1. What is it made off
  2. What is used to finish it (oil, wax, lacquer, paint – every treatment of a product)
  3. Where does it come from (rule out illegal logging, child labour, trade restrictions etc)
  4. How is it made (mass produced, machine made, handmade etc)
  5. Is it combined with other materials (embellishments like shells, different type of woods for detail etc)

If you wait until the items have left the country then you run the risk of an unexpected import bill. Or you may loose the items altogether.

If you have a question about bringing goods into Australia, I recommend contacting the Australian Border Force.

Base 3 – Know the export requirements of your maker’s country

For export, wood items from Tanzania need a Phytosanitary Certificate and Certificate of Origin. The Australian Border Force has strict fumigation rules. I recommend checking with them if the in-country treatment for your products meets the standard.  Painted or sealed products fumigated overseas may not meet Australian requirements as the treatment must penetrate fully.

Tanzania publishes export requirements for some products online which eases the process for importers overseas. Online research for information is one approach. I recommend talking to a fair trader who imports already. You will find that fair traders are willing to share information.

Base 4 – Know your maker’s capacity to deliver what you ordered

I ordered a box of wood carvings from an artist who lives in a rural area of Tanzania.  The nearest export permit office was 500km away, a 3-day round trip. He could not do it and engaging an agent for his small consignments was not financially viable for me. I cancelled the order unfortunately.

Competencies include literacy, numeracy, access to photocopier, ability to be away from family, local transport, phone credit, online access, time perception, support network, packaging material etc.  

Some makers I order from send items to America and Europe and they assume it is the same for Australia.  This influences their policies on minimum orders and packaging. It is up to you as the importer to communicate about regulations. It will build their capacity to do business with others and supports the principles of fair trade.

Why the banana leaves got in

Back to my box with banana leaves. I used a different person to arrange the crating. This person had a mobile phone and I could monitor progress. With the export paperwork in order and banana leaves accepted as packaging material for export the consignment left.

Even with the better communication I should have mentioned the packaging material restrictions.  I did not and ended up with an unexpected import bill.  I took my eye off the ball.

“Every time I run into an issue with my business I focus on how to avoid it from happening again. Taking my eye off the ball is human, learning from it builds my capacity. “

Carina – Nov 2019
Stuck with an unexpected import bill – 4 tips for less financial risk

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