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Nigeria, others consider autonomous shipping, e-bill of lading by 2030

By Adaku Onyenucheya
16 November 2022   |   3:58 am
With the global maritime industry evolving towards digitisation and adoption of technological innovations, stakeholders have moved for the implementation of autonomous shipping and electronic bill of lading to improve trade efficiency.

Principal Manager, Legal of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Leonard Onoja (left); Maritime Lawyer, Jean Chiazor-Anishere; President of the Nigerian Maritime Law Association (NMLA), Funke Agbor; partner of Foundation Chambers, Ms. Kashimana Tsumba and Managing Director, Mediterranean Shipping Company, (MSC), Andrew Lynch at the 13th Annual General Meeting and Lecture of the Nigerian Maritime Law Association in Lagos.

• NMLA raises funds to support seafarers
With the global maritime industry evolving towards digitisation and adoption of technological innovations, stakeholders have moved for the implementation of autonomous shipping and electronic bill of lading to improve trade efficiency.

This is coming on the heels of the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) move to effect mandatory convention for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) by January 1, 2028.

Maritime autonomous surface ships are crewless vessels that transport either containers or bulk cargo over navigable waters with little or no human interaction.

Speaking during the 13th yearly general meeting and lecture of the Nigerian Maritime Law Association (NMLA) held in Lagos at the weekend, the Managing Director, Mediterranean Shipping Company, (MSC), Andrew Lynch, said digital switch to electronic Bill of Lading (eB/L), would help the maritime industry move towards reducing the cost of doing business incurred as a result of delay, save time and reduce green house emissions associated with production of physical paper document.

He disclosed that by 2030, 50 per cent of all bills of lading in the world would be electronic, as it is going to ensure safe keeping of documents for future purposes.

Lynch noted that the transition to eB/L, which was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has broadened the outlook of shipping by encouraging reduced human interface as the industry moves into the future.

“By 2030, we expect that 50 per cent of all bills of lading issued by our company and other companies, which are in step with us globally, will be digital.

“This is a relatively new technology as the terms and conditions are the same with the physical bill of lading. It doesn’t change anything at all.

“Signatures can be electronically provided. Almost all the countries in West Africa now have an active eB/L registering on the platform and transacting to some extent.

“Current usage accounts for less than five per cent of our total transactions, but that is still a huge number,” Lynch said.

With only eight years to achieve this feat, Lynch expressed optimism about the transition to the eB/L system, stating that the gains of the transition far outweighs the physical system, which is currently being used.

He added that as the industry looks towards adoption of autonomous shipping for long distance voyages as proposed by the IMO with the mandatory regulations of the MASS underway.

Lynch said the idea of autonomous shipping is still in the conceptual stage as questions regarding the ship’s maintenance, possible collision and safety are issues, which may not permit total autonomy of maritime surface ships.

Also speaking, maritime law expert, Mrs Jean Anishere, stated that with the provisions of section 84:2:4 of the Evidence Act, presentation of electronic documents as evidence in court was tenable to ascertain a claim, hence, the switch to the eB/L system is a step in the right direction for the industry.

Anishere also mentioned that Nigeria, as a member state of the IMO, would adopt the conventions of the MASS when it comes into force, adding discussions on the possibility of maritime autonomous cargo ships should be welcomed.

“With the IMO codes coming into force on January 1, 2028, there will be huge benefits for the industry as it would help to fast track the industry’s development.

“Globally, there are now more than 1,000 autonomous surface ships operating in more than 53 organisations. So, having regulations for autonomous shipping is very key,” she stated.

She said the paper bill of lading could get lost, which could delay the processing, adding that time is money and all the shipping documents could be done digitally.

Anishere said maritime security was vital for infrastructural trade, adding there was need for the Federal Government to intensify more efforts to enable other African countries in the Gulf of Guinea to be aware of piracy policies.

Anishere said autonomous, which would be used for short voyages, would create a lot of jobs for seafarers.

The Director and Head of Africa Practice Incisive Law, Singapore, Wole Olufunwa, said there was a need to change the old way of doing things and reduce human elements in shipping and cargo movement.

According to Olufunwa, autonomous operation will stop all delays in shipping and improve trade efficiency.

The Chief Judge, Federal High Court, Justice, Tsoho Terhembra, who was represented by Mr Olayinka Faji, urged NMLA to get more judges into the association to improve foreigners’ interest in making Nigeria the port of destination.

Terhembra said the availability of more judges would also improve foreigners’ confidence in Nigeria and tackle maritime issues that were begging for attention.

In his key notes address the Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Muhammed Bello-Koko, who was represented by the Principal Manager, Legal of NPA, Leonard Onoja, commended the effort of NMLA for creating solution to some of the challenges affecting shipping operations in the country.

Bello-Koko said NPA would support steps for the establishment of the enabling legal framework for both the Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and the electronic Bill of lading projects.

He said the coming on stream of the Lekki Deep-sea port would boost port operations and see to the deployment of some of the latest technology in port operations.

Speaking earlier, the President of the Nigerian Maritime Law Association, Mrs. Funke Agbor, raised the need for industry stakeholders to contribute to the industry, as it moves towards digitisation.

She said there are risks involved in autonomous shipping that must be dealt with as the world is changing.

“We will look at what they are doing elsewhere and see if there is some legislation we can use that can be adapted to that purpose,” Agbor said.

Meanwhile, the NMLA has solicited financial support to assist seafarers, who face challenging conditions to ensure the global economy keeps moving.

Chairman of the board of trustees to Mission to Seafarers (MTS) in Nigeria, Adebayo Sarumi, said there is a need to pay attention to the mental and physical health conditions of seafarers, who spend close to 90 per cent of their lives onboard ships at sea.

Using Nigerian water bedeviled with risk created by pirate attacks as an example, Sarumi said that seafarers’ work under challenging conditions to ensure the global economy keeps moving.

According to him, there has been a rise in reported cases of seafarers suffering from mental illness, adding that some ended up committing suicide due to frustrations surrounding their lives at sea.

While describing them as essential workers, he said it is the contribution and work of the seafarers that helps to ensure cargo gets to the port of destination.

Describing the responsibility of the mission as humanitarian, Sarumi said the mission in Nigeria needs funds to refurbish its dilapidated centre in Lagos built before Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

The fund, according to him, will be deployed to expand the centre to create more bedrooms, renovate the swimming pool, and build a new jetty, as well as a block of offices, among others.