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Why Shippers’ Council is pushing for integrated automation of port services

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Hassan Bello. Photo: SHIPSANDPORTS

With the problem of ports congestion in Nigeria becoming almost intractable, stakeholders in the sector are pushing for automation of all port services as the way out.

The stakeholders argue that although every ports agency including the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), among others, have introduced some degrees of automation into its processes, a lot still needed to be done to reach global standards in shipping services by way of complete integration, as practiced in advanced ports.

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For instance, at a recent webinar, maritime experts in the country were quick to refer to the level of efficiency at the world’s big ports like Shanghai, China and Singapore, which have been able to cope with huge container volumes and vessels on a daily basis.

Shanghai is the largest container port worldwide based on the 2019 throughput. The port handled 4.3 million tonnes in 2019, according to latest statistics published by Statista Research Department. It is followed by the Port of Singapore, which attracts 140,000 vessels annually with 537.6 million tonnes.

The maritime industry contributes seven per cent of Singapore’s GDP and 170,000 jobs, according to statistics. The country also projects that by 2025, the sector is expected to create additional 13,000 jobs.

According experts, a first time visitor to these ports particularly those from developing countries, always marvels at the serene atmosphere in the port environment.

People are not seen loitering around the gates and terminals, as is the case in Nigerian ports. And that is a typical example of what technology can offer in modern port operation. Automation is the key word covering yard management – gates, tracking and tracing, yard cranes, quay cranes, freight forwarding and indeed trucking system. And everything works perfectly with no congestion and breakdown in the port environment.

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The NSC, as Nigeria’s ports economic regulator, wants such a system to be enthroned in the country’s ports system from March 2021.

Speaking at the webinar, Executive Secretary of the NSC, Mr. Hassan Bello, said there has been some level of improvement on automation in Nigerian ports, but insisted that what obtains in advanced ports needed to come to play in Nigerian maritime environment.

He commended the Customs Service for its achievement in the area of automation, but called for the integration of all stakeholders in the sector, including the Customs Service, NPA, NSC, importers, terminal operators and freight forwarders to achieve a 24-hour ports service.

He said: “You know the Customs Service is well ahead on automation; it is the leading government agency. It’s right there. I am really impressed with the Customs Service. So, let’s start with them and then we will bring others on board.

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“One of the things to get rid of corruption is deployment of technology. So, for me, automation is key. For example, it takes six minutes to scan a container but it takes six hours for physical examination or manual examination of container. Which one should we choose?  That is the difference between darkness and light.  It will improve on cargo dwell time. The moment we automate our processes, it will ease all processes in the port and reduce human contact.

“I remember that six years ago, I took some members of Board of Directors of the Shippers’ Council to the port of Singapore, and when we were going round, nobody knew we were at the port and when we came back, some board members asked me, when are we going to the port? Which means they never knew it was the port we went to because there was actually nobody there.

“We need to automate our processes. We want short stay of cargo at the port; five days average cargo dwell time. We want the port to operate 24 hours. When you go to the airport, it never sleeps. So, why don’t we have that at the ports? By weekend, the ports are shut. Nobody goes there; the Customs will not go, agents and even the shipping companies will not operate and that is what is wrong.”

Below noted that digitisation in Nigerian ports currently stands at 65 per cent. He expressed concerns that certain transactions, such as bill of lading and invoicing were not carried out online, saying consultations were on with shipping companies, terminal operators and commercial banks to harmonise the process for effective online integration.

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“Most terminal and shipping companies are online, like 85 per cent and we need to make things more efficient. That is why we want to digitise so that one can exit cargo without going to the port.
“Digitisation is also against corruption. If one does not physically interact, you pay electronically and reduce corruption. It will be cheaper, more efficient and we will be more competitive,” he added.

To the President of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Chief Increase Uche, automation has become very necessary in all facets of ports operation especially against the backdrop of the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to depart from this manual processing of any stage of port operation. This should involve everyone – the banks, the freight forwarders, Customs facilitation, shipping companies, cargo delivery from the terminal. There should be comprehensive integration of all the players. All port operations need digital transformation and the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic should be a major reason the single window implementation must be put into motion to promote automation,” he noted.

He recalled that in 2006 when the ports were concessioned, automation worked for some months with the introduction of ASYCUDA 2.7 by the Customs Service before being scuttled by some unscrupulous officials who felt that they were not making personal money as a result of automation.

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“As at that time, with scanner, once your cargo is on green lane what you require is to go to the terminal and carry your goods to leave. By that nothing is causing you any encumbrance. But at a stage, when the Customs Processing Centre (CPC) discovered that nobody was coming there anymore, and those at the terminals found out that nobody recognised their presence any more, they started posting alerts.

“That was what reversed the whole thing. The CPC that was almost deserted became lively again towards 2008 and early 2009. So that was how automation under ASYCUDA 2.7 was reversed,” he said.

On his part, a maritime expert, Dr. Eugene Nweke, said if Nigerian wants to institute what obtains in other advanced ports, there should be serious commitment on the part of the government to achieve it.

Nweke, who is also a freight forwarder, said an automated port system was expected to, “posses the capacity for unhindered communication via Single Portal which provides for single lodgment process, validation of data, inbuilt security device, prompt business intelligence monitoring and responses, accommodate users templates, minimise efforts for all parties via seamless net-workings.”

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He said Nigerian shippers and port users want an automated port system with wholesome paperless documentation regime in, “port-shipping operations in which submission of documents and processing are done almost instantaneous, reducing man hours and associated delays.”

Nweke was also of the view that what obtains in Nigeria currently was far from the needed centrally driven automation process, referring to the multiplicity of automation efforts by different agencies of the government.

“National automation process is devoid of undue agencies supremacy tussles; it is driven purely on national interests. This is why the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is calling signatory member nations to migrate into the National Single Window concept.”

He observed that the Nigeria Customs Service has a near national automated system, regretting that it was limited to trade.

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“Same goes with the NPA, NIMASA, etc. All of them seem to be driven by core agency objectives, which is a negation of the whole essence of national e-commerce networking amongst the port/shipping companies. Ordinarily, one should expect that this evolution of national port automation process should be a core focus of the Nigeria Shippers’ Council,” he said.

He argued that the Presidential Task For on Ease of Doing Business didn’t achieve much in its campaign on account of non-seamless integrated process, noting that it was imperative to allow the NSC as the ports economic regulator to sustain its advocacy in this direction.

“I must also note that going by what obtains in any country where National Single Window permeates, by WTO/WCO recommendations, the Customs serves and stands as a lead agency to drive the process.

Unfortunately, since emphasis is on seamless trading and trade facilitation and not revenue generation, I doubt if it will be appropriate for the Nigeria Customs to lead; hence, the need to score administrative balance or reconcile the interplay between trade facilitation flexibility and revenue generation rigidity,” he noted.

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