Race for Automation at the Ports

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In a bid to ensure that the nation’s ports conform with international standards in terms of efficiency, check midstream discharge, piracy, among other sharp practices, government agencies and other stakeholders have keyed into the automation programmes being spearheaded by the Ports Economic Regulator, writes Francis Ugwoke

For the ports industry stakeholders, the current emphasis is on automation of services as the only way to improve trade facilitation. Although, the move did not just start, there has been so much seriousness being shown by every stakeholder to key into the project in recent time. It is seen as the continuation of the port reform exercise started 10 years ago. The automation project which is being spearheaded by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) as the ports economic regulator is to take the level of efficiency to high pedestal. It is coming shortly after the launch of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and the Port Service Support Portal (PSSP) for the agencies and other stakeholders in the ports industry. SOPs and PSSP are the brainchild of the economic regulator to promote trade in the nation’s ports in line with international standard. It is also part of the reform agenda. The two are projects of the Ministry of Transport introduced to achieve best international practices at the ports. SOPs are interpreted as instructions which clarify processes involving every stakeholder in port operation. It is seen as a control measure to check various stakeholders in the ports. It is equally a guide to the trading public on expectations of every agency involved in port operation. PSSP, which is seen as regulatory instrument is a common place where stakeholders or consumers of services can lay their complaints in order to get redress. Domiciled with the NSC, PSSP is an online portal where users of port services can interact with providers of shipping services, including the Ports Regulator. Through this, the challenges faced by any agency or consumers of shipping services can be addressed. SOPs and PSSPs are clearly seen as automation programmes. NSC is championing automation to achieve efficiency at the ports in line with what obtains in developed ports. Automation all over the world, has made both life and business better. It is through such technological advancement as automation that one can remain in any part of the country and operate his or her account irrespective of where it was opened. With automation, one can pay for services and even purchase products within and outside the country without having to go to the bank or shops.

Automation at Ports

In the past, customs brokers or freight forwarders had to spend hours queuing to pay for some charges at the ports without which they cannot clear their goods. Today, they don’t need to visit the shipping companies or terminal operators as they can settle their charges either through direct payment into the accounts of the service providers or transfers. Nobody is still talking of cheque which was the trend before even for payment of duties. It is the same thing for all payments going to the Nigeria Customs Service(NCS). Similarly, the Nigerian Ports Authority(NPA), also collects its fees from the terminal operators and shipping companies electronically. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), has also automated its services so that shipping companies paying for the three percent shipping levy do not encounter any issue. It is in the same way that you may not necessarily have to go to NSC with a hard copy letter to complain about illegal shipping charges, as you can also do so electronically through the PSSP. In the same way, the PSSP is designed for all the stakeholders to interact in a single platform. In effect all have embraced technological development to make trade facilitation easier.

How Automation Checks Midstream Discharge

Recently, the Customs Service launched the Command Control Communication and Intelligence System (CCCIS) in Lagos as part of the automation services. During the programme, the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), described automation as part of the efforts to perfect operational processes at the ports.

Ali said automation of ports operational process by agencies was in line with government’s vision to change the old ways of doing business at the ports. With CCCIS automation, the Navy can monitor for the customs ships discharging midstream. Unlike before, they don’t have to be at the high seas.

“The CCCIS is an additional effort and will enable the Nigerian Navy monitor midstream discharge of un-manifested cargo by vessels on Nigeria waters. Movement of vessels will also be monitored with greater precision to avoid loss of revenue by the federal government.

“The Nigeria Customs believes that the CCCIS will complement other automations already installed and being used by other agencies like the Nigerian Navy that have been assisting Customs on vessel monitoring within Nigerian waters. Other agencies like the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and others. The Shippers Council as port economic regulator is also making efforts at automation that will improve sea port operations. By the time all these systems are fully integrated, port services will become seamless, highly efficient. Revenue leakage will also reduce drastically. Though each federal government agency has its mandate and specific duties, the CCCIS is a welcome development by the Nigeria Customs Service.”

Checking Piracy with Automation

Similarly, the NIMASA Director-General, Dr. Dakuku Peterside, said automation was one sure way to achieve greater efficiency.

Peterside recently told members of the Shipping Association of Nigeria (SAN) that one of the reform agenda of NIMASA includes automation, adding that this will bring about transparency in calculating the three percent levy charged on ships coming into the country.

Dakuku said: “We are automating our payment platform in line with our strategic growth plan to ensure greater efficiency in the payment process. The new process will be integrated with similar platforms of sister agencies in order to correctly ascertain levies chargeable per freight and eliminate the bottlenecks currently being experienced.”

The DG believes that with automation through the launch of satellite system, the criminal activities on the territorial waters could be addressed by the military.

Why Championing Automation

To the Ports Economic Regulator, which has been creating awareness in the shipping industry for every stakeholder to embrace automation, it was the only way to bring the industry at the same level with other maritime nations. In the ports of advanced nations, clearing of goods and services take place without the physical presence of the brokers at the ports. Those at the ports are mainly key security staff, who monitor operations. Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the NSC, Hassan Bello, said with automation at the ports, services, which used to take days can now be completed in a matter of a day.

Bello, who disclosed that the Council plans to spend about N1billion annually on automation commended all other agencies of government for their efforts in automation. He particularly praised the NPA, Customs Service, NIMASA for their efforts in introducing automation in their services, adding that this has made services easier for consumers. Bello disclosed that what is on board now is the aggregation of all the automation to have a Single Window for the country. Bello said: “It is the aggregation of all these automation that would be integrated as unified platform, and we will have National Single Window. So national single window is not built on nothing, it is built on separate system ..but it is integrated. NSC is playing its part in laying out trade facilitation and will be spending about N1billion annually. We encourage others and every stakeholder to embrace automation”. He charged freight forwarders to be part of automation because of their roles in the ports. He added:“We want all the freight forwarders to have ICT interface because automation is the way forward for all. In fact, we have built the system so much so that you cannot be on the offside of automation if you want to be part of the port community system”.