Hio Sola-Usidame: How OnePort365 Is Pioneering Digitalising Freight in Africa
In this Interview with Nosa Alekhuogie, the founder of OnePort365, Hio Sola-Usidame, talks about the digitisation of the freight space, the company’s expansion plans and other issues. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about you and OnePort365?
I am the founder of Oneport365, and we are the first digital freight forwarder in Africa whereby you can book containerised cargo that moves across the borders in and out of Africa. You can make bookings instantly via our booking platform. It is the first of its kind. We started One port 365 about two years plus, and it has grown fantastically well over the last couple of years. We are now backed by Toyota and CFAO; we have grown from a small start-up having just five business-to-business (B2B) accounts to having fifty corporate accounts as of Q2 this year. So now, what we see ourselves doing is what we call a Pan African solution, so it is not just a Nigerian thing. We have expanded across the continent, we now have a physical presence in Nigeria, we are expanding into Kenya, we should be established in Q4, and before the end of the year, we should be in four countries in Africa in reality. So, it is a fantastic thing we are doing out there being able to streamline the cross-border trade process, and that is a major plus for us at One Port 365.
What other growth plans do you have for global expansion, especially in Africa?
Like I said, it is a pan-African solution. We are solving the challenges for cross-border traders in Africa. When you look at the export and import process around other parts of the world, Africa has the biggest challenges. For example, in Nigeria, let us say you are talking about a mid-scale commercial trader who exports ginger from Kano, you deal with this guy, but first, you must deal with insecurity and then you have to deal with mobilisation and getting their cargo to a warehouse. A typical trade process in Nigeria is that you pay one year’s rent. This guy is in season for just four months in a year so why pay one year’s rent? That is what led us to launch things such as instant warehousing. You can book a warehouse for less than two weeks or, say, about a week via One Port 365.
In every ten shipments that we do via our platform, we have about four requests for instant warehouse or short-term warehousing because it is a massive need.
So, they have to get that into the warehouse, in most cases, they have to go through the packaging process to get this cargo ready to move. Then typically what they must do is that they reach out to trucking companies and in every ten trucking companies they reach out to, at best two turn up. In trying to do that, they have to get the cargo to the port of exit, which might be in Lagos, Onne or Port-Harcourt and in there, they have to get the shipping lines to send emails or get clearing agents to send emails to shipping lines to say they want to get a quote for this cargo that is leaving let’s say from the port of Lagos to the port of Qingdao in China. Now that process takes about five days just to get ocean rates across the different shipping lines and for cargo to move from, let us say, Kano, to get on a vessel, it can take up to three weeks. To make that booking can take as long as 10 to 14 days.
We are building a platform like what you have in your travel experience, instant booking, and instant quotes across a wide variety of products involved in the freight forwarding space, which is a critical mission for us. Apart from the solution being pan-African, we are also very product driven, solving these challenges that exist for these guys. At One Port 365, we have been able to integrate payment solutions whereby with just twenty thousand dollars via the platform, whoever is involved in that transaction gets paid instantly. Also, there is a lot of theft in the system as cargoes just disappear in transit because these guys are poorly paid. These guys do not know the repercussions of what they are doing. The losses are large and there is a lot of criminality in the system. What we are saying is if you can buy an iPhone and track it until it gets delivered to you at your doorstep, why can’t a container carrying goods worth $100,000 be tracked? It is critical for us how we solve that challenge.
Leveraging technology, what are you doing differently from others in freight management?
When we say digital freight forwarding, it is critical that the word digital is emphasised. What we need to emphasise or what we need to highlight is the fact that what makes a digital experience? The digital experience needs to start from how the booking is being done for this cargo. So, what I tell people is that there is nothing digital about a process whereby a customer wants to make a booking currently and then he has to make a phone call or send an email to make that booking which is why the first thing we were keen to challenge was saying, when a customer wants to make a booking for cargo, to move from point A to point B, how does he make that booking which is very critical and that’s why we keep using the example of airlines. You do not go on a platform to want to make an enquiry about tickets from Lagos to New York, and they say send in a request, we would call you back in five-days-time then there is nothing digital about that.
For us, the booking experience is critical. We need to emphasise that instant quotes and instant booking are critical things that we must deliver to the market. That is our pioneer concept in Africa. There is no one else who has done it. The guy who is moving cargo cross border, who is based in Kano, we are saying he should be able to jump on the platform, make that booking and be able to say, hey, I’ve got 10 containers that are moving from Kano, and they are going to the port of Hamburg in Germany, I want to be able to see my price right now, compare between different shipping lines the same way you can drop on Expedia and compare five to ten shipping lines and say this one works for me because it takes a faster transit time and despite it being expensive, I would pay for it. So, we are very keen and critical to solve that challenge around the booking process, and that is why we said technology is the key driver, and then we said no one else delivers that currently in terms of competition, and that is critical for us.
You landed a $5M seed funding to digitise freight management in Africa. How has the journey been so far?
Since the fundraising, we have gone a long way. It has driven a lot of our expansion across Africa and Pan Africa in terms of being able to open in Ghana and being able to work on transactions in terms of being able to set up a footprint in Kenya. It has also helped a lot in terms of international partnerships. We are focused on door-to-door delivery. So, cargo exported from Kano can be delivered to a warehouse in Hamburg. For us, we would not be in every country, but we need to have partners who can deliver at the location of origin or the location of a destination in the quote. So, that has really helped in that. It has also helped a lot in terms of technology deployment and in terms of our ability to digitise a lot of the processes. In terms of funding, we had a tech team of about three to four guys. Now we have a tech team of double digits who are working on various products, different market lines, and product lines based on the sort of products that we are talking about to solve issues around booking, payments, documentation, and visibility. It also helped us support what we call small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) commodity traders.
Based on the funding, we were able to provide what we call a trade finance line to these guys. For so many of these guys, what simply happens is, say, they have N10, and in that N10, they use N6 as their custom dues, and they use N4 to finance their freight. What happens is that if you are making a booking via the platform, you can apply for trade finance. We are not going to fund the cost of goods, but if we do a credit check on them and they are successful with the credit check via OnePort365 or a third party because we have other guys who also provide trade finance on the platform, we can say; trader B, buy your commodities worth N10, we will finance the N4 and basically, your cargo is put on a vessel, we will finance everything. Once we hand over the documents to you, you can pay us in 14 to 28 days.
You launched a tracking technology recently. How efficient has it been, and what is your biggest challenge?
The tracking is for traders who book via Oneport365. There are also two aspects of tracking: inland container tracking and there’s port-port tracking. Visibility is a major challenge for us. What we do is deploy trackers to track the containers and not the trucks. Of the trucks, only about 20 per cent have trackers, and the truck owners are not big on them. Some will say they trust their drivers and all that stuff until things go wrong.
For port-port tracking, irrespective of whether you book via our platform or not, you can track what is going on with your container right from it entering the terminal of the port down to when it arrives at the port of destination.
In terms of what our biggest challenge is, it the Japa situation, and the reality is, talent is hard to come by in the market. Day by day, a lot of people in terms of fantastic talent are leaving the country, so recruiting capable hands is a challenge for us. Another one is the congestion at the port, but currently, it has calmed down a bit. The current Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) team has done an excellent job so far.
You said the future of freight is digitisation. Can you shed light on this?
Digitisation makes a lot of issues and challenges simpler and easier to do. What we are saying is you do not need to make a phone call or send an email, you can just generate a quote straight away, and you can do it on our platform. I understand some people will still want to use the pen and paper method but what you realise is that the world is a global village, and that method has been eased out to a considerable extent. Everywhere in the world, there is what you call global standards in terms of expectations, so whether we like it or not, digitisation has come to stay and become a new norm. The ecosystem will build up to a point whereby that is what is going to be the norm, and that is why we are super excited about what we do.