Coronavirus pandemic which hit the world early this year and has continued to cause havoc in health and economic activities globally may have compelled many to rethink on new ways of doing business and remaining safe too. In this chat with SHIPPING DAY, the Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) Mr Hassan Bello, talks about the challenges posed by COVID-19 and measures adopted to facilitate trade all these months. Bello who spoke on a number industry issues, including the progress made in the ongoing dry ports and truck transit parks (TTP) projects identified the current aim to have full automation in all ports operations in Nigeria as coming from the lessons learnt under the pandemic. Excerpts:
What has been the impact of the coronavirus on maritime industry and the lessons learnt by your council on way forward?
Coronavirus is a universal thing. The losses are bound to occur because of large scale disruption in production, in transport and logistics internationally, that is why it is a pandemic. That means it is of global implication. Now, the impact is that we lose revenue because cargo dropped, secondly, because we don’t import certain things or as much as we want because of disruption in the economy of where we import, like China which is where we get about 70 percent of containers had disruptions in their containers. You will see that a lot of things happened even in the Nigerian side – across states, borders were closed, markets were closed, factories were shut. There are also losses in earnings. Hospitality industry, the aviation industry, even construction and so many things were all affected.. They had to lay off staff which means transportation is affected and what affects transportation affects the economy. There will be a kind of deep effect, economy will contrast. But it is not what has happened more that we realised we could do. Shippers Council and other agencies, the instruction from the government to us was to make sure the ports were open and we kept the ports open, may be not optimally. You are aware for one day no terminal was closed. We work day and night, every day we are here, we filled the gap for lack of transportation, we also made the banks to work. We are working with the Nigerian Customs Service to abridge certain processes and procedures so that goods could leave the ports timelessly. And so many things but at the same time, we are looking at the dangers, the port is a red district as far as the virus is concerned, because a port where many people come together which is annoying, any spark will be spread all over. So, we try to contain all that. It is a balance, delicate one that NSC was trying to maintain. Together with NCDC, we carried out sensitization seminar for most of the terminals. So there are two things we did. Number one, we were helping the terminals with their processes by supervising them because the terminals too were affected. Not all the workers in the terminals or shipping companies were there. They were working with reduced strength so the processes and procedures we had to invigilate and see that they are well done. The first one week was terrible but the second week because we were working with the freight forwarders things eased off a little bit, so we were able to also post staff to most of the terminals. They have an eye on the health protocol, another eye on the processes of exiting cargoes and from there we learnt a lot of lessons.
What are these lessons sir?
One is Nigerian ports are not completely digital and that is what we should aim at. We are operating at 60 percent may be or 59 percent so one of our priorities now with other agencies is to digitalise the ports. We have started putting our experiences together. Now the meeting of CEOs of maritime agencies was as a result of the maritime Task Team which the NSC encouraged to set up which was meeting almost weekly in NSC here during the lockdown. We had NPA, NIMASA, NIWA, Customs, Nigerian Navy, Maritime Workers Union, CRFFN which chaired the meeting. NSC and some other agencies and all the associations of freight forwarders are part of the Task Team. So we have concretised that we set up Chief Executives Council Meetings in our Forum. It is a synergy, So it is one lesson and we have pulled one synergy and institutionalised it.
The second lesson is that ports could operate 24 hours if you want it because there was evacuation of cargo during the weekends. This we did with the terminals. I asked the terminal operators to open their terminals on weekend and they happily obliged. I also asked the Customs to be there, and the Comptroller General agreed and deployed staff to work on Fridays, Saturday and Monday that was public holiday. So, we were able to evacuate cargo from the port for a long time. Other agencies when they learnt about it, they were there. Freight forwarders were there. From there, we started seeing that this thing could be done. So we have adopted it among the platform of Chief Executives and a Committee has been set up to look at port operations. I have always said it, if airports could work 24 hours, why not seaports. I know that there could be challenges of power, security, but all these are not insurmountable. Thirdly, NSC realized we could use other means of transportation to deliver and evacuate cargo from the ports. The problem is 90 percent dependent on road with chaotic consequences. That is why we have what many people have now termed as gridlock which is congestion along the roads to the port. Why should the road be the only link to the port, we have the railway and linked waterways. I called the Nigerian Railway Corporation and together we called a train to convey imports and also to carry empty containers and exports to the port. Unfortunately, the train worked for two to three days and there was a problem. During that lockdown, you could see it was operating and also the barges so that is another big lesson that we have learnt. And after the lockdown we have done the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) between the NRC and terminals and about four or five trains will now come in . But you know there could be stoppage here or there, but that is the average. But for every trip about 38 trucks are removed from the road. So that is what has been happening. More important also we made it easy, we negotiated with shipping companies for them not to charge demurrage and container refund for the period of the lock down. And am happy to say that 98 percent compliance has been achieved. We also discussed with trucking companies, they too reduced their charges by 30 percent. So, what I am trying to say is that we are trying to set up a port community system so that everybody is on board and is the role of NSC to coordinate, invigilate and superintend or supervise to ensure that there is seamless transport system.
The plan of your council is to ensure that by the first quarter of next year, there will be total automation, do you think it is achievable considering that there are some elements in the ports who may not want this to work because of personal gains in physical contacts during clearing of goods?
Automation is the way. It must come. The Regulation Department of the Council has given us a report on areas that are already automated and what is the deficit. So many things are done online. NSC has carried out a survey of levels of automation and clearing processes for containerised goods and Roll on Roll Off (RORO) cargo at shipping lines. The result revealed that some agencies achieved over 50 percent and others are 30 percent while six agencies achieved below. So some with over 50 percent, so what we are going to do is to look at what are these areas where there is no digitalisation and we are in the process of talking to them. Then there will be in our CEO meeting – port community system which will soon take off to solve all these problems.
CBN had recently in a circular to banks asked them to stop opening Forms ‘M’ for importers whose payments are routed through a buying company/agent or any other third parties. What is your view on this?
NSC will meet with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and associations of freight forwarder on this. I want to get their aggregate comments and then we look at what the CBN is doing because CBN is doing a lot. I was at the Export Promotion Council recently and this issue came up. But we are still studying this situation and will make appropriate pronouncement.
Can you talk about the progress the Council has made in the dry ports and Truck Transit Park projects?
So much progress is being made. One of the dry port concessionaires has now developed. The one in Kano. They have refinanced the group. They have gotten technical partners. The Kano state government is spending about N2bn on infrastructure. They have already awarded contracts. So the Kano dry port is now back on the front banner. The one that is giving us problem is the one in Abia state. They are very hardworking concessionaires but somehow, I think it has not been done much, but we are looking at things, we are looking at options.
On TTPs, in Lokoja, the Governor is about to pay compensation so that we can advertise the PPP project there. The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja is going to give 108 hectares for TTP along Lokoja – Abaji Local Government Area. That is very promising.