There are strong indications that the Nigerian seaports is set to be as competitive as their counterparts in developed economies following the digitalization measures being adopted by the current management of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) led by its Managing Director, Ms Hadiza Bala Usman , says SHOLA FADEYI in this write up.
The Nigerian Ports will soon become much more efficient and technologically transformed to offer improved services to their customers and as such emerge as the first choice of destinations for seaports in West and Central Africa or clinch the much sought after Transshipment base for countries in the sub- region.
This is sequel to the resolve of the youthful NPA Managing Director, Hadiza Bala Usman to further modernize the organization’s operations and the speed at which it is deploying the instrument of digitalization in all its ramifications towards the development of the ports to enable them conform to global standard.
Though, Usman is not a digitalization, automation or an information computer technology (ICT) expert, however the fact that her first and second degrees were in Business Administration and developmental studies respectively, disciplines which have to do with the progress and advancement of any work place be it private or public have contributed in shaping her direction on how she can enhance the performance of NPA.
Additionally, the experience she has garnered in the public sector, the Non- Governmental organization and the global body where she has worked which were places where digitalization was prevalent and had made things to work coupled with her educational background have combined to undoubtedly make her a digital boss fired by the quest to digitalize NPA’s operations.
For the benefit of hindsight , the MD of NPA is just 41 years old , while she worked as an Enterprise Officer for the Bureau of Public Enterprises(BPE) from 2000 to 2004 and hired by the United Nations Development Fund(UNDP) as a Special Assistant to the Minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for four years on Project Implementation apart from working in other three key and internationally recognized NGOs .
Perhaps one may be tempted to ask what is digitalization .The term has been defined as ‘ the integration of digital technologies into everyday life by the digitization of everything that can be digitized’. The literal meaning gives an apparent idea of development and a technology dependent world, meaning also a process of computerization of systems and jobs.
In other words, digitalization refers to the process of automation, and the application of information technology(IT) or information Telecommunication Technology(ICT) to the operations of a workplace or any organization for that matter to fast rack the development of that entity and eliminate every encumbrances that will stalemate its growth.
Consequently, it is for the fact that so many aspects of the life of the NPA and the Nigerian ports generally are still yearning for the presence and deployment of digitalization that has made the current management led by Usman who is said to be very impatient to accelerate the development of the authority and the ports, to be taking measures to ensure that the process of digitalization is all encompassing.
Additionally, the consensus in the maritime sector is that inadequate digitalization of the processes of the NPA has been largely responsible for the myriads of bottlenecks that have plagued the activities of the ports in the past years and has thus made it impossible for them to become the load Centre in West Africa despite the advantage of population and location that Nigeria has over its neighboring countries.
Indeed, the goal of every country worldwide is to make its ports to be efficient and this is one of the key platforms which made the Nigerian government to concession the ports to the private sector in 2006, but the efficiency factor has not been fully achieved while the dire need to also make concession to reduce the cost of doing business at the ports has also been a mirage because of the inadequate digitalization of the operations of the ports.
Thus, it is also because of the need to enhance the performance of the Nigerian seaports that made the government to give the Nigerian Customs Service the mandate of achieving clearing of goods in 48 hours as well as the reduction of the security agencies at the ports to seven from more than 20 among other measures it has taken over the years, but it is generally believed.
However, various studies have revealed that there is a significant relationship between digitalization of operations and enhancement of performance of all aspects seaports, customer satisfaction, and quality service delivery, easy payment of cargo by customers, elimination of corruption and the strengthening of security at the ports.
Little wonder that the current management of the NPA has taken it as a duty to ensure that the digitalization of all aspects of the seaport operations is implemented to the letter to ensure that the ports play their adequate role of contributing to economic development as they should as well as operate to international standard.
One thing that is clear is that Usman and its entire management has imbibed NPA’s vision which is to be the leading ports in Africa and to make this possible, it must lead in modernization of equipment and infrastructure to respond to global trends in shipping business, thus making the upgrades of existing port infrastructure, as well as improvements in port performance a must.
To get the full advantage of digitalization and for cost effectiveness, Usman, apart from ensuring that all the ICTs that will be deployed cuts across all the gamuts of the operations of the NPA, be it personnel, accounts, security, harbour, finance, infrastructure among others has also directed all the concessionaires to make sure that all the equipment they are purchasing are modern and are of the state of the art technology.
According to the NPA Managing Director, the order on the terminal operators for the deployment of automated equipment and facilities will be in keeping with their developmental plan as contained in the concession agreement they signed with the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and NPA on behalf of the Federal Government.
Undoubtedly, the need to ensure that the concessionaires incorporate ICT in their operations as well as procure highly technologically driven equipment as being canvassed by Usman is borne out of the fact that they constitute the heartbeat of the ports since they are now in charge of operations, while they require the support of the NPA, through its marine and technical regulatory role to ensure the overall success of the ports.
However, 16 years to the commencement and the implementation of the port concession scheme, the terminal operators indeed still have a long way to go in terms of the use of modern day equipment and the adoption of digitalization in their operations in such a way as to facilitate handling and delivery of containers and thus enhance their efficiency and that of the ports.
It is the need to correct this anomaly that has also informed the decision of the NPA management on behalf of the Federal Government to be planning to review the concession agreement it signed with the terminal operators, with a view to making it more mandatory for the concessionaires to be more committed to the programme of modernization and digitalization of their operations.
Also knowing full well the extent to which NPA’s operations must complement those of the concessionaires for an overall performance of the Ports, the Managing Director since assumption of office and in all its tours of the Western and Eastern Port formations including her other assignments has emphasized the need for the digitalization of the Authority’s activities apart from those of the terminal operators.
Equipment/ Call- Up System
This is why her management has identified the needs of the organization in terms of IT , ICT and the deployment of globally accepted equipment and facilities such as the pilot cutters and the tug boats among others which it has ensured has been captured by this year’s budget and are to be procured to improve on the performance of the authority in the discharge of its marine functions under the concession programme.
Already, as part of the digitalization and automation process, the management is planning to embrace an electronic call up system for trucks doing business at the ports which would entail that it is only when they have containers to pick at the ports that they would be on the access road or rather be at their parks or the holding bays.
Apart from the truck standardization project which is already ongoing at the Western Ports in Lagos and meant to partly raise the standard of trailers patronizing the ports and check accidents they cause on the roads, the current management worried about these challenges is also planning to adopt the internationally recommended height of trucks for trailers in West Africa.
To lend credence to the commitment of Usman to use ICT to boost NPA’s performance, one of her first and major assignments in office was the commissioning of the Command Control Communication and Intelligence System (CCCIS) at the NPA headquarters in July 2016.
The facility is developed to cover maritime activities in the six ports and four pilotage districts of NPA and has been providing seamless communications between the ports and the headquarters , enhancing security and safety at the ports , track the movement of vessels and the activities in the channels as well as plug loopholes in revenue generation.
It is expected to incorporate other port automotive devices like Vessel Traffic System (VTS) pursuant to the international convention for safety of life at sea (SOLAS) and integrated port community Information system (IPCIS) with the ultimate goal to have other stakeholders in the shipping sector hook on to it , upgrade it to an automated single window system for the maritime industry.,
Thus with the launch of the facility , over 800 watch-keepers has been deployed by the NPA to survey various locations of the Nigerian maritime terrain and report strange incidences that threaten the security of the ports , the crew the vessels and that of Nigeria generally.
However for purpose of having value for money, Usman has directed that the facility should also be upgraded to cover every aspect of the operations of the NPA.
In fact the Trade Facilitation Centre (TFC) put in place at the Sterling Towers on Lagos Island in 2013 can be said to be a precursor of the CCCIS which can be described as NPA’s own kind of Single Window technology. So the current platform can be said to be a vast improvement on the TFC.
For the fact that digitalization is also meant to promote transparency and openness , Usman has ensured that NPA’ s budget subscribes to the internationally acceptable Transparency that will make it possible for the authority’s 2017 budget which she has dubbed the infrastructure strengthening budget to be viewed and read globally when ready.
Also, following the abuse of the port pass system through which stakeholders gain access to the port, the new management has also concluded arrangements on a new accreditation system which is automated and which is bound to reduce human traffic and unnecessary crowd at the ports gates.
When the Managing Director visited the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) recently, among the issues with which she was tasked by the National President of the body , Prince Olayiwola Shittu were those of the abuse of Port Pass, corruption and congestion of the ports by people who have no business there.
Apart from the fact that she told them that being a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on corruption, a factor which would not make her to allow corruption to thrive in her back yard, she assured that the vice is being frontally confronted at the ports while the challenges of human traffic and port pass abuse were being solved by the new automated approach to the issues.
To demonstrate the fact that digitalization has always been a continuous process that requires upgrading , NPA before now has launched various electronic platforms including the e-payment, electronic ship entry notice (e-SEN), Revenue Invoicing Management System (RIMS) and Self Service Customer Portal as necessary steps towards automation of processes at Nigerian ports, but the issue is that it has been inadequate.
The electronic ship entry notice was adopted to provide shipping companies with an electronic platform to fulfill the mandatory requirements of the Federal Government for the issuance of entry permits to all ships coming into the country while the e-payment platform was launched to save NPA customers the unnecessary time wasted in making payments for services rendered by the Authority.The RIMS has been launched to complement both the e-payment and e-SEN.
While the Transport Minister, Mr Rotimi Amaechi has been pursuing the establishment of a National Single Window (NSW) a platform designed to integrate all agencies involved in the clearance of cargoes at the ports with a view to simplifying the inspection, calculation and payment of all import duties, levies and other charges on line, the Managing Director of NPA has also nonetheless been committed to the project due to its benefits .
The importance of the NSW has made the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), which is the economic regulator of seaports sector to budget in its medium term economic programme for this year about N1billion for system automation, which is part of the NSW being proposed to ease operations at the seaports .
It is also noteworthy that the Shippers’ Council Executive Secretary / Chief Executive Officer, Barrister Hassan Bello has lauded the NPA for its efforts to automate its processes and develop its own Single Window with a view to integrating it to the NSW and thus be connected to other agencies at the seaports and as such ease transactions between the stakeholders and port users.
This definitely is to corroborate the complements which the former Managing Director of NPA , Chief Adebayo Sarumi , the ANLCA President as well as other operators in the maritime sector have paid Usman for her efforts at fully digitalizing the operations of the maritime sector and thus markedly transform their operations and attract more patronage for them within and outside Nigeria .
Considering the fact that some land locked countries which surround Nigeria like Niger, Lake Chad among others were formerly making use of the Nigeria’ seaports but had to stop due to various bottlenecks, it is expected that the current efforts to fully digitalise port operations processes will draw such nations and many more back to the use of the nation’s ports.