Stakeholders advocate tech to tackle laxity, congestion at nation’s ports

The port is brimming with activites: a column of containers stacked in threes and fours, in rows and columns; trucks with empty or loaded containers moving in and out of the loading bay, men in reflective jackets with their hands raised and voices loud to direct drivers of heavy and slow-moving cranes and trucks.

The area leading to the Apapa port is filled with potholes, empty trucks adorning the roads left and right with their drivers stretched out under the trucks with makeshift cartons as a bed or in the company with other truckers playing cards or engaged in conversations. Reports note that several containers are trapped in the ports and ships forced to remain at anchorages for some months, incurring diverse surcharges.

Sadly, Nigerian ports congestion has taken a toll on residents living around the areas where ports are situated with their daily cry of constant traffic due to bad roads and the presence of trucks parked on the roadside.  The nation’s ports are Apapa Port; Tin Can Island Port; Port Harcourt Port (or Rivers Port), Onne Port (also in Rivers State), Calabar Port and Warri Port (or Delta Port).

But three of the ports; Calabar, Warri and Rivers, are underutilised while both ports in Lagos are overstretched, while Onne Port is largely used for oil and gas related cargoes.

The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2018 noted that, “The Nigerian ports are currently classified among the worst ports in the world due to challenges bordering on delay of import/export processes, heavy human and vehicular congestion around the ports, difficulty in gaining access to the ports due to bad roads, security concerns and incidence of corruption and infractions among the players–government officials and port users.”

According to a 2019 report by the Convention of Business Integrity, poor infrastructure was listed as one of the factors causing delays and consequently congestion at the ports.

It noted, “There are, generally, poor infrastructures at the ports/terminals and these cause delay in accessing services at the ports/terminals and make businesses cumbersome and unnecessarily expensive to the extent that they are frustrating.”

The report also cited lack of “sufficient and systemic technology” as factors aiding port congestion, positing that technology was the first tool of choice to mitigate corruption in Nigerian ports. There have been talks about making Nigerian ports of international standards and of best practices in handling shops and cargoes at the country’s seaports including claims that significant progress was being made in decongesting the ports in Lagos with an e-call up system.

However, Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based Jebel Ali port is testing technology, “that aims to speed up, improve and automate the way shipping containers are stored, moved and shipped.”

The technology known as BoxBay, according to Cable News Network, is a technological “innovation that saves the time” shipping containers spend in loading their cargo and the amount of space the containers take at the ports.

 Developed by DP world, BoxBay is said to be an automated “storage system that stacks containers 11 stories high in a steel frame” and allows cranes to pick up containers automatically without having to reshuffle the ones above. In Chinese ports, regarded as the world’s third-busiest container port, reports noted that partial closure over virus control measures was worsening congestion. Same situation was reported in nearby Shanghai and in Hong Kong.

Some stakeholders in the shipping industry who spoke with Sunday PUNCH decried congestion in Nigeria’s ports, noting that it was an issue technology could fix conveniently.

The Chairman, Nigerian Shippers Association, Lagos State Chapter, Jonathan Nichol, said that a change of mindset was needed for technological innovations to work in the ports.

Nichol said, “I think the first point of call is for us to circumcise our minds, if we have a correct way in the way we think and do things, then technology would work. But if the mind is not circumcised, whatever technology one brings would fail. After all, technology is just a piece of equipment that will do what one wants it to do. Normally, in advanced countries, one hardly finds human contact in the ports. The terminal operators are supposed to have these technologies in place because they man their terminals so they have up-to-date technological infrastructure to help them maintain and control traffic in their terminals one hardly finds anybody in the terminals. We feel that as time goes on we hope the terminal operators will work the way they are supposed to work because they are not working according to the rules that make them terminal operators. They are still using the mechanical system of handling cargo in Nigeria.’’

He further said that as time went on, introduction of new port systems and container clearing would not allow everybody to be in the ports.

He added, “Shippers will be in their homes and get their containers, importers will be at their warehouses and get their containers, clearing agents will operate from their offices; that is technology. It is not difficult to do APM and PTML but it is difficult in this country because we have what we call interferences from the high and mighty in this country. Our ports are big and can accommodate over six million containers if they are properly handled, especially Apapa ports. Compared with some other countries where their ports are not as big as ours, they handle more than the containers we handle because empty containers are removed since they are not needed in the port. So as soon as the containers are offloaded, they have vessels that pick every vessel that comes out of the port so they can have space. We don’t know why we say we don’t have space when empty containers litter the place.”

Also speaking, the National Coordinator, Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders, Importers and Exporters Coalition, Dr Osita Chukwu, said an enabling environment was needed at the ports before technological innovations would be successfully implemented.

“Dubai is a centre of trade and investment so I am not surprised they have such technology because the government and the law work there. Technology can only work where there is a steady power supply. In this regard, infrastructural decay has caused us a lot in this country and that is why new technologies that work in other countries will not be witnessed here. For instance, for more than 10 years now we have been talking about scanning. Other places in the world have scanners in the sea and airports. It’s only in Nigeria that we are still talking about having scanners for over 10 years. Up till now, there is no scanner at our seaports which is a major place. There is gross negligence on the things we need to put in place before others and we start running for the last instead of the first.’’

Chukwu said that it was not that Nigeria cannot create a formula on how to decongest the ports, stating that the situation was man made. He noted, “The only way out is to create an enabling environment to review the policies.’’

A stakeholder, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said technology deployment to the ports would take time, stressing that it required the collaboration of both the government and private partners.

The stakeholder said, “Congestion at the ports is not about technology alone, though that’s a huge part of it. For instance, the Nigerian Ports Authority gate needs to be electronic and have traffic and proper container management among others. The congestion is largely due to cargo evacuation with respect to connectivity; rail, road and waterways infrastructure.

“It’s certain that automation and digitalisation of shipping and port processes will improve port and logistics supply chain. Such an exercise requires planning and committed efforts by all parties. However, a port is as efficient as its hinterland connectivity. Presently, the challenges of modal connections to ports in Nigeria are well known. There is a need for planning and committed efforts by different arms of government and the private sector. The timeline could be determined when everyone is in the room to plan towards this goal because deploying technology requires time and we’re still at the preliminary stage or none at all. But the promotion of digitalisation is actually to reduce human presence. However, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Nigerian Ports Authority and some of the shipping lines and terminals are working on the digitalisation of their processes.”

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