One year since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Nigeria, the way business is conducted has had to evolve. It is visible also, in the nation’s seaports, where it is no longer business as usual, as transactions are now done online even though the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) still struggles to fully digitalise cargo clearance.
Instead of adopting automated scanning of containers, which is more efficient and less dangerous, the Customs still does 100 percent physical examination of cargo, which mandates government agencies to be physically present before opening the containers to examine the content, and this causes delays.
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 reiterated the need for 100 percent digital transition in port operations, which according to analysts, would lessen the exposure of port users to the spread of the virus through constant face-to-face human interaction.
At present, Nigerian ports are operating at an estimated 65 percent digital rate, because there are certain transactions such as cargo examination, bill of lading and invoicing that are not generated online.
Today, Nigeria Customs uses NICIS 11, an electronic clearance process that supports risk management and accounting, cargo declaration and online payment of duties with the sole aim of enhancing government revenue and reducing fraud.
“Presently, people must visit the port physically to do Customs documentation and cargo examination before they can take delivery of their consignments. This is not safe at this time and it is also inefficient. Customs needs to install functional scanners at the port to reduce the rate of physical examination of cargoes, and to reduce human contacts,” said Vicky Haastrup, chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN).
Manual examination of cargoes, according to her, is not efficient and does not promote social distancing.
Hassan Bello, executive secretary of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), the port economic regulator that has been championing digital transition in cargo clearance, said the outbreak of COVID-19 has shown that it is very dangerous for people to gather at the port terminals.
“We are meeting with every operator including the banks to harmonise and integrate cargo clearing processes at ports. We must digitalise because it also reduces corruption and ensure efficiency. This is why we believe that an importer can stay in the comfort of his or her office to exit his cargo without having to be physically present at the port,” he added.
Interestingly, some terminal operators and shipping companies had started online transaction even before the outbreak of COVID-19 while those of them that had not, were forced to commence online billing and invoicing. This is why Shippers’ Council puts the digital operations of these service providers at 85 percent.
At Ports and Terminal Multiservices Ltd (PTML), for instance, port users are now encouraged to use the company’s electronic platforms in all business transactions, and customers only come to the terminal for physical collection of cargo.
Ascanio Russo, managing director of PTML, confirmed that consignees can now obtain and pay for provisional invoices at any quick teller enabled ATM machines.
The electronic payment options developed by the company enhances prompt service delivery and ensures social distancing in line with safety measures introduced by the government to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Also, shipping liners such as Maersk Nigeria has made significant investment in its digital platforms such as Mobile App, website for Cargo Release and Export clearance document submission via Maersk.com, Maersk App, MyFinance, Myeasyrelease.com, Myexportdoc.com among others.
The company’s electronic invoicing solution named Myfinance, enables customers to view all their invoices online without having to manually request for an invoice via email or physically at Maersk counter areas.
On shipping liners’ websites, consignees can now track their shipments and also obtain up-to-date list of import manifest rotation numbers that facilitate Customs clearing process.
Klaus Laursen, country manager of APM Terminals Nigeria, which had before COVID-19 introduced online payment and invoicing, recently said the company embarked on massive digitisation of its operations and services in line with its global transformation drive.
“Our customers can expect greater efficiency and higher productivity with the deployment of the 4G wireless network, as it will allow for better collaboration in our terminal operations,” he said.