Mr. Emmanuel Arku is the Head of Research, Monitoring and Evaluation at Ghana Shippers Authority (GSA). In this exclusive chat with The News Diet, Arku speaks on some issues limiting seaports in West and Central Africa amid plans to improve intra-African trade. He also explains how Ghanaian ports operate a National Single Window and the level of automation in the country.
Arku, who was one of the delegates in Lagos for a recent meeting of the Union of African Shippers’ Councils (UASC) to reduce and harmonize port costs in the region, underscores the role of data and information sharing at ports. He also highlights the need for similar port costs for import and export of certain cargoes in the sub-region.
This summit has focused on minimizing transport cost in order to boost intra-African trade. How crucial is this and what’s the role of data and information sharing?
As developing countries in West and Central Africa, and perhaps the whole of Africa; we are price-takers because we depend more on imports. Additionally, we don’t own vessels to convey these imports. Since we don’t own ships, our transportation costs are either to the foreign shipping agencies or the local costs to the terminals, port authorities and other charges.
It is important to know that these costs determine whether a nation will be competitive in international trade and port business. We ought to be more concerned about how we set the import and export costs in the sub-region. So, as Shippers Councils in West and Central Africa, we thought it wise to look at the costs in this sector even as we carry out research to see how we could enhance our imports and exports.
In a bid to harmonize port businesses and costs within the sub-region, we have decided to conduct a study of our ports to see the costs involved in import and export of certain cargoes. The goal is to have uniform basis for comparism and to discover which ports are doing better than others in order to make recommendations that would address the challenges discovered.
To achieve this, data is very important. However, data is difficult to come by in this sector because the shipping companies would rather want to conceal this information because of the high-level competition in the business. Nevertheless, we ought to find a way to obtain this information as it would also help our shippers make informed decisions.
Hopefully, we should be able to achieve this goal by the end of this year, especially with the specialized committee that comprises experts from the various Shippers’ Councils and having held the inaugural committee meeting in Lagos, organized by Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC). This Committee has membership from six countries and we are glad that Nigeria has been very magnanimous in hosting us.
By the end of the year we should be able to produce a comprehensive report on the costs at the various ports in the sub-region to guide the industry and boost regional trade.
One of the benefits of such sub-regional meeting is that it creates an opportunity for member countries to learn from each other about certain aspects of shipping and port business. In Nigeria, a National Single Window is something the nation has been working towards achieving. How did Ghana attain its Single Window platform?
The Single Window in Ghana is still a work in progress because we haven’t attained it completely. We started with GC Net and we moved to another platform before migrating to the current phase. The collaborations must continue among all agencies and stakeholders because the basis of a strong Single Window is a solid risk management system. Where there isn’t a viable risk management system, there will always be the tendency to reverify what is in the containers by opening them. The moment this sets in, the target of achieving Single Window is defeated.
If Customs must open the containers to do 100 percent physical examination, then we aren’t doing risk management anymore. We should be able to have a system that we can trust. If the system places a shipper on the red zone, it means that there is a likelihood that such person has done something wrong. So, if only 20 percent of consignments have to undergo physical examination, then we can claim to be operating an automated system with an effective Single Window. On the other hand, if we are doing automation and still operate a system where all consignments are subjected to 100 percent physical examination, then there is a problem.
At our ports, risk management system mustn’t be fixed, but be dynamic. There should be opportunities to insert new information and take some obsolete ones out. Only high-risk cargoes should be subjected to 100 percent examination and this category of consignments should be less than 20 percent while 80 percent or more cargoes should leave the ports speedily; otherwise we can’t claim to have an automated process.
In Ghana, we have attained a top-notch collaboration between the core agencies of government at the ports. This is very important because agencies must see themselves as partners working to attain a common goal. Customs, Standards Authority, Food and Drugs, etc should be willing to collaborate, share information and work seamlessly to ease operations at the ports. Where these agencies think that they have to carryout their inspections one after the other, Single Window can’t be achieved.
What is the level of automation in Ghanaian ports, how much operations are done using scanners?
At the moment, every consignment that leave Ghana ports go through the scanners and the information is available for the government agencies. It is only when an agency needs further proof or suspects something that it would have to go back to the document or demand that the cargoes be brought down. Ghanaian ports are configured in a way that every container goes through scanners which provides information on the cargoes.
How would you describe the vessel turnaround time and cargo dwell time at Ghanaian ports?
We have been working assiduously to improve cargo dwell time at Ghana Shippers Authority. It has been improving although I don’t have the latest figures of our ports at the moment but it has been encouraging. We have also been improving on the issue of demurrage because it’s linked to cargo dwell time. One of the approaches we utilized to improve this is serious education and enlightenment of shippers to ensure that they don’t unnecessarily delay in clearing their cargoes.
The truth is that demurrage is avoidable if the shippers plan proactively for the evacuation of cargoes. If the shipper can get information ahead of time and begin processing the cargo evacuation, one might not need to pay any demurrage. This education and enlightenment strategy is very important because learning never ends.