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Sunday, March 3, 2024
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Ports Transformative Agenda Renewed Hope for The Gambia

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The Gambia Ports Authority, GPA, has come under pressure over its lack of adequate capacity to handle vessels, resulting in cargo bound for Banjul being diverted through Dakar, but in this exclusive interview with The Standard, the authority’s Managing Director, Ousman M Jobarteh, said GPA is poised to implement infrastructure improvements that will reverse this trend.

The role of the ports is increasingly becoming even more important to the Gambian economy at a time when the country is trying to move away from its dependence on foreign aid to domestic revenue mobilisation to fund its development projects.

Port congestion is a common problem in the shipping industry that can lead to delays, increased costs, and supply chain disruptions. The most common causes of port congestion are when vessels that want to enter, queue up outside a port and keep waiting for a suitable spot to dock. These delays are a headache for supply chain professionals who have to face delays which, apart from throughput time inefficiency, can translate into higher costs at all stages of the freight shipment and delivery.

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But the proposed Port of Banjul 4th Expansion Project, funded through private investment and DFIs such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), European Investment Bank (EIB), Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Compact financing is considered a game-changer for cargo transportation, especially at a time when the country stands the threat of losing most of its business to neighbouring ports.

The project aims to improve the capacity and efficiency of the Port of Banjul, to transform the Port of Banjul into one of the best ports in the sub-region with fast turnaround of vessels, fast handling and customs clearance, easy documentation and overall ISP’s compliance.

The GPA Director of Corporate Services & Business Development, Sunkaru Jarju, said the port is undergoing a number of transformations, including the expansion of the current yard, extension of the existing jetty, relocation of the head office to address the capacity constraints being experienced to handle the increased throughput.

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Mr Jarju added that all these projects require funding, and that is the reason government has been engaging development partners to secure concessionary financing as well as attracting private investment through PPP concessions.

“We have realised that without the necessary space and equipment, we will struggle to cater to the demand. We have already secured 18,000 square metres of residential property within the port area, and compensated all the owners. We have also rolled out a public procurement to attract private sector investment in the ownership and management of certain port activities, and several international operators have submitted bids. Thorough assessment was done and one of the preferred bidders has proposed the establishment of a deep seaport in the southern coastline of the country, which government is pursuing,” he said.

“This is a strategic decision to ensure that the country possesses adequate port infrastructure and facilities to be able to attract bigger and deeper draft vessels that cannot come to The Gambia under the current situation, and the executive has granted the necessary approval.

“So, for us to be able to meet the demand, we have to expand our capacity. As we speak, we are almost overstretched, but with the planned expansion, we will be able to accommodate three vessels at the same time compared to what we are accommodating now,” he added.

Digital transformation

In a bid to make customer experience more favourable, the port is embarking on a massive transformation agenda that seeks to usher in the digitalisation of all processes involved in the clearing of containerised goods from the ports, among others. One of these digitalisation agenda is the implementation of a digital platform for the Shore Handling Revenue Collection called The Shore Handling Revenue Collection System, which is a web-based IT system, which has since its introduction greatly improved transparency as well as revenue generation.

In addition, another component of the shore handling system being added is the Electronic Delivery Order (eDO). This system will allow customers involved in container clearing to receive a copy of their DOs directly in their emails after being generated electronically by the various shipping lines. They will now be required to print and bring along copies of their DOs for the clearing process. The system has the potential to drastically minimise paper transactions.

The whole essence of port digitalisation is the adoption of digital technology to enhance the efficiency, transparency, and competitiveness of ports, terminals, and pilot stations. Digital transformation of the port ecosystem can also improve operations, faster vessel turnaround and efficiency in cargo handling. It can also increase the capacity of a port’s existing infrastructure and reduce operating costs. Digitalisation has an impact on all domains of maritime transport and logistics.

The GPA is also championing the use of Electronic Gate Pass (eGate Pass), which is the document that allows goods to exit the gate complex. This is important in capturing relevant information needed for port planning and also for audit purposes. The port’s management urged the port community to help make the port a more viable commercial establishment by making use of these new services.

Ousman Jammeh, the GPA Director of IT, said ports around the world are moving fast towards digitalisation and The Gambia cannot be an exception. He said 80 percent of goods imported in any country come through the seaports, and that has a direct effect on the prices of goods.

“So, we have to make sure that our processes are done effectively and, at the same time, be able to communicate and integrate with our stakeholders. In order to do that, we understand there is a need for massive digital transformation,” he said.

Jammeh said since the creation of the port, there has not been that much focus on digital transformation, mainly because of certain internal challenges, but the port is now working very hard to make sure all those things are put in place.

“We have all realised that to have efficient, effective, and transparent delivery of services, we have to move from manual to digital processes. As a member of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), GPA is mandated to, by 2024, ensure that its systems connected to international shipping companies are digitalised to facilitate a single centralized data entry,” he said.

He said due to the revenue leakages, the port recently launched a shore handling revenue collection system to close those gaps, using internal resources.

The software engineer said the port is concentrating on building its own in-house software engineering.

“We have also developed a software handling system that deals with ratings and will replace the manual system. With the new system, clearing agents will just need to send an email to shipping lines, and the email will be automatically delivered to the GPA. Now clearing agents do not need to go to the shipping lines to queue for two or three hours or sometimes the whole day to do their processes manually,” he said.

He said with the new system, the clearing agents only need to present their delivery order number. “We will then input everything into our system, and automatically it will generate the charges. What that does is limit human error, and it goes through an approval process before the rating invoice is generated. Even if the data is there for twenty years, we will be able to go there and know who did the rating and at what time. We have also built a whole work flow into the system that ensures that before your cargo goes out of the port, someone has to verify it and authorise all your documentation, from customs to the payments of the tolls,” he added.

Jammeh said the system also captures who took what container out of the ports, the ID number, and the vehicle registration number. “With that, if any incident happens, we are able to go back and trace it in the records,” he said.

He said the managing director is also able to monitor all these transactions from a dashboard in his office.

“So, it brings transparency and reduces the processing time from hours to minutes, and with the system, we are also able to integrate two systems, like the single window and the GRA solution. The other advantage is that when someone needs to sign a document to authorise something, with the old system, if the person is not in the office, there is a delay, but now, even if you travel, you just log in and get the necessary approval,” he said.

He said the new system launched a few weeks ago is part of the port success stories registered in 2023.

“We have also initiated the e-tally system. Before, there was a book that was printed, and then when a vessel berths, they enter the discharge to confirm the containers that have been discharged to the port and the ones loaded in the vessels. If someone wants to know how many containers were discharged in a vessel, it takes a day or more, but now we have implemented a web-based system mobile app, and we set up a Wi-Fi solution at the vessel connected to our servers. With that, the devices are able to connect to the Internet. So now all the clerks do is use the hand-held devices to enter any information they want to enter, and they can do this even when it is raining because the devices are waterproof,” he added.

Jammeh said even the port finance is connected to payroll, resources, and all the other services.

He said that as part of the transformation process, the Managing Director is provided with VPN access to authorise memos and other things wherever he may be.

“We are moving towards a paperless back office,” he said.

Jammeh said a rigorous training and sensitisation process is going on at the ports to ensure people know how to use the system and its importance to the port’s overall digital transformation.

“We are also cognisant of the cyber security issues involved in all these to ensure we prepare for unseen circumstances,” he said.

He said the GPA is doing all it can to compete with other regional ports.

“Our success depends on how quickly we are able to facilitate transactions and get containers out. We are also working towards having the right data centres in place and building strong collaboration with our partners,” he said.

He said the port has plans in place to embark on infrastructure enhancement, cyber security strengthening, business systems enhancement, collaboration and communication, IT governance and compliance, and support and training next year.

“We have just started the bidding process for a port management information system. That port management information system will connect with all shipping lines, so instead of them sending us manual communications, everything will be electronic. We are also getting a vessel and VTMIS management information system, which will not only benefit the port but also the coastal navy because it has a whole monitoring system that is able to locate vessels in seas within some miles and can also identify vessels that are cleared to be in our seas and those that are not permitted, which is good for even the Fisheries Department because they will be able to easily track illegal fishing,” he said.

He said the managing director has already approved funding for that project, and it will be rolled out next year.

“We are also doing consultancy for the terminal operating system, which allows you to handle the terminal and the operators on the ground, and the clearing agents will be able to know through the system the location of vessels, and it will also bring transparency and accountability,” he said.

He said they are also working on implementing a CCTV surveillance system that will have AR and number plate recognition.

“We would not only rely on physical security because those systems are there to identify who enters the port, the clothes he or she wears, the vehicle, and where the person goes. We also have a control that has been refurbished and will start operating by early next year,” he said.

He said the port is doing all this to ensure there is transparency and accountability and to make its service delivery very effective.

The GPA provides facilities and services for the berthing of vessels, discharging, and loading operations using cargo handling equipment for both containerised and non-containerised cargo. The GPA, due to its business, manages assets such as container terminals, land, bonded and conventional warehouses, office buildings, tugboats for berthing assistance, dredgers for maintenance dredging, cargo handling equipment such as reach stackers, forklift trucks, and tractors and trailers and maintenance workshop.

Overview

Over the years, the Port of Banjul has been internationally recognised as one of the safest and most efficient ports in West Africa. It offers reliable and value-for-money services to its numerous customers. Its strategic location along the major shipping route linking Europe, the Far East and Africa makes Banjul a regular port of call for well-established conferences and independent shipping lines. A long-established system of close cooperation with Customs, Immigration, health, and shipping agents, coupled with a competitive tariff and competent human resources, ensures that customers are always provided with quality service. With deep sheltered anchorage and no known piracy incidents, Banjul is one of the safest ports in the sub-region.

The Port of Banjul is unrivalled in Africa in terms of its simplified customs and administrative formalities, and customs operating on a fully-fledged IT platform, ASYCUDA World, ensures that trade facilitation is accorded priority.

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