Trade facilitation: Single window saves Nigeria $25m daily —Valentina Mintah 

By Carroll Nottage
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Valentina Mintah CEO West Blue Consulting
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The maiden African Maritime Journalists Conference debuted in Accra, Ghana with the theme: ‘Building Effective Communication Infrastructure for Africa’s Blue Economy.’ On the sideline of the programme, the Chief Executive Officer/MD, West Blue Consulting, Valentina Mintah, the firm responsible for the building of the Single Window Trade platforms for both the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Ghana Revenue Authority, Customs Division, spoke with selected newsmen on the challenges faced while designing the projects. TOLA ADENUBI was there. Excerpts:

Tell us about West Blue Consulting
We are primarily an IT firm that works on automating processes. We are generalists, but we tend to have specialism in Customs and trade facilitation arena, and that is what we have been known for.

So generally, we are an IT company looking at automating processes. We differentiate ourselves from others because we don’t believe IT is the end result; it is only an enabler. So we try to understand everything else before we bring IT into it.

We always adopt the four Ps in our processes; we look at the People first. We ask ourselves, who is going to use the system? How do they think? What are they looking for? What is their current challenges? Being African, we understand our own people; we understand our challenges and we understand our strength and weaknesses. That is why we excel in our operations.

We try to understand how people work so that we don’t change it completely but benchmark it on international standards. We also look at what other people think of the operators; we find what they don’t like about the system, and then we look for solutions.

We also look at Processes; how are things being done currently? Could they be done in a better way? Could they be done the same way but in a faster way? Or does the system need a radical change from the way it is being done? We do that in consultation with the owners of the processes and the beneficiaries of the processes.

We also look at the Platforms, what system are we using to deliver those processes for those people? You cannot go to the United States or Azerbaijan and think their IT system will work in places like Sweden or Ghana or Nigeria.

In implementing our systems, we also look at the Policy. We ask ourselves, what is the legal framework? What are the bottlenecks? We don’t want to put up a system that will compromise the very users that we are trying to support. So we look at the mandate of everybody; if they have Digital Signature Act? Cyber crime Act or Data protection? We look at all this because you can’t just put things on the web without there being a legal framework. Similarly, we look at the platforms, what are the cyber security issues in terms of hacking? What system do you put in place to make sure the system is not compromised? We are very much particular about our physical security.

This are all what we look at before we begin to put up our IT system.

Who are your clients?
We work with the government a lot and it is changing the status quo. Government is beginning to understand that they are providing a service to the citizenry and to the private sector. So that is the whole change management of the status quo.

Looking at our domain area where we are known for, the Pre-Arrival regime which is a risk management tool in the trade supply chain and then the National Single Window in general, these two systems capture everything that is needed to be known if somebody wants to import goods or export goods, or even have a transit of cargoes. When you look at this system, you can imagine how many agencies of government that are involved in the cargo clearance or export system. In most countries, it is about 20 government agencies in total. From the Customs, to veterinary services, food and drug handling agencies etc, everybody has a role to play in the international trade supply chain. But that they do have a role to play, does not mean they should hinder the movement of the goods.

If for example, I am a poultry farmer and I am looking at going into international trade which cuts across borders, I need to understand my country’s regulation for moving goods across into another country. I need to understand my partner country’s regulation for accepting goods. I need to now compete with not just the local eggs producers but with the international eggs producers. I need to get these perishable fragile items to my clients quickly and profitably in order to remain relevant in the market because as a business owner, all I am interested in is making profit. That is the whole essence of the National Single Window; to reduce the time and cost of doing business across borders. Importers and exporters are the main drivers to economic growth.

Again, if you have somebody looking at import and export destinations, they have to consider your entire environment to decide if they will put their investment in Apapa, Nigeria or Benin, Cotonou or any other place. Thus, this system also encourages Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). If you look at international trade supply chain, it comes with four main components: there is the commercial side which is business to business. This involves the exchange of trade contracts, invoices etc. There is the financial side; letters of credit, payment, insurance. These tend to be a private sector responsibility with the banks leading most of the transactions. Then you have the regulatory area where you have the Customs, foods and drugs agency, Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) etc. They provide a right regulatory environment to ensure importers bring in safe goods that are rightly valued and rightly classified. Then finally, we have the transport and logistics which involves the ports, the container management, the shipping line, and the freight forwarders. So there is a whole myriad of people who have to come together just to facilitate trade from one place to another place.

Were there challenges?
In Nigeria, the will at the operational level, from Customs and other individuals was excellent. However, we did not have the political will from the top. The lack of political will from the top tend to breed undesirable elements who opposed the single window concept.

At a point, there was some sabotage. It was either people did not understand the concept or deliberately kicked against it. At the institutional level, it was well accepted. But after the project, Nigeria became a point of reference at the World Customs Organisation (WCO).

The WCO asked other Customs administration to emulate Nigeria. That was really a high point for us back then. In two years, revenue collection went up by 20 percent. Government saved $25 million a month from fees that were hitherto being paid to the Destination Inspection (DI) companies who were handling the Risk Assessment Report for Customs.

So despite those challenges, these were significant results that trailed the single window project. In Ghana, it was a personal attack on my person. At a point, those kicking against it in Nigeria joined those kicking against it in Ghana. For me being an African, it was such a painful experience. However, we soldiered on because we knew the result will speak for us.