Webb Fontaine, a leading provider of trade facilitation solutions powered by artificial intelligence, has been in charge of IT solutions for the Nigeria Customs Service since 2006. In this interview with TOLA ADENUBI, the company’s Managing Director, Ope Babalola, bares his mind on happenings at Nigerian ports and borders.
Tell us about Webb Fontaine?
Webb Fontaine Global is an international company that deals in Customs administration, trade facilitation, single window system and any business within the trade environment. Webb Fontaine is an IT company that deals in trade facilitation and all the processes within the supply chain sector. In Nigeria, our main client is the Federal Government, and we work directly with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). In West Africa, Webb Fontaine is working in Benin Republic and Cote d’Ivoire. On the continent, we are working in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside Africa, we are working in Bahrain and some other countries. In total, Webb Fontaine is in about 15 countries worldwide, and we are hoping to improve on that. In Nigeria, we have about 150 staff in total and only about ten of them are non-Nigerians. We started working with the NCS in 2006. Initially, we were implementing the Asycuda++ system for the NCS. From there, we moved on to the current system, NICIS 2. The NICIS 2 system started in 2017, but we have been around since 2006.
Has there been challenges for Webb Fontaine working in Nigeria?
There are always challenges working anywhere. Everywhere has its own unique kind of challenges. Nigeria is a huge country with a huge population and a large economy, so the kind of work we will be doing in a smaller country with a smaller economy will be quite different from what we are doing in Nigeria. The big challenge that we have in Nigeria has to do with lots of smuggling. However, this is not peculiar to Nigeria and not new to us.
The Nigerian Government recently approved a $3.1 billion Customs Modernisation project otherwise known as the E-Customs project. Is Webb Fontaine involved in this project?
We at Webb Fontaine welcome the E-Customs project because it’s actually a continuation of what we have been doing. The difference between the E-Customs project and what we are doing with the NCS is that the E-Customs project is more extensive than what we are currently doing. The E-Customs project has features like border surveillance, internal Customs paperless procedure which Webb Fontaine currently does not do at the NCS. We exclusively manage Customs processes at the ports. We are hoping to continue what we are doing when the E-Customs project commences, however, that is totally up to the Federal Government and the concessionaires to decide. We believe that what we have done in the past years will speak for themselves, and we hope they will want to continue working with us for some time, at least during the transition period.
Do you think the E-Customs project was a sign that the government was no longer interested in the services of Webb Fontaine, and needed more value for service delivery?
I don’t think so. I think the E-Customs project is an attempt by the government to improve on what is already on the table. I don’t think it’s a rejection of what we have been doing. I think it’s a realization that if we can do this much with this, then if we expand it, we can do even more. I think the government has been quite pleased with what we have achieved thus far.
Port users have in the recent past lamented about incessant server breakdown at the ports, leading to delay in cargo clearance and attendant losses. For many port users, Webb Fontaine should be held liable for incessant server breakdown. What’s your take on this?
We have read some articles in the papers concerning these allegations, and when we investigate them, we have always found out that they are not true. There are so many things going on at the ports at the same time. Issues like port congestion, document registration of clearing agents and so many more are always coming up at the same time. So to claim that the server has broken down or is down is fictitious. We have been able to reduce the amount of human interface in what we do. During the lockdown almost a year ago, when everything was down, Customs revenue kept skyrocketing. Customs revenue was not affected by the lockdown because Webb Fontaine had been able to reduce human interface in Customs processes, and that reflected in the record revenue haul that was generated last year. So, if Customs servers were down, how come the agency revenue haul kept going up? It’s important that when people make such claims about Customs servers being down, you the media needs to investigate before reporting such. There was a time a storm blew down a telecom mast. This didn’t stop our work because we automatically switched over to other default systems that we use. Although, the processes became a bit slower, but within 48 hours, everything was back to normal. Our server and services rank among the highest range of acceptable performance. Sometimes, the issue might not have anything to do with the server, but because most of the clearing agents are not IT savvy, they heap the blame on the server. I will give you an example, if some containers are stuck in the port congestion crisis, that has nothing to do with the server, but some people will say it’s the server breakdown that has not allowed for easy exit of their containers. Sometimes, we have to examine these claims a little bit more closely.
In 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and restriction, the NCS generated its biggest ever revenue haul, N1.5 trillion, surpassing what it collected in 2019 by N200 billion. How did this happen?
During that lockdown period, the government gave concessions for people who have businesses at the ports to move around. So people came to the ports to work. Aside from this, the clearing process does not even need the physical presence of agents at the ports, but this happens because many people are used to this type of clearing process. It’s a habit for some people. Clearing can be done online. You don’t need to come to the port physically to clear your cargoes. So, one of the good sides of the lockdown was that some agents now went and got themselves computers, and started clearing their cargoes online. It was in the very first week or second week of the lockdown that Customs revenue witnessed a very slight dip, but as soon as agents realized that they don’t need to get to the ports to clear their containers, that they can do it online, the revenues went back to normal and even surpassed the expectations of everybody.
Will the NCS generate more than it did in 2020 by the end of 2021?
I don’t see any reason why the NCS should not beat the 2020 record revenue haul. It’s up to the Comptroller General to set the target for 2021. We are very confident that the NCS should be able to surpass the 2020 revenue. The NCS has very highly trained officers within its rank and file, and every day, they find new ways of blocking revenue leakages, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t surpass the 2020 revenue generation.
What is the level of investment of Webb Fontaine in Customs operations?
I wouldn’t be able to give you figures, but I can tell you that at every Customs post, we provide the latest equipment and technology, and we have continued to improve upon it as new things come up. There are Customs posts where we run 24hours on generators. We provide generators, computers, fuel at these Customs posts. In addition to these, we have continued to improve our technology, using our Research and Development Centre worldwide and our experience in other places as well to see what improvement we can bring to the NCS. We have a full Data and Disaster Recovery Centre, that even if something happens and stops work, in the blink of an eye, instantaneously, work continues unhindered because everything is already mirrored with full equipment at our Data and Disaster Recovery Centre; and that was a huge investment on our part.
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