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Eastern Ports: Operator Increased Investment Amid Cargo Diversion From Lagos Seaports

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The traffic gridlock experienced on the corridor of the Lagos ports access road has led to increasing cargo throughput at the eastern port especially the West African Container Terminal (WACT). YUSUF BABALOLA writes.

Before the collapse of the access roads leading to the Apapa and Tin-Can Island port, successive government have sought for ways to stop over concentration of cargoes to the Lagos ports and viability of the eastern ports to receive more cargoes.

Though, shallow draught, insecurity and collapsed access roads are other challenges faced at the eastern ports, the ports still remain a viable alternative to over-dependence and over concentration of cargoes to the Lagos port.

Nigerian shippers especially those at the eastern zone have always sought for an alternative to the ports in Lagos, Apapa and Tin-Can Island Ports. The need for an alternative port especially one that can compete favourably with their counterparts in Lagos, begun a few years back, when the port access roads reached a breaking point leading to its collapsed thereby creating congestion within the ports and roads leading to Apapa and Tin-Can Island Ports, started to take toll on shippers and other users of the port services.

For instance, in 2018, access in and out of Apapa and Tin-Can Island port where the two ports are located became a menace that it takes over one month for cargoes that have exited the port to get to its final destination, and additional one month to return the empty containers to the shipping companies.

Due to these, importers pay huge amount on demurrage and storage charges to shipping companies and terminal operators while the gridlock also fuel inflation.

However, due to the challenges of the eastern port, shippers, especially those in the south-east, south-south, north-east and north-central decided to import their cargoes through the eastern ports because of the infrastructure breakdown at the Lagos ports.

At the eastern ports, West African Container Terminal, Onne which hitherto hardly receive cargoes started recording tremendous growth. For instance, the container terminal experienced a 17 per cent cargo growth in 2017, 21 per cent in 2018 and 20 per cent growth attained as at July 2019.

With the attendant increase in cargo throughput at the terminal due to the challenged in the Lagos ports, the management of the West African Container Terminal (WACT) started repositioning the Onne container terminal to become a viable option for Nigerian shippers especially those in the eastern part of the country.

The terminal which was located in Onne port, part of the Onne Oil and Gas Free Zone, WACT in addition to excellent hinterland connections to the rest of Nigeria, offers excellent customer service with trained operators, modern handling equipment and superior e-commerce capabilities.

Due to increase in vessel and container traffic, WACT, last month launched two new Mobile Harbour Cranes (MHCs) worth $10million (N3.6billion) for discharge of cargoes at the terminal.

The Mobile Harbour Cranes (MHCs), which is coming on the heels of 10 new specialised terminal trucks and two new reach stackers already acquired, are expected to increase the turnaround time of vessels at the terminal.

The two new container cargoes handling facilities bring WACT, one of the most efficient container terminals outside Lagos, at par with its peers in Lagos, in terms of equipment and operational efficiency.

WACT, which has capacity to handle 314,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), 570 meters berth length and 12 meters depth alongside, now has a total of two mobile harbour cranes; 20 equipment handlers; nine forklifts; 22 terminal trucks and 375 reefer plugs.

Speaking at the commissioning, held in Onne, Rivers State, managing director WACT, Aamir Mirza, said the massive investment at the terminal has attracted 700 direct and 2000 indirect employments in the country.

Mizra described the $10 million investment as a key enabler to customers’ satisfaction.

“Our vision is to make WACT the best-performing container terminal in West Africa. We believe this vision can be realised early enough if the government can support us to reduce the challenges of security by ensuring the safety of vessels on our waters, and improve road connectivity, among others,” he said.

Mirza said the cranes would enable volume growth resulting in increased productivity; reduced port stay and provide bunker savings; improve reliability in cargo delivery times; reduce the impact of crane breakdown/idle time on overall terminal operations; and increase customers satisfaction and speedy delivery.

“The initial years for WACT were difficult as unlike established ports of Apapa, Tin Can and Port Harcourt, Onne port wasn’t known to the rest of the world, hence there was no commercial market for it. Over the next few years, a lot of effort was put in to develop that commercial market for WACT and today we are reaping the benefits of it.

“Today we are serving about 800 customers through five shipping lines and have established ourselves as the largest container terminal in eastern Nigeria. Our business has provided several direct and indirect job opportunities in Rivers state, including host communities.”

The MD  however said the acquisition of the $10million investment in mobile harbor cranes would be the key enabler for WACT to better serve her customers. He stated further that the acquisition of the equipment would lead to high rate of loading and discharging containers and improved productivity.

The equipment would offer high rate of discharging and loading containers thereby leading to improved productivity. Higher productivity will result in shorter port stay of vessels that will enable lines to save on fuel and this will significantly reduce delays arising out of crane breakdowns.

“We will be able to handle heavier cargo loaded on flat racks, higher productivity resulting in shorter port stay will help in reducing transit time and customers will be able to take cargo delivery much earlier.”

He also talked about the challenges faced by the terminal which include insecurity, improving roads infrastructure among others.

“Our growing volumes and preference by customers for using WACT is a testament to our commitment to better serve eastern Nigerian market. Our vision is to make WACT the best performing terminal in West Africa! We believe this vision can be achieved much earlier if the government can look into addressing some fundamental challenges like security risk because of piracy, improving depth of navigational channels and improving road and related infrastructure that connects Onne port to the rest of Nigeria,” he added.

Also speaking, the executive secretary of the Nigeria Shippers’ Council (NSC), Barr. Hassan Bello, said the new cranes would aid efficiency and improve vessel turnaround time at the terminal.

He reiterated the federal government’s commitment to encouraging more importers to patronise Onne Port, adding that the government was determined to see shipping make significant contributions to the economy.

“Our terminals need to grow and show efficiency. We are happy with the competition. We need options, choice for shippers where they will discharge their cargoes,” he said.

According to him, the commissioning of the Mobiles Harbour Cranes is no doubt significant because it would  improve efficiency. “We are happy with the increase in volume of cargoes and in the long run, more Nigerians would be employed and it will make the terminal operation contribute to the economy.

“The more efficiency we have, the more cargoes we will get because Nigeria is a natural hub due to the market that is available here and I am happy today that this terminal is becoming one of the most efficient in West Africa. It gladdens our hearts that the main reasons of concessioning the port to private sector will be realised by this terminal, and we will use this terminal to benchmark the performance of others.”

Umana Okon Umana, managing director, Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority (OGFZA), who lauded WACT, described the investment as a show of confidence in Nigeria’s economy.

“WACT has sent Nigerians out for training because it is a very specialised equipment, and the objectives of free zones is to attract foreign direct investment that will support job creation, transfer of skills and technology and what government loses by tax revenues, it takes back in employment, skills and transfer of skills,” he said.

The managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala Usman, who commended the company for acquiring new cranes, urged shippers to patronise Onne Port.

Usman, represented by Al-Hassan Ismaila, Onne port manager, said the government was looking into the security of vessels on the nation’s high sea.

“The Onne Port is a nexus connecting the north-east, north-central, south-south and south-east. So, cargoes for these sections of the country are expected to be discharged through this port. We are calling on shippers to patronise Onne Port because of the friendly environment, and the synergy between the agencies of government operating at the port,” she added.

Comptroller- general, Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col Hameed Ali (rtd), said the commissioning of the equipment was part of facility upgrade embarked upon by WACT.

The CGC, who was represented by Zone C, coordinator, assistant comptroller general, Francis Ekwereuzor, said the upgrade would lead to quick upgrade of cargoes at the terminal.

“WACT is on facility complaince level and the commission of mobile crane is part of facility upgrade and it will bring WACT at par with Apapa and Tin-Can Island in terms of efficiency.

“The equipment will enhance and upgrade quick clearance of goods to meet with customs best practices globally,” he said.

Also, former vice president, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Emenike Nwokeji, described the commissioning of the equipment as a sign that there are other parts in Nigeria with better equipment like Lagos ports.

“We have the deepest channel that is why Onne is called ocean terminal and any ship that cannot berth in Onne, cannot berth anywhere in Nigeria,” said Nwokeji, who commended the management of WACT.

He said the new cranes would likely increase the cargo throughput of the port by bringing cargoes meant for east and large chunk of northern markets to Onne Port.

“We are delighted because more businesses would be coming to Onne due to the improved turnaround time for vessels calling the ports,” said Okey Okoro, chairman, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Onne chapter.

WACT, one of the first greenfield container terminals to be built in Nigeria under public private partnership and several stakeholders including the representatives of shipping companies, Customs, freight forwarders, truck operators, importers, exporters and government agencies, who graced the event, expressed confidence in WACT.

To them, the government needs to support the terminal operator by increasing the depth of the channel to Onne, address the security challenges and improve the state of East-West Road, because improving infrastructural issues and road connectivity, would position Onne to becoming a leading port in West Africa. 

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