Ismail Yusuf, managing director of Inland Containers Nigeria Limited (ICNL), has said his company still hopes to become concessionaire of Onitsha River Port.
ICNL, which is the parent company of Kaduna Inland Dry Port, according to Yusuf, has been at the fore of taking maritime activities to the northern part of the country. In this interview, he talked about his company’s projections for 2021.
Give an overview of your operations in 2020, which has been a very challenging year, with COVID-19, then protests. How has it affected you nationwide, because you do not only operate in Lagos?
In 2020, we all know the problems we faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which affected every sector of the economy. Inland Container Nigeria Limited, as the operator of a bonded terminal in Kaduna and Kano, it affected us seriously because majority of our customers were unable to go abroad and place their orders.
You know 70% of products brought into Nigeria are manufactured in China. A lot of businesses were affected around the world as a result.
As per our own operations, the volume expected of us dropped drastically, notwithstanding that the Federal Government allowed us to come into the port and operate during that period as a result of essential services privilege that are required for the medicals being brought in.
I think we have lost about 40% of what we were expected to make during that period. Even those ones that we got, we still have problem and challenges from government officials in terms of documentation, holding on to jobs, etc which affected our business.
The roads are also very bad which causes containers to spend extra days on their way to Kano and Kaduna, which accrues more cost to importers. Apart from that, there are other challenges facing Kano and Kaduna businesses.
We are looking at how we can remedy that next year to avoid a repeat of what happened this year.
Looking at it in naira and kobo, in precise terms, what are the losses you incurred and if it affected jobs?
Loss of revenue during COVID-19 for close to six months was about N750 million.
What of job loss?
We did not lay anybody off but we have those who left the company voluntarily.
We understand you have operations in Kano, and the northern part of Nigeria is one place where government wants to extend maritime activities. To what extent have you interfaced with the business community in that part of the country and gotten them to show more interest in patronising maritime services?
Kano we all know is a hub of commercial activities in the North. If you look at the volume of import that goes to Kano and aggregate the total that goes to the North, Kano takes 50% of it.
This company was established in Kano in February 1980 and the purpose is to move maritime activities closer to the people of the hinterlands, saving them the stress and much cost of coming to the coastal areas themselves.
I believe they are happy with the services rendered and we are number one, no competition. Even if we have competitors, they are not doing 30% of what we do in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and customer satisfaction.
I was in Kano three weeks ago to meet with some of my customers. I met with the Commissioner for Commerce to discuss business and how we can organise seminars with the business community in Kano.
I also met with the deputy governor, who assured us of the state’s support. Very soon a change will also come for Inland Containers, Kano, in terms of upgrading.
Looking at rail and its impact on your operation, government recently talked about extending rail lines from Nigeria through the Kano axis to Niger Republic. There is this proposed African continental free trade area that will require countries to trade among themselves in Africa. To what extent is ICNL prepared to maximise the advantage of this logistic linkage between Nigeria and Central Africa?
It is a good move for us because we have been looking for how to penetrate the suburb and surrounding countries. With this planned African Continental Free Trade Area, our target is to see that we do business with countries like Niger, Mali, Chad and even Cameroon.
Earlier this year, I and our subsidiary company went to Maradi in Niger to canvass for business and we were accepted, with the people eager to do business with us.
So, ICNL had gone to Maradi even before the Federal Government planned it?
Yes, we had been there with the ANLCA president, Iju Nwabunike. We visited about three states, Maradi, Niamey the capital and one other state. In Niger, we met with their chamber of commerce and they are willing and eager to do business with Nigeria. They even prefer Kano because of the local language similarities, which makes transactions easier.
When we came back from the trip, we reported to the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) and also wrote to the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), telling them our plan.
The NSC set up a committee to look at the modalities to ensure that we have a smooth run in terms of business transactions with those countries. The committee has met thrice, and once they conclude their deliberation and report, we will take it up from there.
How has the ongoing rail repair affected your operation, because it looks like you are very much dependent on road haulage now?
This has affected us 100%. The purpose of establishing inland dry port or inland bonded terminal is to make cost of clearing cheaper to the users. That is why the company was sited very close to the rail in Kano.
With this development, the narrow gauge we are talking about has been suspended by the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) as they are not operating fully due to COVID-19.
We believe that, by the time the pandemic subsides, they will go back to full functioning capacity. Apart from that, the standard gauge that the Federal Government is working on has not gotten to Kano. That of Lagos to Ibadan will also be standard gauge.
We have discussed this with the NRC and they assured us that they will not abandon the narrow gauge. If the standard gauge is working to Ibadan, they will still put the narrow gauge to use for us to transport our goods from Lagos to Kano, pending the time the government extends the standard gauge from Ibadan to Kano.
How is your presence in other ports like Warri, Port Harcourt, Onne and Calabar, and how is ICNL operating there?
We are yet to be in Warri, but we are in Port Harcourt and Onne. Necessity also made us have an operational office there due to the stress of accessibility in Lagos as a result of congestion and gridlock in the area.
Our priority is to service our customers with lesser cost, but we discovered that trucks will come from Kano with exports and will not be able to access the Lagos port. Our drivers have to sometimes pay their way through Ijora, a move that does not work all the time. Sometimes, after paying, you are turned back.
There is also the issue of LASTMA. The company felt it was becoming too strenuous and people were tired of coming to Lagos to clear their goods, So, we opened an office in Onne two years ago, from where we now move containers to Kaduna and Kano.
Things have been going very well. I have about six staff working there now.
Looking at 2021, what are your plans, projections and programmes for the maritime industry, your business and the overall economy? What should we expect next year from ICNL?
The chairman and board of Inland Containers are working seriously towards the expansion of the business and also how to make our services more attractive to our customers. I told you earlier that we have already taken steps towards that.
Apart from opening an office in Onne, we have engaged barge operators who will move containers out of the port to suburbs and the truckers will not need to come to Apapa anymore. One of them is the Ikorodu Lighter Terminal. We have already started operations but we will increase our activities there next year.
Secondly, we have engaged another barge operator, operating in Itokin, after Ikorodu, in Ogun State. I have been there to assess the terminal myself and work has already started. I think, in the last one month, we have moved over 300 containers from Itokin to Kano and Kaduna.
We have started with Ikorodu, also moving nothing less than 200 containers there so that our customers do not need to come to Apapa to load with their trucks. These are steps we have taken to save time and achieve customer satisfaction.
Next year, we are also looking at how we can penetrate the South-East. We want to have a presence there. Our plan in the next six month is to have a bonded terminal in a town in Oba, Anambra, about 30 kilometers away from Onitsha.
We have gotten land and provisional approval from the Customs, while we have an architect already working on the drawings. I believe construction will start next year. We are also not surrendering our hope for the Onitsha River Port.
We were told it has been given out but the preferred bidder has not done anything on it yet. Our belief is that we may still get it because our bid bond is still there and has not been cancelled.
You are still eyeing the Onitsha River Port?
Sure. We are optimistic about getting it as preferred concessionaire.