By Uche Usim
VALENTINA Mintah, the Chief Executive Officer of West Blue Consulting, is an Information Technology (IT) enthusiast. She is the IT Consultant of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) who developed the Single Window Platform, the Nigeria trade hub and Pre- Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR), all trade facilitation tools used in clearance of goods.
Her firm also works for the Ghana Revenue Authority, Customs Division, and her goal is to ensure that IT is systematically used as an enabler in automating business processes and designing solutions to exceed clients’ requirements.
She explained that the implementation of a single window system enables international (cross-border) traders to submit regulatory documents at a single location and/or single entity. Such documents are typically Customs declarations, applications for import/export permits, and other supporting documents such as certificates of origin and trading invoices.
Mintah in a recent interview with journalists disclosed that despite the challenges faced by her firm in convincing Nigerian authorities to embrace the Single Window Platform, the project has not only swelled Customs’ revenue, but also earned the country a pride of place at the World Customs Organisation (WCO).
She speaks more about her company, challenges and service offerings.
Foray into Nigeria
When we came to Nigeria to work with the Customs, we faced initial resistance. The lack of political will from the top tends 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; we did not have the political will from the top. But after the project, Nigeria became a point of reference at the WCO. The WCO asked other Customs administrations to emulate Nigeria. After we had put the software and all the essentials in place, the result of Single Window became manifest. The Nigerian case is a huge success. 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, there were significant results that trailed the single window project. In two years, revenue collection went up by 20 per cent.
West Blue Consulting has also been engaged to handle the Single Widow project in Ghana. But I must say that there is no prototype for the project that must fit into all the countries. Each country has peculiar challenges. While in Nigeria we had no problems with the Customs and its operational apparatuses, the reverse was the case in Ghana because there was an attack on my person, even as a Ghanaian. 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.
The whole essence of the National Single Window is to reduce the time and cost of doing business across borders. Importers and exporters are the main drivers of economic growth. For a typical West African country, such as Nigeria or Ghana, there are about 200 pieces of information to be provided by an importer/exporter at offices of about 14 government agencies, banks and insurance companies. Some of these may require a return visit where mistakes occur. Now, the Single Window addresses all these.
The Single Window reduces time of doing business by 50 per cent and can bring down cost of doing business by 25 per cent. This reform is now helping to create a fundamental change of mind-set. Countries even in Africa that have embraced and implemented the Single Window have been able to reduce cost of doing business significantly and are doing so well. They include Coasta Rica, Rwanda, and Ghana which were also able to save about $200 million in 2015. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement Article 10.4 discusses the Single Window, while Article 4.1 states that members shall endeavour to establish or maintain single window – single entry point where all trade information can be accessed by government agencies and the private sector.
By 2020, about 100 economies and some regions would have implemented the Single Window reform, enjoying the benefits of pre-clearance formalities down from four days to 0.5 days and Customs clearance from 18 to nine days. The Single Window reduces export time from 22 to 11 days. But most importantly, it is about people more than technology. We need to ensure that intra-Africa trade is increased, so that all surpluses and deficits existing within the region can be balanced. Intra-Africa trade is very low, so we need to ensure that our systems talk to each other and our businesses talk together, so that we can look at the self-sufficiency that is needed for our continent.
We recently introduced online payment system, which will expedite cargo clearance and lower operations cost. This online payment solution for cross border trade, the first of its kind in the sub-region, offers shippers (importers/exporters) easy and flexible payment options using card payment (Visa and MasterCard), mobile money powered by telecoms operators and the various online payment platforms of commercial banks.
The new system comes with multiple advantages such as secured transactions, increased transparency, financial inclusion; it frustrates the use of cloned or forged trade documents. The system has rendered obsolete, paper invoices and bank confirmations with the attendant delay and inconvenience to members of the trading community.
Perhaps what is very significant is that the new addition to the Single Window project will make it possible for port users to clear and take delivery of their consignments within 24 hours.
Our core values are accountability, commitment, diversity, innovation and ownership. In accountability, we’re acknowledging and assuming responsibility for actions, products, decisions and policies. We’re also committing to great solutions and services that impact lives within and outside the organisation. We also acknowledge and respect diversity and establishing an employee equity programme. We’re also pursuing new creative ideas that have the potential to change the world and we ensure accountability for the outcomes of service/solution delivery to our employees and clients.
We work with the government a lot and it is changing the status quo. Government is beginning to understand that it is 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, 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 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, among others, 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 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 of 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, among others. 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, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), among others. They provide a right regulatory environment to ensure that 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.
About West Blue Consulting
West Blue Consulting is a business and IT-consulting and technology firm. We primarily work 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. 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.