By Uche Usim

Ope Babalola, the managing director of Webb Fontaine Nigeria Limited, does not rest, literally speaking.

He is constantly charting new courses and working to simplify port clearance processes powered by ICT.

His company, with branches in Africa and around the globe, provides the necessary infrastructure to support the automation of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and trade procedures.

The firm is also championing the crusade of demolishing trade barriers by creating a global arena in the ICT space where people and businesses can exchange goods and know-how in the most hassle-free way possible, for the benefit of their communities.

At a recent interface with journalists in Lagos on the prospects of the recently-inaugurated National Single Window Committee by President Bola Tinubu and how his company would leverage the opportunities created in the initiative, Babalola envisaged a superb synergy and said plans were afoot to help Customs generate N6 trillion in revenue this year.

He said the project creates a win-win scenario for players in the ecosystem as it would act as a transactional portal and data collector that can easily cross-check credentials for consistency and traceability, reducing errors and fraud.

“The status of ongoing document processing can be viewed in the Single Window at any time, including on mobile devices,” he said.

From an expert point of view, Babalola explained that the Port Community System (PCS) being promoted by Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) can run under the Single Window system with each complementing the other.

He spoke more about his firm and the port community in general.

Impact of the recently-launched National Single Window Initiative on the economy

This is a really commendable and worthy initiative that President Tinubu has launched. I will speak specifically to the trade environment, because my understanding is that this Single Window scheme goes beyond that.

A single window for trade allows all actors and participants involved in trade to come to a central place to access information, and to engage in the processes required with CBN, revenue authority, SON, NAFDAC, Customs, NDLEA, and all other relevant agencies. We already have a lot of this but this initiative will enhance it further and make the trade flow much smoother, faster and hopefully less expensive for importers, manufacturers and by extension, the general public.

Differences between Single Window and Port Community System

It’s actually not complicated. Single Window is the entry point. Under it, you will find the links to the portals for the associated agencies such as Customs, Ports, Aviation, etc. Each of these will run their own internal systems but there will be common information that can be shared. Instead of duplicating information and data or going from agency to agency, common data can be shared and accessed.

Also, processes involving input from two or more agencies can benefit from a common platform where data flows from one actor to another following a clear, predictable path.   

For example, both Customs and the ports use the same shipping data. The information is the same. Why can’t it be inputted once, stored and shared on the Single Window platform, for use by all interested parties that qualify for access? That is so much easier and more secure eliminating the errors and the waste of time introduced by the repeated capture of the same data by users.

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So, the Single Window is the platform where eligible users have access to the common data required. It is the platform to produce or consume data according to pre-programmed workflows.

Running the Port Community System on a Single Window without hitches or operational overlap

Of course it can be achieved. Single Window is simply an entry point. Once in, the participants can engage the agencies in the Single Window. It’s like going into a shopping mall. There are several stores that sell different things or provide various services, from ice cream to opticians. Just get to the mall and find the store you need. The two are not rivals, they are symbiotic!

Moreover, other agencies that are part of the Single Window can benefit from the high quality of data produced by the Port Community System platform.

Tell us about how your operations in Nigeria have impacted the economy and other areas

We are very proud of our record in Nigeria, and the impact we’ve made since 2006. Along with the management of Nigeria Customs Service we have helped to take Customs operations from manual to fully computerized and paperless operations.

Between 2017 and 2023, Customs revenue generation increased from N1.028 trillion to N3.192 trillion. You can see the growth and contribution to the economy. Every day, you read about Customs commands generating record revenues. That’s evidence of our contribution, since it is still our technology in use. Under normal circumstances, we should expect to see nothing less than N6 trillion in revenues this year.

Economically, where do you think Nigeria will be in the next five years if the NSW takes off with efficient implementation?

While the NSW is not the solution to all our problems, it can certainly make business to government interactions much easier to navigate. And easier navigation makes life easier for people.

What it will do if properly implemented is that it should speed up the Customs process, decongest our ports, reduce the cost of goods in the markets by reducing the cost of importation, and reduce corruption by removing a lot of human intervention. This is the classic definition of Ease of Doing Business.

It will also increase Nigeria’s attractiveness to new, major, investors by showing the country’s government commitment to utilize state-of-the-art technology to improve the business climate.

Tell us about some of the countries WF operates in and how they have benefitted from your work?

WF operates in 25 countries worldwide. We provide a wide range of services, and different combinations or aspects of those services in each location, depending on what we’re contracted to do. In the countries of Benin Republic and Cote d’Ivoire, we are the Customs and ports operators, and we can see how well those countries are doing. We are also in Guinea, DR Congo to the North, Kenya and Ethiopia to the East and Libya to the north, just to give a few examples. Outside of Africa we operate in Ajman, Bahrain, Nepal and Panama among others. We are a truly global brand.

Our Research and Development Centers are the largest in the industry, and are in several locations in Armenia, Philippines, Switzerland. 

Our work speaks for itself. In many of those countries, we have introduced innovations that have led to improved trade processes and sector developments. At times one sector even recommends us to another.

Is there a place for knowledge transfer and career progression for Nigerians working with Webb Fontaine?

At least 95% of our staff in Nigeria are Nigerians, including myself, of course, and some of my management team. Although we are a global operation, locally, we are very Nigerian and proud to be so. In addition, where there are global opportunities, our Nigerian staff are welcome to apply. We are one big family.

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