• Monday, July 22, 2024
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‘Our platform helped Customs generate over N1.5trn revenue’


In 2020, the Nigeria Customs Service generated revenue of over N1.5 trillion, surpassing its target of N1.3 trillion in a year the economy and trade witnessed significant challenges. OPE BABALOLA, managing director of Webb Fontaine Nigeria, which provides the technology powering the Customs’ service operations, shared insights with CALEB OJEWALE, on the company’s technology offerings and plans to invest in developing Artificial Intelligence in Africa.

Webb Fontaine got some awards at the 2020 Nigerian Technology Awards (NiTA), what do you think made you stand out for that recognition?

I think it was just recognition of the work that we have been doing all these years. We are the technology backbone for the Nigeria Custom Service (NCS) and for several years the NCS themselves have been winning awards for the solutions. So a couple of years ago NiTA I believe realized that they were rewarding the beneficiary of the solution, but not recognizing the backbone of the solution and in the last couple of years, both Webb Fontaine and the Nigeria Custom Service have been winning technology awards. It is not a sudden flash, this has been years of building, steady work and partnership with the federal government as well as the Nigeria custom service, and we are very pleased to be recognized.

Let’s talk about the work you’re doing with the Nigeria Custom Service, what technology do you actually offer them and how has this impacted their operation since they started using it?

We have worked with the NCS since 2006. Initially we came in to implement the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) from UNCTAD for customs management system. After a few years it became obvious that Nigeria and NCS’s needs had to go beyond that and so we were able to craft additional systems and then develop an entirely new system based on that. We simply manage the technology, communication, computer hardware and software, etc.

Our technology covers the entire Customs chain especially the import side right from the form M that people go to the bank to apply for and then the Pre Arrivals Assessment also known as PAA, the collection and inspection and everything that has to do with the entire trade value chain. So basically it’s every aspect of the work of Customs as relates to trade. To do that, we have had to meet their needs so we sit down regularly with NCS and they explain what they need. Also, over the years we have trained many Customs officers who are now the ones implementing these Solutions.

How has the solution provided by Webb Fontaine impacted on NCS operations, as regards efficiency, productivity, profitability. What results have they recorded?

Well, first of all, it has put the entire trade chain onto one platform so agents can go on the platform and get insurance certificates and other necessary documents from various regulatory agencies like the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), etc.

The agents can do everything on one platform instead of going from one place to another which saves time and reduces stress, it has enabled a traceable process and has also enhanced Customs revenue to as high as over N1.5 trillion. Customs recorded the highest revenue ever even before the end of the Year.

Looking at Pre-2006 and post-2006 (working with NCS), can you quantify in terms of percentages how your involvement has led to increase in productivity?

I can’t tell you about pre 2006 but from 2006 to about 2012-2013, we were using ASYCUDA plus. Customs revenue at the time was in the region of N300 to N400 billion. At that time we did an enhanced form of ASYCUDA which is basically a worldwide system used by UNCTAD, and revenues jumped to about N700 and N800 billion. From 2017 when we implemented the Nigerian Integrated Customs Information System (NICIS 2) at the request of NCS, between then and now revenues have gone from about N1.2 trillion to N1.3 trillion, and in 2020 over N1.5 trillion, so it goes up every year and it is going to go even higher.

What in the administration of this platform do you think makes it easy for Revenue to increase. Does it block leakages or does it simply create new opportunities for them to make money?

It does both. First of all it prevents leakage because as you know technology really does not look at anybody’s face. It does not recognize anybody and it is not doing any favours to anybody, so it is totally impartial. For example when we helped SON digitize the compliance certificate that they issued, in the first two or three months about half of the people who were operating with them rushed to their offices saying their certificates are not registering because they were fake, which meant those people were paying but the revenue was not going to the correct place. That is part of the leakage that was blocked. We have also done similar things with the NCS and other regulatory agencies.

The second way is in identifying new opportunities, for example the process with the post office helping them collect Customs revenues for things that are being imported abroad. There are applications like smart fraud detection, which uses artificial intelligence to guide the risk management modules to make it quicker. In essence, we help the NCS to block leakages and all other challenges that may arise in the course of carrying out their duties.

I read somewhere that the Bahrain Customs won the best government system award in that country and it seems this also had to do with utilising solutions by Webb Fontaine, is that similar to what is offered in Nigeria?

I will be bold to say that what we are offering in Nigeria is over and above what we are offering almost anywhere else. Without going into too much detail, I would just say we have done much more in Nigeria than we do pretty much elsewhere. We do not offer every single solution in every single country where we operate because they have different needs and different requirements and we are available to do so actually and we continue discussing with Customs regularly to proffer solutions whenever and wherever it is needed, but yes we are offering the top notch of our solutions worldwide in Nigeria.

It was recently announced that your company is making some African investment which includes an R&D centre for AI, can you specifically tell us what these really entail and how is it going to work out?

Well, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreements (AfCFTA) and I believe that it is really going to be one of the biggest areas of growth for many kinds of businesses in African trade. The free trade area is going to boost inter-African trade, presently I think there is only about 16 percent trade between African countries, so we are not even trading enough with ourselves.

This trade area is going to make the market huge and I think we have a lot to offer in that area. As we offer it, we believe that we can invest in making it possible in personnel, infrastructure, knowledge and other things because we have a huge knowledge base from the experience that we have gathered everywhere. So I think that there is a lot that we can do to help.

Also, Webb Fontaine’s modus operandi has always been to invest in our host countries and environment. We never leave a place the same, we always enhance and do a lot more. Therefore, we believe that we have an opportunity and our host, the African continent has a lot to benefit from the knowledge database and experience that we have had in several other countries. You can also imagine the synergies that we will have as a result of being able to operate in different countries, the amount of communication and cooperation that can happen as a result of different countries being automated. We are really looking forward to that and we think that is really going to take both Webb Fontaine and African trade to a new level.