Founder and CEO of Fortune Global Shipping & Logistics Limited, Eric Opah’s dream is to sustain the company’s drive as a key global player in the maritime industry beyond the shores of Nigeria. The Nigeria 50 Award, sponsored by the Tony Elumelu Foundation with Professor Michael Porter’s All World Network (USA), ranked Fortune Global Shipping 10th among the fastest growing companies in Nigeria. Opah has almost three decades of experience in the industry from Panalpina World Transport Group, easily regarded as the pinnacle for excellence in the maritime industry, and was the Director of Air Cargo for China Southern Air Cargo. The Fellow of the Nigerian Ports and Terminal Management Academy, Nigerian Institute of Logistics, who has a business degree from Abia State University, spoke with UDOKA AGWU on the challenges of the industry, and why getting the right rating around the world means that Fortune Global Shipping has to work harder. Excerpts:
How would you rate the growth of the shipping and maritime as well as air cargo sector in Nigeria?
Though these sectors have maintained significant growth over the past couple of decades, there remains a lot of room for improvement in terms of operational efficiency, technological approach or digitisation of the entire shipping and maritime sector. This view is specifically in response to the global industry trends and standard practices that promote industry performance and transparency. Rating both sectors on a scale of 1-10, I will put these sectors at 4 over 10 for several reasons. First, operational inefficiency. Second, functional duplicity of the regulatory bodies, leading up to multiple cargo examinations, charges, and cargo delivery delays. Third, significant knowledge gap in documentation, interpretation of taxes, tariff classification, poor knowledge of International Commercial Terms, INCOTERMS, and diverse regulatory requirements. Lastly, there is a huge deficit in technological and physical infrastructure. Most regulatory leaders of the Nigerian Maritime and general transport sector have limited knowledge of industry requirements and global best practices. This has inhibited the level progress anticipated for the 21st logistics industry.
Lagos seems to be overwhelmed by a concentration of the maritime business by the Federal Government, how healthy is the development for the economy?
Overwhelming Lagos with excessive maritime activities appears to be a deliberate act of poor planning, and weak orientation towards economic diversification. This position is largely informed by the facts that two decades following Nigeria’s independence there were at least five functional seaports in Nigeria, namely: the two Apapa ports (Tincan and Apapa main port), Warri port, Sapele port, Port Harcourt and Calabar port. All that was required in all these ports was infrastructural developments and the expansion of their operational capacities to maintain efficient import and export operations. The economic implication of the neglect of the eastern ports has led to: One, over-dependence on the Tincan and Apapa ports. This has overwhelmed Lagos to the extent that the traffic gridlock, delay in cargo delivery, disruption of other economic activities including the manufacturing sector and supply chains schedules across Nigeria. Another major consequence of this over-dependence of Lagos port has weakened the agro and other export sectors due to the difficulty and high cost of moving goods from the hinterlands to Apapa port.
How true is it that big ships cannot come to the South-East/South-South because the depth is not enough to accommodate them?
This is another excuse for not doing the right thing. The truth is that across the world, in places where ocean drafts are shallower than the others, economic exigency compels government to invest in dredging and expansion of port capacities to hold large vessels. Again, this appears to have some political undertone and calls for the Federal Government to invest in eastern port development in in a bid to decongest the port in Lagos.
Can we borrow a leaf from Egypt that dredged the River Nile?
Yes, we can. Yes, they were as this has been the practice in different parts of the globe. We can borrow a leaf from Egypt where the once shallow River Nile has become a major trade channel for ships from around the world.
How can the South East learn from Lagos that has constructed another port?
Let us correct an impression here. The onus rests on the Federal Government through the Nigerian Ports Authority to construct port infrastructure anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, South East governments can collaborate with the Federal Government through the Nigerian Ports Authority and private investors to develop ports and free trade zones as is the case with Lekki and Lagos free zones. However, the Lekki Free Trade Zone is supported by easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. The Federal Government needs to give licences and permits or right of way for private investors to get involved in development of a deep seaport between Abia and Akwa Ibom for instance. South East governors also need to sell the viability of eastern seaports initiative to private investors; develop action plans for pushing for approvals of such investments.
How safe are the sea routes from piracy?
The sea routes are safe to the extent of the security measures put in place along them. In other words, without effective security patrols by the Nigerian Navy and other security agencies, one cannot say that the sea routes are safe.
Why is the sector not maximising freight and passenger movements within the country?
Due to the huge infrastructural deficit, evident in poor inland waterways and road development, inadequate rail channels have affected virtually every means and mode of transportation for both freight and passenger movement across the country. Similarly, insecurity prompted by terrorism, kidnapping, banditry and highway robberies are critical inhibitors of freight and passenger movements across Nigeria.
Is it all about speed and safety?
No! While speed and safety are critical success factors, logistics infrastructure, cost of moving freight and passengers are other key considerations.
What are the major challenges that the maritime logistics industry faces?
There are several problems bedeviling the Nigerian logistics industry, which include:
Duplicity of regulatory agencies in the Nigerian logistics value chain; Poor Information Communication Technology capabilities; Technical incompetence
Shortage of professionally trained talents
Inefficient Customs processes; Poor quality of trade and transport related infrastructure; low quality services; Poor Policy Implementation; Limited access to funding; Dominance of foreign players; Near or complete absence of refrigerated facilities to accommodate agricultural and perishable products; Economic Volatility and Insecurity; Over concentration of port operations in Lagos; Unregulated and non-compliant freight forwarding agents; Ineffective sanction mechanism; and corruption due to heavy dependence on human interface in the logistics processes.
What makes Fortune Global’s services unique?
There are so many things that make our services unique. Key among them are our commitment to service excellence, quality, safety, compliance, transparency, and customer centricity. In other words, customers satisfaction in terms of delivery efficiency, cost and effective relationship management are critical areas of interest to us as a company.
What goals and aspirations have you set for yourself?
My goals and aspirations are diverse, and they range from personal to industry-based goals. As an entrepreneur, my goal is to continue to grow the Fortune Global Shipping of my dreams into a globally competitive business enterprise. Again, I aspire for a Nigerian logistics and forwarding industry where the players can be described as competent, professional, and trustworthy as against the dominant view that most multi-national enterprises and international industry players hold.
What does the doctorate mean to you?
It is a call to greater aspirations and continuous commitment to excellence as well as the need to invest in human capacity development through education and job-based learning. It reminds me of the need to set-up a professional training academy for the Nigerian logistics industry as part of my own contribution to the development of the logistics sector in Nigeria. Education is important beyond the maritime industry. I am President of the Mbubo Transformation Group, a platform for community development in Abia State and I have Eric Opah Foundation, and I am also the President of Umunna-Nsulu Progressive Forum. These platforms are strong on education and empowerment of youths. The Abia State Government honoured me with the title of Oke Oji Abia or the Great One of Abia, in recognition of my modest contributions.
The way forward?
The way forward is to revitalise all existing ports with ultramodern equipment and the requisite IT infrastructure, while developing the critical access roads and rail lines to promote efficient supply chain systems. Without these, there is huge revenue loss to the Federal Government through diversion of vessels and businesses to other ports within the West African zone such as Cotonou and Lomé ports.