• Sunday, May 19, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

How barge operations are changing the face of Nigeria’s maritime logistics

Barge operations in Lagos

Barge operations are changing the face of Nigeria’s maritime logistics in Lagos, the country’s bustling commercial hub and home to its two busiest ports – the Lagos Port Complex and Tin Can Island Port Complex – with a bigger promise of opening up opportunities along the eastern waterways.

In the last two years, barge operators have emerged on Lagos waterways, striving to decongest the ports and roads by moving containers around the megacity seamlessly on barges, Edeme Kelikume, president, Barge Operators Union of Nigeria and chief executive officer, Connect Rail Services Limited, told BusinessDay in an exclusive interview.

Under the Barge Operators Union of Nigeria, there are six structured major players, 30 mid-level players, and another 50 unstructured players. There about 150-200 barges operational on Lagos waterways.

These operators are engaged in different types of barge operations. For import operations, each of the five major terminals processes about 200 containers daily. So, about 1,000 import containers are moved on a daily basis by barge operators. For export, another 600 containers and 1,000 empty containers. For general cargo, five to 10 barges are loaded every day.

“Without the barge operations, all these would have gone on the roads; this would require about 2,000 to 3,000 trucks daily,” Kelikume said.

“Barging has come to stay,” he said.

One way of understanding the changing face of Nigeria’s maritime logistics is to follow Kelikume’s entrepreneurial experience in the industry. He has moved from having little or no experience to re-opening the eastern waterways where opportunities abound.

Two years ago, he launched his barge operations with a barge and torque boat, setting sail from Port Harcourt to Lagos with little maritime industry experience.

Like most entrepreneurs, he saw an opportunity and ventured into it. It took about six months to gain traction, that is, from January to about June-July 2018. Within this period, there was no traffic to move except for maybe two or three operations, he recounted.

However, the managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority had already flagged off the operations on February 17, 2018.

Over six months of no traffic, Kelikume’s company continued to pay a million naira each day for the barge and torque boat. Today, when one takes a speed boat from Apapa to Mile 2 or Kirikiri, one struggles for space on the waterways because of the number of barges on Lagos waterways.

“This is only less than two years down the line. We have a different worry today, which is how to control the number of barges on Lagos waterways,” Kelikume said.

“I have been working with NPA, National Internal Waterways Authority (NIWA), and Lagos Waterways Authority (LASWA) to bring some sanity because it has grown beyond our imagination. Unlicensed barge operators have high nuisance value on the waterways,” he said.

Opening up eastern waterways

In late September and early October, Kelikume started thinking of how to take this phenomenal maritime logistics success story outside of Lagos.

This required a meeting with George Moghalu, managing director of NIWA, in July/August 2020.

In the meeting, Moghalu mentioned the agency’s desire to activate the Onitsha River Port.

Related News

In early September 2020, Kelikume took a trip to Onitsha to see the river port.

“When I got there, I was completely blown away. I saw two state-of-the-art brand-new cranes sitting idle and other expensive equipment amounting to millions of dollars,” he said.

Beyond Onitsha, he went as far as to Lokoja. On a subsequent boat ride, he went as far upstream on the River Niger as Baro, Niger State, where he saw similar equipment as at the Onitsha River Port.

Baro is a historical town with a railway terminal. It is the farthest part on the River Niger that is navigable. Baro is not accessible by road.

“I made the MD of NIWA a challenge that in two weeks I was going to bring the first barge of containers to Onitsha River Port. He said it was not possible,” Kelikume said.

Onitsha River Port was built 40 years ago and commissioned with state-of-the-art equipment in 2012.

“I left Baro, came back to Onitsha and arranged for an empty barge from Warri to Onitsha. This is a journey that should have taken three days but insecurity challenges on the waters made it take ten days,” he recounted.

The barge eventually got to Onitsha. The empty containers were onboarded, about 16 of them on the barge, and a day later the barge set sail to go to Onne Port.

The crew was kidnapped close to Port Harcourt but with the help of the military joint task force, the barge and captain were secured and with a little ceremony, this achievement was flagged off.

“This is the story of Onitsha. Lokoja is the next phase, which we are going to work on soon,” Kelikume said.
Piracy and insecurity on the waterways have not deterred these efforts. Kelikume said it is their trade, and success depends on understanding and managing the risks.

There are piracy problems on the international waters by the Somalian pirates. It does not stop international trade from going on or international vessels from calling Africa. It might increase the risk factor and insurance premium, though.

“That our crew was kidnapped on our first eastern voyage cannot stop us. We have the Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Marine Police, and the Joint Task Force. We are going to work with all these agencies, including the communities, the Niger Delta Community, and the Ijaw Youth Council, to make them understand that at the end of the day they are better off letting this succeed,” Kelikume said.

Furthermore, dredging the River Niger is indispensable and requires political will. The government has to see this as national politics not regional. It is about national competitiveness, he said.

Creating more access to Onne from Lagos will not weaken Lagos. The moment the Niger is dredged, and cargo can move from Lagos to Onitsha and by extension to Lokoja, it is in the interest of the country as a whole, Kelikume reckoned.

When cargoes start moving to Lokoja, it means all the trucks that are coming from Abuja, Kano, and Kaduna to Lagos would simply stop at Lokoja.

Where 1,000 trucks were required on the roads, 200 trucks can achieve the same objective. The benefits are numerous. The dredging needed is both initial and maintenance so that the river is navigable all year round.