Operations at the Nairobi Inland Container Depot (ICD) have thrown the import and export business in disarray over the past 10 months since the Standard Gauge Railway freight trains started transferring goods to the facility.
Importers have incurred huge losses arising from delayed clearance of goods, with the Shippers Council of Eastern Africa (SCEA) estimating that for the first seven months from operations of the ICD, importers paid over Sh2 billion in storage charges.
While one of the major cause of delay is failure to locate their goods in time, the question on the lips of industry players is: Why is it difficult to build a digital solution especially with Kenya as the undisputed leader in technology?
“Clearing and forwarding agents say there is no streamlined system that offers unified messaging updates on the progress of clearance of their goods. Some rely on WhatsApp groups to send consignment updates where recipients have to scroll hundreds of messages to locate those that concern them, which is time consuming,” says William Ngure, business development manager at Cybermonk Software Development Limited, a Mombasa-based company.
He says customer service departments are also overwhelmed dealing with hundreds of emails with cases of more than 30 messages daily on a single consignment.
“Accounting departments are also facing challenges of under invoicing due to lack of real-time updates on accrued penalties storage and demurrage charges,” he adds.
A finalist in the Business Daily Next Big Thing competition in 2014, Mr Ngure says there is need to build customer-centric solutions to solve the problems facing the import and export sector. He says The Next Big Thing gave him an opportunity to interact with business mogul Manu Chandaria from whom he learnt that customer-focused solutions win the market.
“The SGR has reshaped clearing and forwarding operations and the major concern for agents is the ability to provide real-time and accurate progress updates to clients,” he said in a telephone interview.
According to Michael Mulela, lead software developer and director at Cybermonk, challenges at the ICD have to do with information management.
“The problem is that goods arrive at the facility and the importer finds out this information a day or two later, which delays the clearance processes,” he says.
About eight years ago, Mr Mulela developed a software for use by the clearing and forwarding fraternity, to solve some of the challenges faced by the industry players.
C&F PRO is a multi- platform system available online via web browsers, as a desktop application and on smartphones. It enables clearing and forwarding agents to organise clients, consignees, shipping lines, transporters and their fleet in their database. They can input and track consignment data as well as the Bill of Lading.
Users import vessel schedule reports and automatically update estimated time of arrival, the date the vessel is expected to berth at the port and the last container dispatch date for all consignments in the system and compute remaining days for demurrage.
In January 2016 when the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) started implementing the law on marine cargo insurance that requires importers to buy imports cover locally, Mr Mulela set up an interface in the system for insurers to provide their products.
C&F PRO was developed in collaboration with clearing and forwarding companies including DHL Global Forwarding, Goldsail Asia Africa Logistics Limited, IMA Kenya now (AMI Africa), Skyman Freighters and Logistics 365 Limited among others, according to Mr Mulela.
“A key feature of the system is the Action Centre, a central dashboard that provides snapshot of the entire freight forwarding operations at a glance providing notifications, alerts and recommended courses of action which goes a long way to simplify freight forwarding operations,” Mr Mulela adds.
The system also generates reports and update on the status of consignments with the Daily Cargo Status Updater. It also features a Container Control Tool to enable tracking of containers easily and an inbuilt demurrage calculator for each of the shipping line an agent works for.
Currently, at least 35 companies are suing the system with an estimated 50,000 monthly interactions between importers and C&F agents.
With a total budget of Sh42 million, the just completed project was funded by TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) through the Logistics Innovation for Trade (LIFT).
Industry players say since government institutions dealing with clearing of goods at the port and ICD don’t deal with importers and agents, some of the problems being experienced at the ICD would be solved by working with private software developers.
“Since digital systems have been developed, it would be a matter of giving... access to these systems and help us locate our goods in time,” said Imran Pasta, director at Logistics-365 Limited, a clearing and forwarding company under the Transpares Group, based in Mombasa.
When goods started being railed to the Nairobi ICD and the subsequent challenges in locating of containers, the problems of cargo delays troubled Mr Mulela who began to look for solutions. He put together a team of software writers who have developed a module that has already been integrated into C&F Pro, and which he believes will solve the challenges at the ICD.
“The system does not only indicate the current status of consignments but also advises on the next action the importer or agent is supposed to take,” Mr Mulela says, adding that he has already sent a proposal to the Kenya Trade Network Agency (KenTrade) and is waiting for a response.
“My inspiration in software writing are the problems that face the business community and the challenges at the ICD presented this opportunity,” says Mr Mulela who has been developing homegrown software solutions for the past 15 years.