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Cargo delays in Sub-Saharan African ports: What’s the problem and what can we do about it?

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CPCS infrastructure specialist and economist Kristen Hartpence tells us in simple words why cargo sits for days in Sub-Saharan African ports and why that is a problem for the global economy. 

In North America, we are accustomed to getting what we want whenever we want, thanks to rapid delivery services and online stores like eBay or Amazon. This is not the case in developing countries, where transport often faces long delays. Transport delays increase the costs of trade, hamper economic growth and worsen climate change.

Understanding the causes of these delays is the first step in addressing them. However, the remedy goes beyond spending large amounts of money on new ports, roads and railways. Often, regulatory, policy and institutional solutions can work just as well to reduce these delays—and at a much lower cost to boot.

1. Why is cargo delay a problem in Sub-Saharan African ports?

African countries rely extensively on ports for both imports and exports. Having goods sit in these ports for weeks at a time is bad because:

  • African consumers pay even more for imported products.

  • African businesses become less competitive in global markets.

  • Idling ships and trucks add to greenhouse gas emissions

2. How long are cargo delays in Sub-Saharan African ports?

Cargo delays can last up to 20 days.

Specifically, import cargo (cargo destined for the port country) sits for 14 to 17 days; transit cargo (cargo going through the port to another country) lingers at least 15 days before they are transported inland.

In contrast, delays last 3 to 4 days in other ports around the world.

3. What’s causing cargo delays in these ports? 

The cause of delays depends on the type of cargo.

Import cargo is hamstrung by slow customs processes. Verifying and valuing goods, confirming customs duties payment and confiscating smuggled items all take a lot of time in Sub-Saharan African ports.

Transit cargo, which uses the port as a layover before moving on to their destination country, is hampered by terminal operator processes. The terminal operator takes a long time to manually invoice the foreign trader, and the latter takes equally long to respond. Stringent regulations also mean that all cargo must go through an X-ray scanner.

4. Why do customs and terminal operator processes take so long in these ports?

Customs processes are the largest source of delays for import cargo. These activities take time because customs inspect too many containers. At any given time, customs workers can inspect up to 70 percent of the containers in port. Workers usually use X-ray to scan these containers, but they may have to empty them for a more thorough physical inspection. Think about how many cranes and trucks it takes to move hundreds of 30-ton containers and how much congestion that creates.

Terminal operator processes, which affect transit cargo, are constrained by poor information access. Some Sub-Saharan African ports don’t allow foreign traders to electronically receive port invoices. This means a local agent must relay the documentation to the foreign trader. Moreover, the invoice sent to the foreign trader is sometimes incomplete, which prolongs the wait.

5. What can Sub-Saharan African ports do to reduce wait times at the customs level?

To reduce customs delays, these ports can consider an intelligent risk management system. Using past data, the system predicts which containers can be expedited and which should be carefully inspected. The system “learns as it goes,” so it becomes even more accurate as data grows.

With an automated monitoring system in place, the physical inspection rate of import cargo should drop from 70 percent to less than 5 percent. This can reduce the time a container needs to wait before it is transported inland by a week

Furthermore, improved risk management can reduce the rate of X-ray scanning from 100 percent of cargo to less than 25 percent, significantly decreasing cargo delays.

6. What about reducing delays at the terminal operator level?

An electronic single window system (ESWS) can help facilitate terminal operator processes. The ESWS serves as a “one-stop shop” that connects and stores all information and files within one accessible system. This means foreign traders can access their invoice online instead of waiting for a physical liaison. Complications due to incomplete documentation would be solved with a few clicks.  

ESWS has shown to reduce delays for transit cargo by several days in ports that have adopted it.

Overall, implementing these low-cost regulatory measures can reduce cargo delays from over two weeks to a few days. Businesses and consumers can get their goods faster. Customs can save resources and lower their expenses. And the environment gets to be cleaner with fewer trucks idling around.

7. Any last words?

CPCS has a lengthy track record in solving delays in Sub-Saharan African ports. Just two years ago, our experts devised a strategy centred on a truck appointment system to reduce congestion in a Nigerian port. The same strategy saw success in the Port of Manila, reducing congestion by 25 percent during peak periods.

CPCS also has extensive experience facilitating transport in African trade corridors in general. We’ve recently delivered a spatial development study for a trade corridor linking Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast) to Nigeria. We’re now busy reviewing the trade sector in Southern African countries.

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