Webb Fontaine Nigeria, an IT firm, was instrumental to successes recorded during the early years of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) automation. The firm created the NCS Integrated System (NICIS II) – a platform that has been adopted as a home-grown ICT innovation for Nigeria. In this interview with reporters, its Managing Director, Opeodu Babalola, who manages the company’s solutions in Nigeria, speaks on various ICT solutions being implemented by some government agencies, ease of doing business and trade facilitation. MUYIWA LUCAS was there.
Criticisms have continued to trail the $3.1 billion automation deal of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). What is Webb Fontaine’s position on this?
We don’t know where those reports are coming from and have no part in them. I have read them and was surprised to see Webb Fontaine’s name prominently featured. We are investigating the source of the media reports. We won’t in any way support a narrative that shows tendencies to discourage modernisation progress or against the work of the Federal Government of Nigeria to enhance revenue collection and border security. From what I have seen, the huge amount is to be brought in by the private sector. We have no issues with Bionica or their plans and we have neither initiated nor asked to be joined in a lawsuit against them. Let me say here, that Webb Fontaine is fully supportive of the Federal Government’s move to continue and improve upon the modernisation and full automation of the Nigeria Customs Service and its processes. This will help to facilitate trade, increase revenue and enhance national security, and improve Nigeria’s standing in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business indices. This has been our focus and we have remained consistent with this over the years.
To what extent would you say your firm has worked with the NCS?
Webb Fontaine was appointed by Nigeria Customs Service to implement a Customs-centric Single Window Portal. This encompasses the delivery of Webb Fontaine’s Customs Webb, Customs Management System nationwide as the Nigeria Customs Integrated System (NICIS II). NICIS II has been adopted as a home-grown ICT innovation for Nigeria Customs electronic platform. We have impacted in capacity building through training and retraining of Customs officers, some port users and other government employees. Specifically, on ASYCUDA ++ we trained 2,804 persons; on NICIS I & II we trained 10,260; on Database (Oracle) 36 and System Administration, 30. We brought a group of experts to talk at a webinar aimed at ensuring seamless trade transactions across our ports during the lockdown. Customs’experts like Stephen Adekunle Oloyede, Comptroller, Risk Management at the NCS and Apeh Fateh, Assistant Comptroller for ICT and Head of the Implementation Team, who took a ‘deep dive’ into the major issues facing global cross-border trade, debated the disruptions caused by the implementation of health and safety protocols at the webinar. They explored new concepts to improve the industry by introducing greater efficiency through technology, and the simplification of processes and checks. Nigeria Customs Service is already doing so much in the digital space, including application of e-form M, their revenue has experienced appreciable increase. The NICIS II has been recognised as a credible digital trade platform by the World Trade Organisation and the World Customs Organisation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on trade and logistics. How best do you think it should be managed in your areas of operations?
Navigating the complex world of logistics, international Customs and global supply chains in the post-Covid-19 era will require government agencies and the private sector to embrace new methods that prioritise digitalisation. We strongly recommend knowledge sharing and to streamline complicated and outdated processes for the benefit of all. Knowledge sharing will come with multiple benefits like increase in government revenue, support for trade and strengthening security in many ramifications. As a good corporate citizen, we also supported the Federal Government’s battle to prevent and manage Covid-19 with donations of equipment.
Other areas we touched in preparing for post-Covid-19 era are revenue collection, risk management inspections, passenger screening, client segmentation, movement of goods, regional and international connectivity, border management, crisis management and digitalisation. We placed emphasis on digitalisation as the world begins its journey to recovery and continues to adapt to the health safety rules now required for post-COVID-19.
During the lockdown, there were complaints of systems failure in IT. How effective was your platform at this period?
The Customs IT platform operated robustly throughout the period of reduced movement. The NCS generated N976.6 billion between January and August, despite the pandemic, which led to the shutting down of the country in March. They were able to adapt and be prepared for optimal operations even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Throughout lockdown, the NCS maintained its revenue performance, which may not have been the case for other government agencies. While the NCS revenue target changes from year to year, it was initially slashed in 2020 because of the expected revenue shortfall due to Covid-19. However, the collections up to May, this year were greater than last year’s total for the same period, and NCS achieved well over 60 percent of the target. NCS has shone a light on how important a digital-led Customs approach is, and in many ways is leading the way. With plans to get more automation as recently approved by the Federal Government.
Tell us about your other operations
We are also providers of IT & Telecom infrastructure for Nigeria. So far, we have trained over 10,000 Nigerians on various aspects of ICT-aided trade procedures. Other training sessions undertaken by us include SO Class for 6; Java 84; Help Desk, 213; Support, 26 and Networking 20. Our e-government software products, information and telecommunications technology and infrastructure services, peripherals and consumables, business process reengineering and standardisation have been applied successfully across various government agencies. Our services synchronise well with the Federal Government’s Ease of Doing Business and Trade Facilitation policies. We have always demonstrated commitment to helping government succeed in the drive to promote efficiency, time saving and transparency in the conduct of its businesses.
A lot of private sector operators have also found our support invaluable because of our culture of international best practices and promotion of legitimate way of doing things. It is pertinent I state that we are a company with international reach that has impeccable track records of providing trade solutions in several countries; we have demonstrated adequate capacity.
How do you sustain this record and continually ensure international best practice?
Very simple! We have created a report to continue the knowledge and ideas sharing. The report, as contained in a White Paper which examines how international best practices can be incorporated into all aspects of the country, particularly in emergency situations, and recommends possible routes of action in critical moments. It draws conclusions from lessons learnt globally and how these can be integrated into a detailed package of procedures to enable a smooth transition towards recovery and the resumption of normal business functions. The White Paper outlines a number of important recommendations and findings. The White Paper produced at the end of the programme examines how international best practices can be incorporated into all aspects of the sector, particularly in emergency situations, and recommends possible routes of action in critical moments. The report also draws conclusions from lessons learnt globally and how these can be integrated into a detailed package of procedures to enable a smooth transition towards recovery and the resumption of normal business functions.