The ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) last week by the Federal Government is expected to have resounding impact on the Nigerian economy. Some firms are positioning to key into the pact. One of such firms is the Inland Containers Nigeria Limited (ICNL), the parent company of Kaduna Inland Dry Port. The firm, which has been in the forefront of taking maritime activities to the North, says it is set to explore the Niger Republic market. ICNL’s Managing Director, Ismail Yusuf speaks on this and more, including his company’s projections for 2021 in this interview with journalists. MUYIWA LUCAS was there.
This has been a challenging year for businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ENDSARS protests. How have these affected your business?
This year, we all know the problems we have faced and still facing as a result of the corona virus pandemic which affected every sector of the economy. As Inland Container Nigeria Limited (ICNL), the operator of a bonded terminal in Kaduna and Kano, it affected us seriously because majority of our customers were unable to go abroad to place their orders. You know 60 -70 percent of products brought into the country are manufactured from China. A lot of businesses were affected around the world as a result of the pandemic. As per our own operations, the volume expected of us dropped drastically, notwithstanding that the Federal Government allowed us to come into the port and operate during that period as a result of essential services privilege that are required for the medicals being brought in. I think we have lost about 40 percent of what we were expected to make during that period. Even those ones that we got, we still have problem and challenges from government officials in terms of documentation, holding on to jobs, etc which affected our business. The roads are also very bad which causes containers to spend extra days on their way to Kano and Kaduna which accrues more cost to importers. Apart from that, there are other challenges facing Kano and Kaduna businesses. We are looking at how we can remedy that next year to avoid a repeat of what happened this year.
What is the value of the loss ICNL incurred during this period; also how many staff members lost their jobs?
Loss of revenue during Covid-19 for close to six months was about N750 million. We are however happy that we did not lay off any staff member, although some left the company voluntarily. It was not an easy decision not laying-off workers, but we had to work around it because we didn’t want to throw anyone into the labour market; it was nobody’s fault that there was a pandemic.
Government is desirous of extending maritime services to the North, especially Kano and Kaduna, where you have presence. To what extent have you interfaced with business communities there? How have you influenced them to patronise maritime services?
Kano, we all know, is a hub of commercial activities. If you look at the volume of import that goes to Kano and aggregate the total that goes to the north, Kano takes 50 percent of it. ICNL established in Kano in February 1980 and the purpose is to move the maritime activities closer to the people of the hinterlands, saving them the stress and much cost of coming to the coastal areas themselves. I believe they are happy with the services we are rendering and we are number one, no competition. Even if we have competitors, they are not doing 30 percent of what we do in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and customer satisfaction. I was in Kano three weeks ago to meet with some of my customers. I met with the Commissioner for Commerce to discuss business and how we can organise seminars with the business community in Kano. I also met with the Deputy Governor who assured us of the state’s support. Very soon a change will also come for Inland Containers, Kano, in terms of upgrade.
Government recently talked about extending rail lines through the Kano axis to Niger Republic. To what extent is ICNL prepared to maximise the logistic linkage between Nigeria and Central Africa?
It is a good move for us because we have been looking at how to penetrate surrounding countries. With this planned African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), our target is to see that we do business with countries like Niger, Mali, Chad and even Cameroon. Earlier this year, I and our subsidiary company went to Maradi in Niger to canvass for business and we were accepted. The people there are eager to do business with us. We had gone to Niger Republic ahead of Federal Government ratifying the AfCFTA. We have been there with the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) President, Prince Iju Nwabunike. We visited about three states there- Maradi, Niamey the capital and one other state. In Niger, we met with their Chamber of Commerce and they are willing and eager to do business with Nigeria. They even prefer Kano because of the local language similarities which makes transaction easier. When we came back from the trip, we reported to the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) and also wrote to the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), telling them our plan. The NSC set up a committee to look at the modalities to ensure that we have a smooth running in terms of business transactions with those countries. The committee has met thrice and once they conclude their deliberation and report, we will take it up from there.
How has the ongoing rail repairs affected your operations considering that ICNL is very much dependent on road haulage?
This has affected us 100 per cent. The purpose of establishing inland dry port or inland bonded terminal is to make cost of clearing cheaper to the users. That is why the company was sited very close to the railway in Kano. With this new development, the narrow gauge we are talking about has been suspended by the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) as they are not operating fully due to Covid-19. We believe that by the time the pandemic subsides, they will go back to full functioning capacity. Apart from that, the standard gauge that the Federal Government is working on has not reached Kano. That of Lagos to Ibadan will also be standard gauge. We have discussed this with the NRC and they assured us that they will not abandon the narrow gauge. If the standard gauge is working to Ibadan, they will still put the narrow gauge to use for us to transport our goods from Lagos to Kano, pending the time the government extends the standard gauge from Ibadan to Kano.
What is the degree of ICNL’s presence in other ports like Warri, Port Harcourt, Onne and Calabar? How is ICNL operating there?
We are yet to be in Warri, but we are in Port Harcourt and Onne. Necessity also made us have an operational office there due to the stress of accessibility in Lagos as a result of congestion and gridlock in the area. Our priority is to service our customer with a lesser cost, but we discovered that trucks will come from Kano with exports and will not be able to access the Lagos port. Our drivers have to sometimes pay their way through Ijora, a move that does not work all the time. Sometimes, after paying, you are turned back. There is also the issue of Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA). The company felt it was becoming too strenuous and people were tired to come to Lagos to clear their goods, so we opened an office in Onne two years ago, from where we now move containers to Kaduna and Kano. Things have been going very well. I have about six staff working there now.
Let’s look at 2021. What are your plans, projections and programmes for the industry, your business and the economy?
The Chairman and Board of Inland Containers are working seriously towards the expansion of the business and also how to make our services more attractive to our customers. Apart from opening an office in Onne, we have engaged barge operators who will move containers out of the port to suburbs and the truckers will not need to come to Apapa again. One of them is the Ikorodu Lighter Terminal. We have already started operations but we will increase our activities there next year. Secondly, we have also engaged another barge operator, operating in Itokin, after Ikorodu, in Ogun State. I have been there to assess the terminal myself and work has already started. I think in the last one month, we have moved over 300 containers from Itokin to Kano and Kaduna. We have started with Ikorodu, also moving nothing less than 200 containers there so that our customers do not need to come to Apapa to load with their trucks. These are steps we have taken to save time and achieve customer satisfaction.
Next year, we are also looking at how we can penetrate the South-East. We want to have a presence there. Our plan in the next six months is to have a bonded terminal in a town in Oba, Anambra, about 30 kilometers away from Onitsha. We have gotten a land and provisional approval from the Customs while we have an architect already working on the drawing. I believe construction will start next year. We are also not surrendering our hope for the Onitsha River Port. We were told it has been given out but the preferred bidder has not done anything on it yet. Our belief is that we may still get it because our bid bond is still there and has not been cancelled. We are optimistic about getting it as preferred concessionaire.
– The Nation