Technology the key to Papua New Guinea ports’ improved efficiency

Welcome,

Papua New Guinea’s major ports of Port Moresby and Lae have achieved significant efficiencies since their takeover by the International Container Terminal Services, Inc (ICTSI) South Pacific. In this exclusive interview with Business Advantage PNG, Chief Executive Officer Anil Singh outlines the opportunities to grow both ports.

ICTSI delivered in 2019 three new hybrid rubber-tyred gantries for its subsidiary South Pacific International Container Terminal (SPICT) at the Port of Lae. Credit: ICTSI

‘We started as a new kid on the block as we didn’t have a presence in PNG,’ Anil Singh tells Business Advantage PNG. ‘But we are very encouraged by the progress that we have made in such a short time.’

Philippines-owned ICTSI South Pacific took over Lae port in February 2018 and Motukea in May 2018.

Since then, it has been able to achieve significant productivity on both wharves.

‘We have gone from four crane moves an hour pre-ICTSI to fourteen … The average stay of vessels has been reduced from three and a half days to 18 hours … a significant savings to shipowners,’ he says.

In the process, ICTSI has had to learn about doing business in a new country.

‘The most important thing here is to understand PNG and the people. They’re great people but you have to understand their way of doing business and how it is merged into international best practices,’ he observes.

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Going digital

ICTSI South Pacific’s Anil Singh

The key to the improvements, Singh explains, is the digitisation of processes.

‘There was no automation, no computer systems in place. It was all clipboards, paper and pencil, and tally clerks.

‘We brought in new systems and digitised a lot of the work. NAVIS N4 [a maritime data software program] is one of the top terminal operating systems, which we got in.

‘Previously, the exporter or importer didn’t know where their container was. Now, each customer can dial into our website, put in the container number and it gives him or her a location of that container – whether it is still on the ship, or on a truck, or in the yard, or awaiting clearance.’

Singh says information provided is more transparent and ICTSI has cut out the middleman, thereby reducing costs for port users.

‘Previously, they used to pay a fee to the broker, who used to pay the port, or who used to pay the shipping line who used to then pay the port. Everybody put in a mark-up.’

‘We have a commitment to invest and to modernise and we are going to meet that commitment.’

Alongside ICTSI’s own digital project, even Customs have improved transparency in customs processing at PNG’s major ports with the Customs Department’s implementation of the ASYCUDA system.

Singh says ICTSI is looking at how to integrate the NAVIS and ASYCUDA systems ‘so that both can get benefits of speed and transparency of information.’

‘We have a commitment to invest and modernise and we are going to meet that commitment.’

That also means more physical equipment, such as the three new state-of-the-art rubber-tyred gantries recently commissioned in SPIC Lae. Next, ICTSI will be bringing state-of-the-art ship-to-shore cranes to SPIC Lae soon.

‘You see them in Singapore, these huge cranes,’ enthuses Singh. ‘They will handle all the modern ships and are twice the speed of mobile harbour cranes. It is going to change the whole landscape in port operation.’

The goal is eventually to have ports that are fully automated as they are at the ICTSI-run port VICT Terminal in Melbourne, Australia, by way of an example, although it is some way away.

‘Is PNG ready for it now? No. But will it be ready? Sure. Whilst we are planning our equipment, we are planning semi-automation now and future-proofing the business.’

Growth

While its focus has been on achieving greater efficiencies, ultimately ICTSI is hoping for greater volumes of goods through the two ports to justify its investments.

Volume growth, acknowledges Singh, has been ‘incremental’. There was a spike during APEC in 2018 and in the first eight months of 2019, he says, but activity since then has slowed – due in part to lower volumes of coffee exports and delayed projects.

‘We want to bring that freight in and make Lae the Singapore of the South Pacific.’

However, he notes, if the Papua LNG project goes ahead, it will provide a ‘silver lining’ because it would increase activity at Motukea. Meanwhile, as and when the Wafi-Golpu project starts, it will provide a similar boost to Lae port.

Singh also welcomes the government’s proposed introduction of special economic zones in PNG – ‘a special economic free zone will add value to the port.’

Transhipment hub

ICTSI, through its PNG unit South Pacific International Container Terminal (SPICT) and social responsibility arm ICTSI Foundation Inc donated a second police station for the Omili suburb in Lae. Credit: ICTSI

Another opportunity, with so much international sea freight passing along PNG’s northern coast, is to position Lae as a regional transhipment hub.

‘We want to bring that freight in and make Lae the Singapore of the South Pacific. I don’t mean we’re going to compete with Singapore, but metaphorically we can compete in the West North-South trades.’

This would require a change of mindset, as transhipment is ‘not a local game’. It would also require PNG’s ports to be cost-competitive within the region.

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