The importance of digitalisation as the world recovers and adapts to a post-Covid reality cannot be over-emphasised. Paperless transactions and online processes are crucial in ensuring people’s health and safety moving forward.
A recent white paper by Webb Fontaine says prioritising digitalisation, knowledge-sharing and streamlining complicated and outdated processes should be a priority in the complex world of logistics, international customs and global supply chains in the post-Covid era.
“Simply adopting new methods of working is not enough however, it is crucial that we analyse, evaluate and learn from the Covid-19 pandemic to create a business landscape that is flexible enough to cope with crises,” says Webb Fontaine’s CEO Alioune Ciss.
Webb Fontaine is a provider of solutions for trade and customs, with a focus on emerging technology such as artificial intelligence.
Within the logistics industry, inter-agency cooperation is still under-developed, and many sectors are reluctant to change, particularly adopting digitisation.
“However, we believe Covid-19 will fast-track a new spirit of co-operation, knowledge-sharing and innovation that will, in turn, spark an exciting and rapid drive towards a fully digitised, efficient and successful future for the global trade and customs sector,” says Ciss.
The trade and customs industry is built around the speedy movement of cargo across the globe, therefore systems that can automate, digitise and speed up this process are highly-sought after.
“Countries and entities that have adopted new tech, such as AI and digitally-focused processes, are reaping the rewards with huge improvements to their logistics network, rapid movement of cargo, efficient clearance processes and a reduction in illegal activities due to improved, dedicated and more thorough inspections,” says Ciss.
On the flip side, ports and firms that are yet to upgrade their operations continue to be mired in outdated paper trails, unnecessary delays and impractical and time-consuming routines, he adds.
“Customs and trade operations that had upgraded operations pre-Covid using AI and other forms of tech-led solutions were able to continue to process, register and move goods despite reduced staffing capacity as a result of health and safety concerns,” Ciss says.
“This played a major role in lessening the economic impact of the pandemic on regions and nations that had implemented far-reaching and forward-looking technology and system upgrades,” he adds.
During the pandemic, various customs procedures were waived. For example, goods were released before a final declaration was submitted, post-release checks sometimes became the norm, payment of duties and taxes was deferred, or sometimes waived or reduced while lighter ‘trusted traders’ programs were put in place.
However, these were primarily contingency measures, with the understanding that customs would revert to traditional methods once the crisis was over, Ciss observes.
“The challenge, therefore, is to ensure that many of these good procedural innovations are consolidated, expanded upon and rolled out alongside new technology systems, AI and other innovations across the sector,” he says.
In an increasingly globalised world, goods and services traveling across borders generate a constantly increasing amount of data that must be sifted through, checked, approved and paid for.
Two of the key performance indicators for customs are clearance times and revenue collection – if either factor is flawed, the movement of goods is hindered, which can have drastic consequences. Many customs administrators still resolve these issues manually, which can result in delays, increases the potential for fraud and makes for inefficient and outmoded work processes, Ciss observes.
Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, allows for the immediate reading and understanding of a customs transaction, automatic data verification and the automatic classification and pricing of merchandise – allowing customs employees to focus on problematic transactions, rather than manually checking everything, and to carry out inspections, etc.
“AI can understand what rules are applicable and take instant decisions to route a transaction for inspection or clear it while also scanning through millions of past transactions and data sources in seconds to make the best decision possible,” he adds.
This makes AI essential to a modern customs organisation as it ensures compliance is enforced without slowing down economic activity.
“However, it must be understood that AI is not a magic solution; it requires rigorous understanding, testing and monitoring by humans and it is, therefore, necessary that appropriate structures are built around all AI systems before they are applied,” Ciss explains.
Webb Fontaine has participated in several marquee logistics projects in the region.
At the Ajman Department of Ports and Customs (DPC) Webb Fontaine launched a Digitalised Customs Clearance System covering all customs operations. The system, called ENJAS, offers a suite of technological tools covering the full spectrum of trade and customs processes.
ENJAS provides a comprehensive Integrated Automated Customs Information System, which is operational in all customs offices and linked to government services, departments and regulatory bodies in the emirate and nationally, such as the UAE’s federal banking, tax, customs and safety and standards authorities.
One of the innovative solutions introduced into the Ajman ports project has been an AI search engine that helps customs officials and traders swiftly and accurately determine the standard Harmonised Commodity (HS) Description and Coding System, Ciss says.
“The AI search engine allows users to search for any HS code based on the commercial description of goods. By employing AI, searches are faster, more targeted and results more accurate and less generic, delivering the correct data when it is needed,” Ciss explains.
“Technology employed in the Webb Executive Vision (WEV) tool enables the large volumes of data collected via customs clearance operations to be organised and presented in an easy to use, highly visual and intuitive manner, allowing management to take strategic decisions,” he adds.
In Bahrain, Webb Fontaine was appointed by the kingdom’s Customs Affairs 2011 to implement an Integrated Trade Facilitation System (ITFS) covering the whole spectrum of customs and regulatory agencies transactions. This encompassed the delivery and full implementation of Webb Fontaine’s Customs Management System, locally named as OFOQ.
OFOQ, which means Horizon in Arabic, is a secure electronic trade facilitation system that provides traders and regulatory authorities with a fully eCustoms and eTrade compliant environment.
The system is based on technology that provides a common platform for integrating electronic trade documents from customs, regulatory authorities, cargo scanning facilities, freight forwarders, shipping lines, commercial banks and port authorities.
“OFOQ will form the backbone of Bahrain’s National Single Window and greatly enhance the ability of traders within Bahrain to compete at a global level, contributing towards the country achieving its aim of becoming a global logistics hub,” Ciss explains.
In recognition of this implementation, Bahrain Customs Affairs won the prestigious Best Government ICT System Award in 2019 for the OFOQ Customs Management System at the Bahrain Government Forum.