A Novel Regional Maritime Single Window for Western Indian Ocean Countries

The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have proven revolutionary for global supply chains. As more countries went into lockdown, demand for commodities – especially in the West – spiked dramatically. Transatlantic and transpacific routes experienced a new shipping boom.

This meant that the container fleet capacity available for developing markets in Africa and Asia was reduced. Only 11 percent of the total cellular fleet is available for the Intra-Asian market, down from 12.8 percent recorded at beginning of last year. The capacity available for Africa decreased from 7.5 percent to 6.7 percent, according to recent data by Alphaliner.

This evolution of the ocean freight sector suggests a risk of marginalization of small economies and island markets. Propelled by this notion, the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) – an intergovernmental body that links island nations of the Southwest Indian Ocean – has come up with a project to shield these countries from shocks in global supply chains.

The Indian Ocean Commission, through its program on Enhanced Maritime Connectivity, wants to establish a regional single window system to spur trade facilitation amongst its member states. These include the island nations of the Union of Comoros, Reunion (France), Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. It will also extend to South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania as partner countries.

Why would IOC want to undertake such a daunting task, especially taking into consideration that the connectivity and productivity of ports within the Western Indian Ocean is limited?

“The trade agreements we have had with US and EU in the last decades have only made us focus on international markets. If anything, COVID-19 has shown us that there are limits to globalization. These limits should therefore make us to look into what we can source from our neighbors,” said Raj Mohabeer, the Director of Economic Affairs at Indian Ocean Commission in an interview Friday.

Last week, the Commission convened a technical meeting in partnership with PMAESA (Port Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa). Present were also delegates from the  Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The goal was to finalize a feasibility report for a regional single window system and chart a course for implementation.

If successful, this could be the first regional maritime single window system in the world. The EU has legislation for a European maritime single window but a portal does not exist yet. The ASEAN Single Window, which integrates National Single Windows of ASEAN member states, is a general trade facilitation tool but is yet to incorporate a maritime module.

Remarkably, a regional maritime single window for Western Indian Ocean countries is plausible. Most countries in the regional already have a national single window and those without have comprehensive port community trade portals. For example, Kenya and Reunion (France) have comprehensive National Single Window (SW) systems. South Africa lacks a national single window but has elaborate ports’ community portals at each of its ports.

The question then is in achieving an integration strategy for the regional single window system. The first step is to determine the minimum threshold for existing national single systems. This is in terms of types of business processes they should support, like ship to shore clearance, border control and customs, among others. Then, there is a need to have a regional framework on data protection. For instance, South Africa is not a signatory to IMO’s FAL convention, which technically encourages ships and ports to share data electronically.

The other step is creating a computer-to-computer communication channel to bring to life the regional maritime single window. The project consultant recommends creation of an API (Application Programming Interface) to integrate countries with existing national single windows. For late technology adopters, they can be connected through a specialized website. The objective is to have a scalable module that can be adapted to different technology scenarios existing in the region.

There is considerable skepticism on how the region will actualize the concept of a regional maritime single window. When I posed this question to Raj Mohabeer, he quoted the success of the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) based in Madagascar. As a novel maritime security architecture, it monitors shipping activities within Western Indian Ocean to improve maritime domain awareness.  RMIFC functions under the aegis of the Indian Ocean Commission. When it was being launched in 2012, it was a one of a kind platform globally.

Source: The Maritime Executive