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Unclogging Douala

Updated: 2014-10-17 13:05
By Messi Bala for China Daily (China Daily Africa)

Efforts start to clear backlog of goods at beleaguered east African port

Douala, Cameroon's largest city, is considered the richest in the Economic Community of Central African States.

It is also home to the region's most important port, an outlet for seaborne goods to and from neighboring countries, particularly Chad and the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Unclogging Douala

Hundreds of containers waiting to leave are adding to the congestion at the port of Douala. Provided to China Daily

At the mouth of the Wouri River, the port covers 1,000 hectares and has 10 km of berthing, 25 km of rail tracks and 20 km of paved road.

But the vitally important entry and exit point is starting to show the pressure of months of problems, caused mainly by aging and overworked facilities and a dispute over vital dredging of its main channel into port.

Regional conflicts have also meant huge fluctuations in goods coming through the port.

This year, for instance, there was a massive influx of wood from the Central African Republic, after months of interruption due to the risk of civil war looming in the country after the resignation of President Michel Djotodia in January.

Cabotage limits at the port now mean that many of its key areas of business have slowed to a snail's pace.

In the first six months of the year, the cost of shipping a 12-meter container from Douala rose from $4,400 to $5,400, according to users, and those extra costs are now being passed on to customers, no matter what they are transporting.

Local companies say the biggest issue facing the port involves the largest vessels being unable to gain direct access, due to a dispute between the port authorities and the company contracted to dredge the main channel that links the port with the open sea, about 50 km away.

For the past year, vessels have had to load and unload their cargo onto smaller vessels, which then negotiate the route into port, added time that becomes crucial especially for perishable goods such as food shipments, which still have a long journey after they clear customs. The added costs are again being passed onto customers.

Unclogging Douala

Operations at key areas of the port have slowed to a snail's pace. Provided to China Daily

Last month Cameroon's Minister of Transport Robert Nkili said the port handles 95 per cent of the country's foreign trade, and that its overstretched facilities have been affecting traders right across the sub-region.

Last December, several major importers said they had been unable to receive timely shipments ordered to supply markets during the vital Christmas and New Year period.

Pharmaceuticals, food products such as rice, sugar and flour, toys and clothing, mainly from China, arrive at the port and take many weeks to be offloaded, and many in the region have become increasingly concerned.

The congestion starts as soon as vessels approach the port's buoy base, the junction point between the river channel and the sea.

Because of the persistent buildup of sediment, perpetual dredging was needed to keep the main shipping channel at the required depth of 8 meters.

But for more than a year, dredging has been suspected, with the Belgian company responsible, Jan de Nul, claiming the Cameroon government owes it 11 billion CFA francs ($22 million).

"More ships are waiting at the buoy base than there are reception areas," says Eduard Fochive, chief executive of Marine Magistrale, a firm handling, transit and consignment.

During the last week of August, about 16 huge container ships were waiting, among 25 vessels in total, he says.

Gabriel Manimben, director-general of the Agency of Maritime Services, a major port operator, told the Cameroon newspaper Tribune that he reckoned at any one time there might be 23 vessels stationed at the buoy base, waiting for berthing. One had been berthed at the site since May 21.

Onshore, meanwhile, some of the longest delays are being felt in the port's timber yard, where wood being exported from Cameroon, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo is stacked high, waiting to leave for Europe, America and Asia.

Last year, 60,000 cubic meters of wood remained in one yard and warehouse, for instance, operated by the Operating Company Lumberyards of Cameroon, a subsidiary of the French group Bollore Africa Logistics. By the start of June, another 83,823 cu m of wood had been added to the timber mountain.

Emmanuel Etoundi Oyono, chief executive officer of PAD, the public company that manages the hub port, admits he is concerned by the growing backlogs.

"Around 200,000 cubic meters of timber is stored at the port, and this is what has been causing a slowdown in traffic over the last nine months."

Adding to the congestion are hundreds of shipping containers waiting to leave, with more arriving daily by road and rail.

Douala, many businesses leaders say, is no longer able to cope with the demands of a regional economy that continues to grow.

According to a report issued in July by the National Port Authority, the regulator of all ports in Cameroon, traffic at Douala (which represents 99.7 percent of the country's maritime throughput) grew 9.8 per cent last year to 10,592,000 tons, exceeding 10 million tons for the first time.

DIT, one of the companies operating a fleet of smaller vessels involved in moving goods, started vital maintenance work late last year on its two gantry cranes that handle container loading.

The National Committee on the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic at the port recently highlighted "occupation of space by damaged goods", and the fact there is only one scanner available to port Customs to verify compliance with cargo declaration forms, as two other pressing issues.

Transport Minister Nkili insists he has initiated wide-ranging discussions with all the parties involved to unclog the port, some of which have taken place with ship-owners and traders transporting goods between China.

The first significant progress in Nkili's plans came in August, when China Harbour Engineering Corporation was awarded a contract worth $18.7 billion to start dredging the silted up main shipping channel.

The same month, the customs administration held a massive auction of goods that had been abandoned on the docks by businesses frustrated by the delays, and the crowded timber yard was extended.

DIT has meanwhile agreed to strengthen its production facilities, earmarking $8.15 million to build a four-gantry park to speed up the loading and offloading of containers, and to improve the performance of its two existing cranes.

About 150 kilometers south of Douala there are also plans for a new deepwater port to be built near the town of Kribi, which is expected to enter service later this year.

Kingsley Azieh Che, the chief executive of King's Group CO, a Cameroonian trader based in China since 2003, says because of the dreadful service in the past, tariffs for shipping into Douala should be cut.

"As a Cameroonian investor in China, my office is tired of trying to explain to customers what is going on with their goods at the port. It can take months for them to arrive.

"Some of these companies have to pay their own suppliers, and because their goods are taking so long to get to their destinations, they are struggling, given shipping can often take 35 to 45 days.

"One of the basic laws of supply and demand says that when prices are low, consumers will be willing to buy more goods."

"This also applies if custom duty is reduced, more investors will be willing to buy more."

He suggests the situation would also be eased considerably if the port authorities relax the process of containers declaration, so clearance can be managed in 3 to 5 days.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/17/2014 page23)

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