Africa’s maritime industry is improving by embracing digitalisation

Analysis in brief: The realities of rapidly evolving ship technology and competition from other means of transportation have compelled Africa’s maritime industry to become more efficient, faster and environmentally friendly. This is largely achieved by the industry adopting digital solutions.

Online and computerised solutions to tasks associated with the maritime industry have made for more efficient movement of goods by sea, and much more is in store. In many ways, shipping remains as it has always been. Cargos are loaded and unloaded onto ships for voyages from Africa’s great Atlantic and Indian Oceans and Mediterranean Sea ports or from freshwater ports on Africa’s mighty rivers or great lakes. These trips are significantly enhanced by modern technologies like GPS, which make it impossible for any vessel to be ‘lost at sea.’ Cargo still goes through customs, but this process is also expedited by digital technologies. In shipping, speed and efficiency are the goals that need to be met to drive down costs. Lower shipping costs mean more profit for businesses and reduced prices paid by consumers.

How digital solutions are conceived also represents an advancement. IT companies once imposed one-size-fits-all solutions for their products used by any and all businesses and industries. (Accountancy software was uniform, for example.) However, as digital solutions became more versatile and targeted, the more specific needs of individual businesses could be accommodated. Sea shippers had similar responsibilities to shippers of cargo by air and road – satisfying customs requirements, avoiding time wastage, etc. – but they also operated under circumstances unique to the maritime industry.

The digitalisation of Africa’s maritime industry will, by necessity, continue to accelerate to accommodate innovative technologies, such as super-sized cargo ships and self-piloting autonomous ships. The industry has shown its adaptability to these as well as to emergency situations, such as when crucial grain imports from Ukraine were cut off by Russia’s invasion thereof, sea companies were able to quickly arrange for shipments from North and South America. Another example of industry-wide adaptation was the rerouting of shipping away from the Red Sea and Suez Canal when Yemen terrorists began targeting cargo vessels. More adaptation is inevitable, involving digital solutions. Further driving innovation will be the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which seeks to boost intra-Africa trade utilising water routes by 62%. The maritime industry must continue to further digitalise its operations to meet this demand.

Investment in digitalised operations have made the Port of Cape Town a more efficient facility
Image courtesy: Government of Western Cape

Technological fixes result in cost savings

The longer it takes for cargo to travel from shipper to recipient can be measured in waste, such as additional fuel burned and time delays that increase costs. Both problems can result from port congestion, which is one reason South Africa’s perennially congested Port of Durban is losing business to Mozambique’s modernised Maputo Port. This is also the reason for North Africa’s ports in Egypt and Morocco being preferred to less efficient North African ports in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. In a decongestion effort to load and unload vessels and get trucks and trains swiftly to and from the docks more quickly, Africa’s ports are digitalising their operations. To this end, customs operations are being digitalised: paperwork is completed prior to a ship’s landing and approved by customs officials, who electronically receive their customs duties. When the ship docks, all that remains is inspection of the physical cargo before it departs the port. This also reduces crime – from theft of cargo to smuggling. Shippers have found that electronic bills of lading, the contract between a shipper and customer, result in up to US$ 10 savings over paper bills of lading.

Real-time tracking services enjoyed by customers of online retailers like Amazon, showing the location of a package en route to delivery, are offered to shipping customers. This is made possible by the Automatic Identification System that tracks ships sailing the world’s sea lanes in real time. Ports also employ this system to receive a heads-up on the number of vessels headed their way to plan for any potential congestion. To run this is an essential, new crewmember aboard cargo ships: the data analyst. Monitoring the Automatic Identification System, the analyst advises the captain on which routes are the least congested. The analyst studies real-time weather conditions and alerts the captain to rough seas ahead. Real-time information on ocean currents also facilitates route decisions. By avoiding choppy seas, a ship reduces fuel consumption, which is one way digitalisation helps the maritime industry achieve its carbon-reduction goals to combat fossil fuel emissions. By monitoring weather, sea routes and the ship’s performance, a ship’s data analyst can reduce fuel usage by 10-20%.

An inevitable end of a seafaring era to achieve maximum efficiency

The life of a seafarer is a subject of story and fable, but these are all anchored in the past. The present day tells a story of automation enabled by digitalisation. Automation lowers labour costs and overall shipping costs by doing jobs like cargo handling, previously done by crew members, and tasks like cargo tracking and ship operations, once done by officers. The future sees the virtual end of any need for human workers aboard ships or ports.

Autonomous ships navigate by automated docking, using beacons that communicate with a ship via satellite
Visual courtesy: European Space Agency

Automated container terminals never shut down and are always in operation to load and unload autonomous cargo vessels that sail with no crew. These digitalised ships – maritime autonomous surface ships – monitor their operations in real time. Preventive maintenance is practiced forestalling breakdowns, using sensors to monitor engine operations and other of the ship’s activities. Breakages and emergency damage can be handled through automated procedures until the ship reaches its destination. This technology will likely be adopted overseas first, and then the lessons learned will be applied to African ports. African countries have shown their ability to finance port infrastructure upgrades – during the past decades dredging their harbours and expanding port facilities to accommodate large ‘super ships.’ They will do so to accommodate autonomous ships.

There is another bonus to autonomous ships, which are usually discussed outside of any African context. However, on a continent plagued by piracy off West Africa and resurgent piracy off East Africa, autonomous cargo vessels offer a potentially life-saving advantage of being hijack-proof. The hijackers have no officers to point their guns at, nor crew members to kidnap for ransom.

The critical points:

  • Africa’s maritime industry is digitalising out of necessity to enable an expected increase in sea shipping and to reduced costs
  • Real-time data analysis of shipping routes, ocean currents and weather conditions allow ships to reduce fuel consumption and carbon-emissions
  • Autonomous ships are already sailing and will further boost efficiency, lower costs and eliminate the threat of piracy