Our Ports magazine interviewed Mr Raj Mohabeer on 25 March 2022. Mr Mohabeer is the Officer In-Charge at the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) based in Mauritius.
As an intergovernmental organization, it links five Indian Ocean islands, namely: the Union of Comoros, Reunion (an overseas region of France), Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles.
The Our Ports team met him on the sidelines of a meeting that IOC in partnership with PMAESA had convened to validate findings of a report on the feasibility study for the development of a Regional Maritime Single Window system. The project will also extend to Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania as partner countries.
Mr Mohabeer has worked for many years as a trade specialist within the Eastern and Southern African region. He has extensive experience in economic and regional integration within the region. In his current portfolio at IOC, he handles promotion of trade and interests of Small Island Developing states, and maritime security in Western Indian Ocean region.
As a background, what are your thoughts on economic cooperation in South West Indian Ocean region?
Countries in this region have been trading with each other dating back to pre-colonial era. However, as most became European colonies, their markets gradually shifted to export commodities to Europe. Subsequent trade agreements sealed the deal into the post- independence era.
Thus, the markets of these nations have historically evolved to serve EU and US markets. For instance, Mauritius had a protocol of exporting nearly 500,000 tons of sugar to EU. This has led to a failure amongst countries in the region to focus on what they can exchange with each other. Therefore, we have not been looking at the neighboring markets.
Now with the impacts of covid-19 pandemic, we see the limits of globalization. For example, Mauritius used to import maize from Argentina required for its poultry industry- approximately 200,000 tons annually. With Covid-19 and effects of climate change, Argentina is now restricting the amount of maize it exports. This also applies to oil producers.
There are limits to the amount you can buy. All these factors compounded are putting a big question mark on globalization. This means we have to look into what we can do with our neighbors. It should also propel us to promote regional integration in Africa, making African Continental Free Trade area an important component of the process.
Unfortunately, we cannot efficiently trade with each other if we do not control our maritime transport. The whole of Africa is dependent on international shipping lines and their business plans to trade amongst themselves. The solution has start by understanding the trade pattern in the region. And secondly, how new technology can be utilized to improve the potential and competitiveness of trade within the region.
Briefly, what is the regional maritime single window intended to achieve?
In the past, we have mainly been focusing on cabotage and port-to-port connectivity. But it is the high time we focus on the entire maritime supply chains.
First, we have to understand how much we are exporting to each other. We therefore have to establish the quantity of this trade. Without this data, we cannot have a clear maritime transport strategy. In essence, a regional single window would enable countries to aggregate trade data amongst themselves.
Ultimately, it will enable countries to formulate trade policies based on real time trade data and potential of trade flow within the region.
In addition, on one hand, we have a few international shipping lines, which operate based on their own business plans and not on our development plans.
On the other hand, we have millions of traders that they serve within Africa. But the question is, how much are we trading amongst ourselves?
And based on this, we should organize to improve maritime connectivity within the region. On top of the eight African island nations, there are 38 coastal states.
All these nations are at any given time are exporting and importing commodities.
We ought to have a pan-African strategy on how to work with international shipping lines, which we depend on for trade. The gist is to ensure their business plans are aligned with our ambition for intra-African trade.
What is IOC’s role in creation of the regional maritime single window?
This matter do not just concern IOC but it is an issue for the whole region. Our role is to put up a proposal that we believe is desirable for all countries then invite all stakeholders to deliberate on it.
Therefore, we want it to be a concerted effort for all involved. For example, PMAESA can help shape the proposal drawing on its influence in Ports or maybe COMESA can help provide trade data between its member countries.
Once it is developed, who will host it?
Again, we have not reached there yet. When the time comes, we will put it on the table and the stakeholders will decide.
No region in the world has a functional maritime single window, what are the prospects that the project will succeed in Eastern and Southern Africa?
For example, as IOC, we have developed a maritime security architecture that can track vessels within Western Indian Ocean to monitor illicit maritime activities. Nowhere else in the world do such a system exist. Of course, it is not fully operational but we have had some success in its initial phases.
But we did it.
The fact that it has not been done elsewhere should not make us afraid. What is important right now is a strategy on how to engage with the countries to implement the project.
Most countries in the region appear to have some form of National Single window system, have you visualized how this could be linked into a regional single window?
Well, this is the reason we got a consultant to look into the matter. But ideally, we want to build on what exists and not disrupt. Therefore, the key factor here is to create a regional system that is interoperable with the existing national single windows.
Obviously, implementing a regional single window will require immense resources. How will it be financed?
Personally, I prefer a PPP (Public Private Partnership) kind of engagement. This is for the simple reason that some countries in the region lack capacity and competencies in running a single window.
At the same time, this venture will cost money and we will need to have some ways of getting back funds so that it can remain sustainable.
Thus, the private sector should see this as an area of interest and potential collaboration with public bodies.
Are there any timelines for the project?
It depends on the resources we are able to mobilize. However, my own goal is to table the proposal at the ministerial level before the end of the year, at least to get some commitments on it.