Webb Fontaine: Digitizing Customs in Ethiopia

Pascal Minvielle, is a veteran in customs automation and innovative solutions for trace facilitation. Customs is an old work process that has been around for centuries in human history. Pascal brought the modern approach to many countries across the world and Ethiopia marks his latest endeavour. He led a delegation of international experts and technicians, spending three years in Ethiopia, to ensure that the Ethiopian Customs Commission (ECC) embraces a paperless e-system via Webb Fontaine’s facevet Officer Module as well as eCMS, allowing full digitalization of documents. ECC recently came into existence under proclamation number 1097/2018 as an entity separate from the former Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority. Samuel Getachew of The Reporter sat down with Pascal to discuss different issues including his experience working in Ethiopia, the partnership he built within the country and how the new system is set to revolutionize the services of the governmental agency.  

Can you please tell me about yourself and highlights of the work of Web Fontaine? 

Thank you for this opportunity and for giving me a chance to reflect on my time in your country, as well as reflect on the work of Webb Fontaine and myself. I have 30 years of experience in customs automation. I have been with Webb Fontaine for 10 years and prior to that, with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development where I spent 20 years in Geneva. I spent many memorable years there, including working with designers of Asycuda system (Automated System for Customs Data).

I am a 1986 graduate of Grande Ecole, and studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. Moving on from the outset, Webb Fontaine’s mission has been and continues to be to empower governments with future-proof Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered technology, infrastructure and expertise to transform the customs & trade environment.

Webb Fontaine brings together trade expertise with technology to modernize and optimise trade processes, covering the entire spectrum of trade & customs logistics procedures. Research and development is at the core of Webb Fontaine, with over 200 employees dedicated to it and innovation as well.

What were  the highlights of Webb Fontaine and your work in Ethiopia?

Webb Fontaine responded to a tender in 2015, which was published by the European Union based in Addis Ababa for the implementation of customs management system (CMS) that would automate all customs procedures. They were operating a legacy system which was the United Nations software; however, the government decided to move toward a new system that is technologically advanced and would respond to the needs of the trade stakeholders whilst being transparent and allowing targeted control and decreased dwell times.

A great example is the monitoring of the transit movements between Djibouti and Addis, which represents more than 80% of the trade flow and which is now fully controlled (what is cleared by Customs versus what has really entered the country via truck or train) and generates more revenue. The overall revenue has shown an increment of up to 30 percent since we implemented the new technology three years ago.

We have also brought together customs specialists and technical experts to work with their counterparts at the ECC in order to implement the system and processes. We worked all together at the ECC headquarters, the team composed of eight from our side and thirteen staff from ECC as well. As is the case in all of our projects, it is a collaborative approach of listening, building and implementing. Technology cannot be optimized unless the processes are re-engineered and streamlined. Prior to the inception of the project, the ECC had prepared a Business Process Review (BPR) which we followed as the benchmark to move away from manual based processes towards a complete paperless process. This means more control and visibility over operations and transactions.

We are very proud of our partnership with the ECC, improving the country’s revenue, enhancing efficiencies; hence, facilitating trade. To us, it was not just a technical partnership with Ethiopia, but that of friendship and we have left with numerous memories spent all over Ethiopia. To be more specific, we shared the experience of a challenging environment across the borders.

Where else within the African continent have you developed this technology?

Our technology is used across the world by many different customs administration entities and governments. In terms of the region, our technology has been implemented in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Congo, as well as in Benin and in Central Africa. What is unique to Webb Fontaine is the fact that we have such a huge pool of experts with over 30 years of experience in the field.

When you look at your experiences in Africa, now that the project has been completed, will there be an ongoing relationship by way of capacity building?

This was a European Union funded project, with very clear steps and stages, which we have now completed. In terms of capacity building, we are still here working with the ECC to ensure ongoing capacity building as well as full transfer of knowledge. I have to note, all those that have been trained are doing it eloquently so far and have become self-sufficient.

Furthermore, we received a certificate of appreciation from the ECC and it was a very personal and proud moment to us. It is recognition of the human relationship and partnership that we have built through improving services.

How did you find Ethiopia while you were here travelling to many parts of the country?

I have been in this business for the last 30 years. In Ethiopia, there is a real motivation to digitize its economy and embrace its potential – a real adherence that is rare.

We are proud to be in Ethiopia, and look forward to working with the Ethiopian government for many years to come and hope to come together to explore ways to complement their motivation and ambition on many more projects.

On a personal note, Ethiopia is a country that is vibrant and full of culture, which you experience as soon as you arrive at the airport. The history of the first human being Lucy is fascinating. Ethiopia is a memorable nation and something I hope, and my team hopes will come back and look for viable partnership. I have made lots of friends here and found them to be formidable and willing partners for future projects and of course lifetime personal and professional friendship.

The Ethiopian Customs Commission recognized your company recently for its work. That must be a real appreciation of the work you have done within the country.

It really is and we do not do what we do simply to be recognized. It is because we love to do what we do and see it in action, helping wherever we are to move forward. So, about the recognition, we were highlighted and recognized for the support we brought to the ECC helping it digitalize its border and trade management system. We were most recently given a ‘certificate of appreciation’ by the commission for the successful launch of the electronic customs management system.

Again, beyond the award itself, we value the work that we are fortunate enough to be given and a chance to perform what we have been doing for decades. That is what really matters and of course, awards mean we are appreciated and we take that to heart.

Some companies come and go, but few leave a great impression on Ethiopia and Ethiopians. We have seen that in recent years. But for you, where do you see the long term vision of the company going forward?

There is something that stands out to me. That is the COVID-19 pandemic as it has put a spotlight on just how important solid digitized approaches are. Technologies such as AI are transforming the African trade environment. Digitalized trade and regional integration are both critical to economic recovery in the Post-COVID Era. It is crucial that we continue to use technology as a catalyst for economic recovery and growth, as it is the future and something we have to embrace now.

Within Ethiopia, and Africa as a whole, looking ahead in the next decade, how do you want to be remembered or what do you hope the legacy of Webb Fontaine will be?

Africa as a region is able to adapt and adopt technology incredibly fast. Together with governments and the trade communities across the African region, we will continue to be a partner of positive change through AI powered technology, today, tomorrow and the future. That is our vision, not just from the standpoint of wanting to do business, but wanting to see our vision practiced in a practical way for the greatest satisfaction, professionally and personally. It really is. I hope I will come back to your nation soon in the years to come and see how much our work, in partnership with Ethiopian customs professionals has made their work much easier and efficient and we hope to take the experience we have gained here and others over the years and see them in practice.

Interviewed By Samuel Getachew, The Reporter Ethiopia.

Learn more about our Customs Solutions

Get to know Pascal Minvielle

About Webb Fontaine

Webb Fontaine is a leading provider of solutions for trade facilitation; powered by world-class technology, investing in the largest research and development centres in the trade area. Webb Fontaine is headquartered in Dubai, U.A.E. with a presence across Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa.