10 Feb 2020 / Article

Africa in the age of smart logistics

Sector players are gradually equipping their containers and machines with tracking devices that will radically improve the monitoring and management of goods, as well as equipment maintenance.

“A revolution comparable to the invention of the container? I don’t know about that, but I do know it’s a game changer”, said Jean-Daniel Elbim, Chief Innovation & Data Officer at Bolloré Transport & Logistics. He isn’t naively optimistic – he’s too experienced for that, with a career spanning 35 years, including six at the French logistics operator. In spite of everything, when it comes down to measuring the impact of the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) in Africa, he can’t contain his enthusiasm.

In a sector that is “still not competitive or sophisticated enough to support African growth and the creation of the Continental Free Trade Area”, according to a 2019 report by Okan and the Africa CEO Forum, IoT innovation is highly anticipated. Given that the supply chain generates $150bn a year on average in Africa, it is essential to the continent’s agricultural and industrial development.

In sum, things – which in the logistics sector are containers – are gradually being equipped with a tracking device that is able to collect and send loads of new data. As Mr Elbim explained, “That is, you have a technology that transfers data in real time from a container. Typically, these data include location, interior and exterior temperatures, humidity, events like impacts and an opened door, etc. All of these things are very important for our customers, especially raw material traders and pharmaceutical manufacturers”. Thanks to these new systems, containers can be tracked at all times. According to Paul Tourret, Director of the French Higher Institute of Maritime Economics (ISEMAR) in Nantes Saint-Nazaire, “With IoT, we no longer have to deal with the tracking/tracing paradigm. Up until now, we knew when a container passed through somewhere, but soon tracking will be non-stop and we’ll no longer be dependent on a container’s arrival at a specific destination”.

At Bolloré, the revolution has been underway “for just under ten years now”. However, it’s taken quite a bit of time given the overwhelming number of containers and equipment involved. Millions upon millions of containers are being shipped around the world every day. A long-term, burdensome investment is required, but it’s profitable. Mr Elbim explained: “With a smart object in the containers, if there’s a problem, you know about it right away. And even if you can’t figure out the cause of each alert, you can take remedial action. For example, if you send a container of vaccines to another country and an incident occurs en route, being informed of it allows you to anticipate and ship another container right away”. A 3G mobile network connection is adequate for sending alerts and even loading videos, when necessary.

IoT technology has another extremely important application related to managing the containers once they reach a given port’s storage area. Tracking devices and on-site cameras send data to detect, arrange and place the containers in the most efficient way based on how long they are scheduled to be stored as well as their contents and destination. “These new applications are going to save us days of time. The fact that we can continuously track our goods, gain the trust of the various partners associated with the containers and be able to guarantee countries and populations that the products will arrive unspoiled. . . all of that represents a major shift. As for us, the operators, we’ll be able to focus a lot more on the core activities of our trade than we do so currently. We end up spending a lot of time addressing gaps and dealing with unforeseen events”, Mr Elbim said.

A third way in which IoT technology is impacting the industry involves port machinery and equipment, as their maintenance will be significantly improved thanks to more preventive measures being taken. “Of course, we’ll always have malfunctions but we’ll be able to resolve them much more quickly. When it comes to equipment damage, it’s clear that the key performance indicators (KPIs) will no longer be needed”, Mr Elbim added. This third application will be rolled out the fastest since it is not as cumbersome a process as equipping containers. According to Mr Tourret, “The first step towards modernisation is the smart port. Smart cargo, which is the modernisation of the logistics process, will come afterwards. Refrigerated containers will be first because their tracking is the highest priority and other container types will follow”.

Taken together, these new services will offer customers significant economic benefits by helping them better anticipate issues with their supply chains. As for operators, from CMA-CGM and MSC to Bolloré, they are creating new “device-as-a-service”-based business models via connected products. “In reality, for us, it’s not so much the tracking device that has changed the game – it’s data storage capacity,” Mr Elbim explained. “Storing data used to be very expensive. Today, it’s virtually free. We can store an enormous quantity of data and access them very easily”. A handful of international players such as Amazon, Alibaba and Microsoft provide logisticians cloud computing services for storage and AI-backed analysis purposes. Logisticians pay for services on an à la carte basis, whether for an hour, a day or longer according to their needs. “It’s all about on-demand micro services”, Mr Elbim added. 

Africa is experiencing the IoT/IA revolution at the very same time as the rest of the world. As Mr Tourret commented, “Smart technology isn’t particularly complicated or expensive. It’s an aspect of modernity that’s easily accessible for Africa. Of course, it won’t solve all the traffic jams in Lagos or Abidjan, and it won’t clear up the logistical chaos that characterises certain parts of the continent, but it’ll help smooth out the logistics system in Africa”. Mr Elbim shares this vision: “On all of these fronts, Africa will access international standards at the exact same moment and in the same way as every other continent”.

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