Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shipments, delayed clearance & ridiculous storage fees…

I have been waiting for a shipment to arrive at Lungi airport. A week or two prior to the shipment being sent I made sure documentation was sent to the Ministry so that they could deal with the official paperwork. Seeing as I did not receive an arrival notice from DHL I called someone a week ago to ask if he knew anything about the shipment and found out the shipment had already been sitting in Lungi for a week. Great. Thanks for the notice!

If you remember, the last time I went to Lungi to pick up a shipment, I was asked to pay Le 9,000,000 (USD 2,300) in ‘storage’ fees. Interestingly nothing was documented and they would not let me speak to the supervisor. Fortunately we managed to get the fee waived and brought the shipment back to the hospital. Apparently there is some kind of storage fee process, but only after a certain amount of days and to be honest it is vague and nothing is communicated with the customer until the moment they try to pick up the consignment. That is when people hear about a fee, don’t have the money to pay, have to leave the consignment, only to come back later to pay for it and by then the fees have gone up even more. Likely hundreds of containers in the port are sitting there for this very reason. Containers take too long to get released, by the time they are released the storage fees are really high, people cannot pay them, they try to negotiate and in the meantime the fees continue to increase. It’s corruption at its best. What is being done about this?

I was not happy about the lack of communication and was adamant about telling DHL that I would not pay the storage fee due to their delay in communicating. I contacted the Ministry’s procurement officer right away who said he would handle it. I think I called him multiple times everyday last week and every time I called he said he was working on it and that he would call me back in either 10 minutes, or 30 minutes or an hour. Of course, he rarely called back; it was always me having to call him. Finally I decided to involve our hospital manager to try to speed things up. I knew that if I would wait till this next week we would definitely need to pay fees. The procurement officer finally said on Wednesday that he would pick the shipment up on Thursday, only to say on Thursday that he was still working on it. Friday morning at 8am I called him again and that is when he said he had to go to Bo. You can imagine how frustrated I was at that point. He then said he would arrange for a colleague to go. After many phone calls and not getting anywhere I had to keep telling myself to be ‘slow to anger’. I really tried.

By 2pm I knew that there was no point trying to get to Lungi that day, because the next ferry was at 4 and by then the office on the other side would be closed. I decided to try to arrange something for Saturday. I wasn’t able to go but figured it would be best to have a Sierra Leonean from the hospital to go anyway. So, everything was arranged: a hospital vehicle, fuel money, hospital driver, admin person, money for ferry crossing, documents, phone numbers, etc. I could only hope that all would end well.

On Saturday, after going to SOS, I decided I would take a break and head to Lakka and then work in the evening and on Sunday. I did just that. However, I soon found myself working on the beach. Sure enough at 10 am my phone started ringing. First, I was told we had to pay Le 3,000,000 (USD 770) in storage fees. I called various people explaining that we never received official documentation to state the shipment’s arrival and they should talk to DHL, etcetera etcetera. Many calls later, lots of credit spent and numerous deep sighs on my part and they finally agreed to forget about the storage fee due to lack of communication of the shipments arrival. An hour later I was called saying there is a customs fee. Again, no clear process, no amount stated, all very vague. Seeing as the clearing agent and procurement officer said they had arranged this I suggested they discuss this and get a move on. Finally they called back saying it was okay and that the shipment would be released. Meanwhile the poor driver and admin person were sitting there waiting, having already missed the 11 am ferry and hoping they would make the 2 pm ferry. It was 1 pm. Thirty minutes later I was called again to say that they could not find the shipment and that the storage unit was closing. We would have to come back on Monday. Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding. I told them that if the shipment can be brought to the hospital on Monday, then fine, and no, I will not be paying extra storage fees over the next two days. Oh Salone.

Really, I cannot believe how difficult Sierra Leone makes it for NGO’s to bring in equipment, especially when it is specifically designated for a government hospital. A Children’s Hospital at that, which falls under the Free Health Care Initiative. If only documentation processes would be quicker then people wouldn’t have to deal with ridiculously high storage fees. I also can’t believe that people in their right mind can charge millions of Leones for the storage of shipments. Absolute madness. So much for helping your own countrymen/women/children. Anyway, I’ll be happy to see the shipment arrive at the hospital tomorrow. Having said all this, one of the hospital’s partners sent a container of laboratory and other medical supplies to the hospital last year. It has been in port since August 2010. Due to a big delay in getting proper clearance (due to incompetence of the handing agency) the container has accrued extremely high storage fees (thousands of dollars) and is basically stuck in port. Like I said, it’s absolute madness. I’m happy I don’t have another shipment coming anytime soon.

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