There’s a lot going on beneath the surface at OT Africa Line. Above the water you see a shipping line specialising in routes from West Africa to Europe. That means loading cargoes (including substantial volumes of timber and wood products) on its vessels at every major port from Nouakchott in Mauritania to Lobito in Angola, and then ensuring they wend their way safe, sound and on schedule to Tilbury, Rotterdam and Hamburg. And OTAL runs four of these round trips every week, regular as clockwork, week in week out.

But that only gives a part of the picture. OTAL has been shaped over the years by the ever-evolving and unpredictable nature of some of the countries and industries it services in Africa, which London-based marketing manager Rachel Bennett euphemistically describes as “vibrant”. As a consequence, its operations have had to become equally fluid, constantly responding to the changing environments in which it works. Besides a shipping line, it also has to be part political and economic monitor and commentator. It additionally acts as the eyes and ears of its European customers in Africa, so it’s part news reporter too, as well as adviser on the intricacies of customs and export rules and regulations.

Political change

The list of factors affecting trading patterns in West Africa is long and varied, with drought currently a major concern. Almost constant political change also has to be taken into account, with the situation in the Ivory Coast at the moment creating particular challenges for timber businesses.

“The Ivory Coast rebellion has meant some mills have closed and has also made loggers reluctant to go out in the forest,” said Diane Mussault, OTAL’s France-based northbound services manager. “We’re still loading timber, but since September it’s mostly been from quayside stocks. It’s especially difficult to get hold of iroko and framire there right now.”

But this sort of volatility is grist to the OTAL mill. Having people on the ground throughout West Africa means it can help customers adapt to fluctuations in supply in a range of commodities, whatever the causes. It can advise them on locating alternative sources, or get cargoes trans-shipped by sea or overland to other ports.

“You can find yourself overnight facing a 30-70% drop in availability of a certain cargo from a certain port – while others might rise 10% just as quickly,” said Ms Mussault. “Individual consignments can also be unpredictable. One of our agents might be expecting 200m3 of timber at the port and 500m3 turn up. And there are other unknowns. For instance the customs clearance procedures at Douala can take five days and you’re never quite sure when or whether you’re going to get that vital stamp.”

“The key is flexibility,” added Ms Bennett. “We have to be able to move services around and adapt to the situation on the ground.”

Fast turnaround

OTAL has been coping with this sort of trading turbulence for the best part of three decades.

The company launched in 1975, primarily to ship out of Nigeria, and rapidly made an impact. By focusing on ro-ro services it was able to offer very fast turnaround – a major bonus at Lagos, which in those days could have queues of up to 360 ships waiting to dock.

By the late 90s the company had a fleet of four ro-ro/container vessels and had also established a North American liner agency business. However, in 1999 over-tonnage in the international shipping market persuaded OTAL’s owner to sell to Bolloré Group, the French industrial and logistics combine.

OTAL reaped a range of benefits in joining such a huge operation, including synergies with Bolloré’s much bigger shipping line Delmas.

“We operate autonomously from Delmas, but we slot charter some of their vessels, taking our fleet up to 20 ro-ro and container ships with total capacity of 130,000 TEU,” said Ms Mussault.

What this adds up to in terms of a shipping service is 134 sailings a year, with 1,198 port calls in 17 African coastal countries and 848 in six European countries. And the company also runs coastal feeder services which take in a weekly ‘loop’ up to Casablanca.

The collaboration with its new sister company also expanded OTAL’s network of agents and it now has 110 covering 62 countries. In addition the company works with fellow-Bolloré group members, the logistics businesses SDV and SAGA, which together comprise the biggest overland transport network in Africa.

Specialist knowledge

Timber was central to the OTAL operation from the start and, despite the development of the company over the years, that hasn’t changed. In fact, wood and cocoa are still its two biggest cargoes.

“We’ve developed a lot of specialist knowledge in the business and have an African timber expert in Ghana,” said Ms Mussault. “We’ve also invested heavily in wood handling and storage and keep all kiln-dried material at ports under cover. Most recently Bolloré has been developing our warehousing facilities in Cameroon and Ivory Coast.”

The fact that OTAL has not followed competitors wholesale into containerised shipping also reflects its involvement in timber.

“We’ve retained our flexible ro-ro vessels and break bulk services partly because that’s what many of our timber customers are geared to,” said Ms Bennett. “Containers can also create a potential problem with mould in air-dried timber.”

Added value

But while continuing to offer break bulk, stressed Ms Mussault, OTAL has also responded to changing timber trading patterns, notably the imposition of log export bans in West African countries and their move into value-added wood products.

“Besides sawn timber, we’re now also handling products such as window frames and doors, finished garden furniture, joinery components and, of course, veneers,” said Ms Mussault.

And OTAL emphasises that offloading all these different timber cargoes at European ports is not the end of the story. In the UK, for instance, it offers receivers two weeks’ free storage at Tilbury and also takes responsibility for getting the cargo to their premises. Customers additionally receive a steady stream of newsletters and bulletins from OTAL, keeping them abreast of all the latest market political developments across West Africa.

“The market is so fast moving, it’s vital we keep customers up to date,” said Ms Bennett. “We send out our corporate newsletter and main bulletin covering political news monthly from our London offices and also fax and e-mail shorter bulletins as events happen. We have people dedicated to this and subscribe to three major news wire services to keep up with latest developments.”

Charity work

Occasionally included in the OTAL newsletter there are also reports of the company’s involvement with charities and other humanitarian organisations working in Africa. Most recently it shipped cargo free for Angolan Humanitarian Aid and the Afrikids charities. This sort of initiative, says OTAL, is principally about “giving something back” to the countries where it operates. But it undoubtedly helps the company politically too.

“We don’t just support charities because it makes a good story, but it does contribute to our corporate image and reinforces the OTAL brand,” said Ms Bennett.

As to the future, OTAL fully expects to have to keep up its rate of change and development in line with the fast moving markets it serves. The latest area of interest for the company is Angola, which is seeing strong post-civil war economic recovery.

“It’s early days, but we believe there is a lot of potential for OTAL to develop in Angola,” said Diane Mussault. “In fact, just to test the water, we’ve taken a trial shipment of timber to Europe. We’ll see what happens.”