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Complete Guide to electronic bill of lading adoption for the bulk trades

What is eBL?

An electronic bill of lading (eBL) is a digital version of a paper bill of lading that is used in international trade transactions. The eBL is created, processed and transmitted electronically, using digital signatures and encryption technology to ensure the authenticity and security of the information contained within. Like a paper bill of lading, an eBL serves as evidence of the contract of carriage, receipt of goods, and ownership of the goods being transported. However, unlike a paper bill of lading, an eBL offers several advantages in terms of speed, efficiency, security, and cost-effectiveness. Where a paper bill of lading often will not arrive at the discharge port before the ship arrives, an eBL will arrive almost instantaneously.

Where do you start?

The first step is to start the internal talks in your organisation about digitalisation and the benefits for you. Moving to smarter processes and reaping the benefits should be decided and prioritised at a high level. A second step could be to become familiar with the solutions available and identify which solution best fits your business needs. If you are an owner, the process could start with a charterer asking you to use their chosen platform. Or you can simply sign up to use a solution that you think will best meet your business needs. There are several eBL systems that have been approved by the member clubs of the International Group of P&I Clubs (IG). This approval means that they have reviewed the terms of use for each of these systems and have stated that issuing electronic bills of lading using these systems will not prejudice P&I cover – essentially that the electronic bill of lading will be treated in exactly the same way as its paper equivalent for P&I purposes. You may also wish to add the BIMCO Electronic Bills of Lading Clause 2014 to your charter parties giving charterers permission to use electronic bills of lading if they so choose. Here are the links to the electronic bill of lading systems that have been approved by the IG at the date of this publication. There are other eBL solutions available. You should speak to your P&I Club representative if you want to use one of those other solutions.

What is interoperability?

Most of the eBL systems operate within a “walled garden” with their own proprietary technology and terms and conditions that govern the relationships between the stakeholders involved in a transaction. What this means in practice is that parties that want to exchange an eBL must all subscribe to the same platform. It is not currently possible to exchange an eBL between different platforms due to a lack of technical and legal interoperability. FIT Alliance members BIMCO, DCSA and FIATA have produced open electronic bill of lading data standards which are a stepping stone towards technical interoperability between the different platforms. DCSA and Swift have also completed Proof of Concepts which have succesfully demonstrated technical interoperability. Signing up to use multiple platforms requires significant time and resources: getting the legal department to read through and approve the platform’s rulebook and training personnel to use the new platform. For some parties, for example a big shipper, this might not be an issue as they will simply tell their counterparts to use whatever system they have subscribed to. But for a bank, it may require a lot of additional resources if their clients want to use different platforms. For cargoes that are traded while the ship is enroute, it can also be challenging to get everyone involved onboarded to the same platform. There is little doubt that interoperability would make the adoption of eBLs appeal more broadly. It is key to both eliminating the need to sign up to multiple platforms.

The bulk industry

Both the dry and wet bulk sectors are covered in this section. Bulk cargoes are frequently traded “on the water”, a process that complicates the existing paper-oriented system. The physical bill of lading rarely arrives due to the additional transfer to another buyer and bank. To mitigate this issue, the bulk shipping sector relies heavily on Letters of Indemnity for discharge without the original bill of lading. This approach is not entirely risk-free, and often elevates associated risks.

The value proposition of the electronic Bill of Lading

The container shipping sector issues approximately 45-50 million bills of lading annually, whereas bulk shipping issues significantly fewer bills, perhaps around 1 million. Although the number of bills issued by the bulk sector is far lower, the value of the goods covered by these individual bills is substantially higher. For example, a single cargo of crude oil on a Very Large Crude Carrier could be worth over USD 219m (based on the World Bank’s 2022 average). Interoperability will undoubtedly make the transition easier, but robust operability is already at our disposal. No matter where you find yourself in the maritime ecosystem, we encourage you take action now and reap the benefits today. In conclusion, the introduction of eBLs promises a more secure, efficient, and sustainable future for the bulk shipping industry. This transition is a crucial step in modernising traditional practices, streamlining operations and boosting overall industry resilience.

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