Mfon Usoro

As the first female to head a maritime parastatal in Nigeria, her views on women in the industry is that of a personality that has seen it all. For her position as the Secretary General of West and Central Africa Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (Abuja MoU), her postulations on shipping in Africa, especially as it concerns women can hardly be faulted. She is Barr. (Mrs.) Mfon Ekong Usoro, Pioneer Director-General of the Nigeria maritime Administration and safety Agency (NIMASA). She has rich knowledge in legislative drafting and advocacy which she gained on the platform of Paul Usoro & co., a law firm of repute, where she is the Managing Partner. In this interview with Kingsley Anaroke & Oby Nweke, find out why women don’t own ships in Africa, and how barriers against women in shipping can be broken and more. Excerpts:

The year 2014 is here with expectations. Let’s look at the things we could not do in 2013 and how they could be achieved this year in Nigeria’s maritime industry.

Let me address that question from the perspective of the Abuja MoU. We have a target and a commitment from each member state on the number of inspection of ships that will be undertaken. Looking at our 2012 annual report which is a public document on our website, you will see that the percentage of inspection that each member state will carry out is indicated. Only two member state met their commitments. They are Ghana and South Africa; Nigeria did not meet its commitment. We have drawn the attention of member states affected. For instance, we brought it to the attention of NIMASA and the Minister of Transport, as we did to the ministers of transport of other member states. That was not good for 2012 but I am pleased to report to you that, so far, even though we have not come out yet with our 2013 annual report, we have been analyzing the report and launching it into the· data-base. Nigeria has more than doubled their percentage of commitment. In fact, we are very impressed with what they did in 2013 in the area of port state control inspection. That was a very good effort because we are aware that they employed new surveyors and got them trained.

You have handled that from the angle of port state control, but regionally, what would you say was the state of shipping in 2013?
The number of individual ships that visited Nigeria in 2012, for instance, was more than what we had in 2011. You know we have an automated data-base. Our figures are correct. These are information we receive from member states, which some times they put into the data- base or the secretariat does. The number of individual ships that visited Nigeria last year was greater than the number of individual ships that visited the previous year. That is often times an indication of economic activities in a country. We had more ships visit Nigeria in 2013 than we had in 2012. That is the same thing with some other countries in the region.

Why should women be in shipping in the first place, while it is a man’s job?
That is the prejudice we have to fight against. You can see the prejudice in this question! Why should women participate in shipping while it is a man’s job? In an ideal situation, the question should not be why should women be in shipping; it should be:
How well are women doing in Shipping? The immediate response that comes to mind is, why not? Shipping is a trade, a service, a profession. There is no where it was written that it is a man’s profession. Indeed, the professions that were taken to be for men in those days like Law, Medicine, etc., we the women have destroyed that impression.

“We can see from what is happening and from our own community and indeed in African region that the number of women who are ship owners is insignificant. ~ ~

And we women are working assiduously to ensure that people do not look at shipping as a male’s industry. The fact remains that it is dominated by men. But that is not to say that it was designed to be a male profession excluding women. Just like Medicine, Law, Engineering, I don’t see why women should not be involved in Shipping activities. First of all, it is trade and for several decades women have been noted as very good traders. Now, shipping itself has different aspects, it could just be that aspect that involves international trade as a consignor, using vessel to trade. I know several women who import products into Nigeria. They are involved in one aspect of shipping.

There is also the aspect of being in the core shipping area of being a stevedore, seafarer, marine engineer or any of the other fields. There is also the ship manager, who runs a company that manages ship, not just operating ship. Women could also be involved in the area of Marine insurance. All of these ones that we call dry shipping area are areas that you may find women. We don’t have a lot of women in the wet or core area of shipping not because women are not interested but because of these factors that work against women not to be involved in the career. They include, the working environment, hours, training needs, etc. I believe that women should be encouraged to follow their dream. If they are interested in any aspect of shipping, what we need to do is not to scare them but to encourage the ship owners to introduce modern mechanism that are gender-friendly.

From my perspective, I have noticed that we have women who are captains, women who are junior officers in ships. They are doing very well even though we do not have significant numbers in Nigeria; we have been able to interact with some of them in other parts of the world. If they are able to do it we see no reason Nigerian women who have the flair will be discouraged to pursue their dream careers in that area. So, why should women be involved in shipping They should because shipping is interesting, it is challenging, it is extremely satisfying to know that you get into an area that is challenging and relatively new, break grounds and be recognized in your own world as an expert. These are personal ambitions just like we have men whose ambition is to become Engineers or Architects. We want to let women know that they can also be Marine Engineers, Naval Architects, etc.
Can we look at how many women who own ships in Nigeria or within the region?
I will say it is insignificant. The truth is that we are going to speak in general terms because we do not have data or statistics to base this discussion. Even with lack of statistics, we can see from what is happening and from our own community and indeed in Africa region that the number of women who are ship owners is insignificant. It should improve and it is not just in the area of shipping, it is almost in every other aspect when you compare it to the ratio of men who are ship owners or owners of companies in the shipping industry. You will see that the ratio is still very small for women. There is that gender imbalance almost in every aspect. Therefore, what we see in shipping is a reflection of what we see in other sectors of the economy.

Recognizing that; that is an issue I think we can proceed from having a study to find out what are the reasons that we do not have women, first of all, in decision making positions generally or if we are talking about shipping as it is now, why is it that we do not have women as General Managers in shipping companies; women as Managing Directors in Shipping companies; as Captains, why don’t we have women?

And then as entrepreneurs, why do we not have women as ship owners? If we do a study, then we can zero in on the reasons. Part of what is being talked about is access to finance to women. This has always been a problem, in almost every sector. This is because of the society and the finance world is skewed to favour men because they will ask for collaterals that traditionally women do not have. That is the perspective I think we should look at. What are these factors? One is finance. Nigerian government recognizes that; that is why they are encouraging banks to have special products for women. The international multi-lateral organizations also recognize that some of them are battling with local banks in Africa to have special products where women can access loans in other to invest in business.

I therefore think that given that there is recognition of gender inequality in shipping, the Federal government should focus on how they could tackle the obstacles that militate against women entering into the shipping industry so that they can find solutions to each of these problems. We have to always actively encourage the women from what they are doing now to being ship owners. Apart from access to finance, they should look out for those women that are already established in the industry and inquire from them how they did it. They have to find out the skill requirements for shipping operation. And if they find out that they do not have the skill, the interest groups ­WISTA, WILAT and Ministry of Transport should help the women to develop the knowledge and the capacity that will empower them to get into that business.
We have some companies being owned and managed by women. For instance, the likes of Ifejika, She owns some supply vessel.
Yes, we do. It is just that it is insignificant. Ifejika and Margaret Orakwusi who is into fish trawling business and the immediate past Minister of Aviation. She has been in marine transport. We need to have many more of such women. This is where networking among women is very critical because with those shining stars who are pioneers; who have been able to break into it and are running successful businesses, we need to learn from them how they have been able to overcome the obstacles, some of which I have just mentioned: knowledge, finance and also getting customers for their business. It will be good to interact with these women by creating a networking opportunity so that we can share ideas with the rest of the women who are aspiring to be ship owners.—WISTA Nigeria

To be continued