By Kenneth Jukpor
Dr. Mkgeorge Onyung is the President of Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN). At the recent African Day of Seas and Oceans ceremony which held in Lagos, Onyung spoke to MMS Plus on a range of shipping issues. He expounds the crucial role of a ship-owner in blue economy development. Enjoy it:
The topic today is about harnessing Nigeria’s Marine Biodiversity for Accelerated Economic Growth. As a ship-owner, what’s your take on this issue?
The topic is apt. It is about Nigeria’s Marine Biodiversity for accelerated economic growth but it is still the same blue economy concept. For us ship owners, we continue to insist that we don’t see ourselves as stakeholders. We see ourselves as shareholders. Like we have said before, this is a vast mighty ocean with a lot of mystery, monsters, creatures and characters and everybody is talking as a stakeholder.
Ship-owners see the opportunity; we see a competition free terrain. 70% of the earth is in the ocean and seas. The reason why I think we are shareholders is that we are the ones that lead investments. We are responsible for the ocean, we are held accountable for the state of the ocean and we are the ones that must ensure that the ocean achieves sustainability.
The United Nations under the millennium goals have seen that the sea is required for humanity and for human survival. We already know because we are in the choir and not in the congregation. So, nobody needs to preach to us. As ship-owners, we already see the blue economy as area of sustainable investments and that’s why we invested in ships, we know that almost the three trillion dollars per annum can come from the oceans. The seas and oceans are always termed ‘blue’, but it is a ‘green’ area for investments. When we talk of marine biodiversity, it’s not only the food that we get, it is sure that we have enough food in the oceans to feed the world.
Earlier you talked about the opportunities for fishing in Nigeria and there is the plan to withdraw waivers for the import of fishing trawlers and other category of vessels. What are the opportunities in the country for fishing and ship building?
Well, there is no doubt that we see great opportunities in the country for shipowners as well as other investors to diversify into fishing, maximize the potentials of the oceans, ensure employment for teeming youth and create wealth. I know about the enormous opportunities in fishing because I was in fishing before.
On the aspect of ship building and banning import of fishing trawlers; trawlers can be built in seven months. We have the capacity to build them here in Nigeria, if we put our minds to it. Do we have the capacity to produce tooth picks? Of course we always had the capacity but it wasn’t glaring until Akwa Ibom state went into it massively and it became a massive industry, nobody taught we had the capacity. Today, Nigerians have realized that importing toothpick is a waste of energy. Talking about fishing trawlers, if we can assemble dredgers here in Nigeria, we can build fishing trawlers. We have assembled a dredger before, so if we bring the materials, we have the professional certified welders that can weld together and install the engines; then we can.
By building fishing trawlers, we can create immediate employment for the riverine areas and take young people off the streets. You can produce food and employ women in the area of processing, drying and also marketing of fishes. That is not their area but a great number of women were not trained and did not go to school. It was not that they were not qualified but the point has always been that everybody can sell fish. Anybody can go into fish processing. People are already into fish farming, if you process that fish again, you will claim over 100% value.
You need state that the fishing industry had the capacity to fetch the nation over N80million daily. How did you come about this prediction?
If the nation operates with 20 trawlers catching 10 tonnes of fish, which is 200 tonnes of fish which gives 200,000 kilos. If you invest in processing them, you can make over 100% value. If you go to the Ijora fish market, you can make the calculations. You would be amazed to find how much the nation could benefit from fishing.
Recently, President Mohammadu Buhari signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). As a ship-owner, what are the opportunities for Nigeria in the maritime sector?
This is a good development for Africa. In the United States, Europe and other continents they have these trade agreements and it is a matter of member nations understanding the collective potentials as African. We are in a continent and we are no lesser than people in Europe or the United States. The difference is that our minds must be developed and we have to sharpen our brains. Our brains have to be very sharp to understand how to correlate and deal with our economy in the most appropriate manner. Now that the government has seen the need to do that, it means it has seen that opportunities are available. Nigerians are also waiting.
Nigeria has the biggest market by virtue of having the biggest population in the continent. As much as there are opportunities for Nigeria, several experts have also highlighted the threats. How do we balance this?
It is not a threat. If you have a senior brother in your family and the age difference between you and your brother is 12 years, the best thing for you to do is to learn from your senior brother. Where he has made mistakes, you correct them and where he is lacking, you bring your innovation into it. It is just a mindset issue. If you remove the African mentality from looking at sustainable development, you will observe that AfCFTA is the way to go.
Since insurance problems aggravated by Extra War Risk premiums have become an issue in Nigeria, some indigenous ship-owners have initiated the idea of having an African or Nigerian Protection and Indemnity (P&I) club. Are you aware of this development sir?
I’m aware of this development but anybody who is talking about P&I at this stage is acting in a hurry. We shouldn’t be making any noise about it. It is just an idea and that idea has to go through a process and the process is on. I would not like anybody to begin to talk about P&I now.
We are supporting it, it is for the benefit of ship-owners, but we have to build the capacity. It is still at the rudimentary stage, it will not be intelligent for me at this point to begin to talk about the P&I. If it’s something that is doable, we need to devote time and money to it. We also need to create awareness, interest and commitment; otherwise, it is not something that we should be talking about.
I’m also aware that NIMASA came up with a Joint Stakeholders’ Committee with stakeholders especially ship-owners on the issue of Cabotage. What are your projections?
I am a member of that committee and we are working with the mindset that it is the last chance for Nigerian shipping industry to exert its influence and take the bull by the horn. We are working on it. As soon as we gain traction, we will make open statements about it.
Over the years SOAN has been known for organizing relevant symposiums which has helped rejig policies and address pertinent maritime issues. Should we expect such summits by SOAN in the near future, what are the developments at SOAN?
We are unveiling a plan and our plan is almost ripe. The best I can tell you is that we are going to have a ground breaking, innovative and interesting shipping expo. We will stay away from the word ‘maritime’ because it has become a cliché. It is going to be a Lagos international shipping expo sometime in November. We are working on it and we will make international press statement about it shortly.