Hon. Olubunmi Olumekun is the president of the Barge Operators Association of Nigeria (BOAN),a sector that has not received the due recognition it deserves, despite contributing immensely to the growth of the nation’s economy. Whereas much attention is focused on road and rail for the evacuation of goods out of the port,less attention is paid to this critical sector of barge operation.
With its huge economic prospects running into billions of dollars, Nigeria stands to earn over $10bn as revenue from barge operation if property harnessed. In this interview with MMS Plus, Hon.Olumekun speaks on the viability of barge operation and its strategic importance to the maritime to sector, and the nation’s economy. He spoke with Frank Odinukaeze.Excerpts.
NIWA has once again reiterated that barge operators must provide insurance cover before they can be allowed to operate, what is your reaction to this and what is the compliance level?
Insurance is key. We have insurance already. There is no barge that is in this water without insurance. So, it’s not a new thing to us. It’s a welcome idea. We don’t have anything to say about that because it has always been there. And on compliance, we are complying with the directive. And the compliance level is tremendous.
We have a plan as an association. We have come up with even more than what they are expecting or planning. We came out as an association to bring eight Insurance companies together, to form a formidable insurance policy for barging. And this covered over $200bn. So, it’s an ongoing project we are doing on our own. And we need to add a premium to it. Every barge that sails on this water must be covered including the goods, the crew and everybody on board the barge.
Have you ever recorded loss or accident involving barge on waters?
We can’t know, because I have said it, hundred percent of accidents that happen on water is not our members. We only heard about them. And we only see what we can do to rescue some of the victims. But we can’t go deeper because they are not our members.
What is the patronage like, I mean barge operation?
We can’t compare with what the benefits are. You know the situation of the country now. Everything is somehow. The economy is not really working well. But we hope the traffic is going to increase any time from now. We are moving towards the end of the year, and we think things are going to improve. And you know 60 export of what we carry by barge now is export. So we hope to have increase in that area.
What is the range barges can go and how far can they go, outside Lagos?
Lagos is covered by water. So we go as far as Ikorodu, Epe, Ijebu Ode, we go as far as Mile 2, and Badagry.
So the barge operation is within Lagos only?
No,not within Lagos only. We go as far as Warri. We go to Benin, Lokoja, and also we go to PortHarcourt; depending on what is available.
Given the security challenges in the country, have you ever encountered any security challenge in the course of transporting goods on barges?
Yes. you can’t rule that out.
Any synergy with other organizations?
Yes, we have. We have synergy with Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), we have with Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), we have synergy with Lagos State. We also have synergy with Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), and others.
What are the challenges Barge operators are facing?
The challenges are many. In fact, it’s not something we can exhaust in a sitting. We have challenges of wind waves, we have challenges of terminals, and then we have challenges of multiple registrations in the industry.
When you talk of multiple registration what do you really mean?
If you want to start the barging operation,there are processes you must undergo,and of which I think you can start and finish the process in one or two weeks.But it is not so.I can tell you the process from NIMASA,NIWA,to NPA,the processes are just many.But we are trying to see how we can make the process easier.
Do you also register with Lagos State Water Authority ( LASWA)?
No, for now,we don’t register with LASWA..We are dealing with NIWA.
How economically viable is barge operation?
We are sitting on $10 billion dollar business.This business of barging ,by the time government invests in it, it will boost the economic fortunes of the country.I have told those concerned that if government can invest even ten per cent of what it invested in rail, and reinvest it in the barging business and see what the process would look like,it will be amazed at what the income would be.
When I came into the maritime industry,I used to hear that our goods have to leave from Nigeria to Abidjan on transit. If we have that facility here,why should we go to Abidjan? Our goods don’t need to go to Abidjan, because we have the facility here. We can transit them through barge. We can make this better.The Lekki deep seaport that is coming up , we can do the same here.We can transit them to other neighbouring countries. Do you know what that could bring to the economy? It’s a lot of money.Out of the 36 states of the federation, about 28 are covered with water. You can link all these states through water.and if we put that sector in order, invest more in it, we will leave the road. And you know the impact that will have on our roads.
The constant repairs of the roads would be minimized. By the time all these goods are freighted through the water ,using barges,some tonnages would be removed from the roads thereby reducing the burden on the roads.
Even the money budgeted for road repairs and maintenance would be reduced.In other words, the pressure on the roads would not be there so much.
How much governmental support and encouragement are you getting?
There’s none. However,some of them know the relevance of barging. They see our impact, In the past three or four years, they’ve seen what we’ve done. Some of us have invested a lot. So,we need government intervention.
What I’m trying to say is that we need a maritime bank that will be solely for maritime,so we can be doing what they are doing in some sectors,where they have one digit loan.Same thing with the manufacturing sector ,where they have Bank of Industry(BOI), with one digit loan.I think that can be applicable to maritime also.We should have a maritime bank so we can go there and borrow money ,get the necessary equipment for business.Dangote refinery is coming up.We need to move the product through the water.So we need funds to be able to do that.We need funds to establish ; to set up a factory where we can construct all these barges.You know we have a simple and normal water barge.We need to have barges and they have to be Nigerian made .We need industry that can fabricate all these.
Have you approached government for help?
Yes ,we are working out something through the Ministry of Transportation. We are talking to NIMASA,and we are talking to Nigerian Shippers’Council (NSC) , and we are equally talking to NPA
How fruitful has the effort been?
I believe one day, we will sail through.
What do you make of the maritime industry presently?
There is hope.Nigerians should be hopeful and we should also look inwards.
What kind of export products do you usually carry on barges?
We have a lot of products.We have agricultural products.We have manufacturing products ,mineral resources like iron ore etc.We have a lot of products.I must say that Nigeria is blessed.
Are we doing well as far as export is concerned?
No. We are not there yet.But we are trying. We will get there one day.