Barr. (Mrs.) Mfon Ekong 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 Nigerian 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. Lets 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 states 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, when 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. And  we women are working assidiciously 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 African 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.

All of us the women, those who are reasonably well – equipped and those well positioned have a duty to raise the ladder for other women to climb and get to the position that we are and even surpass us. I do believe that these women can share these ideas which are common  now as we bend towards gender equality. Women should be their sister’s keeper and make sure they produce another of themselves. It gives nobody pleasure to be referred to as the only so and so. It does not give me any pleasure when I used to be introduced as the first and only female Chief Executive Officer in the Maritime industry. Each time I was introduced I had some negative feelings because it does not add to my glory to be the first and only.

My wish whenever I heard that would be how do I have the opportunity of making sure we have many more women become chief executive officers of government agencies. Believing that all the successful women in shipping also share the same feeling, it is now for associations like WISTA to reach out to them and create that networking and mentoring opportunity so that we have more of the women. I will encourage WISTA to go beyond the seminars. Mentoring entails more than that. It means WISTA identifying other women who aspire to be ship owners and then linking them with these few successful women so that they can have one-on-one mentoring opportunities. Coming to speak to us and give us the knowledge is good because it motivates and gives us the feeling that it is doable and achievable but starting and getting there is not a one lecture affair, it has to be that somebody holds your hand and most of the CEOs are extremely busy for them to go and look out for women that they could assist. So it is for WISTA and other women to identify such women who have the ambition and then link them up with these stars in other that they could have close mentoring sessions and actually tell them what happens step- by- step to overcome and get to where they are supposed to be.

Can we look at the women ratio in seafaring?

It still goes back to lack of data but the general knowledge is that it is poor and I believe so. Looking at the MAN, Oron, I go to their graduation ceremonies. We have reasonably good number of female cadet. What happens in their post-graduation is that it is very difficult for them to find job. The issue is not just that they do not have opportunities to go and have their certificate of competence, the few opportunities available, the competition is so high and given that the society is male-focused they give those few opportunities to the graduating male cadets. We really need to do a total re-orientation of the mind and not foreclose women when we are trying to choose young people to give opportunities to because traditionally and culturally, what the men unconsciously think of is “if I invest in this lady, soon she is going to get married and I don’t know where her husband will be. She is a young lady, even if she works now she can’t work for more than two years and she will be pregnant. And she will ask for maternity leave”. These are the things that go on in the mind of the man who is in the position of authority. So, they look at the obstacles and conclude that “this will be a good investment for my company.” We need to start re-orientating the minds of those who wield influence in the career of women.

Yes, even in the absence of a reliable data, it’s very poor. We have sizable number of women who attend the academy but if you want to do an audit five years post-academy between the female and male cadets how many of them have job, the male have jobs more than the female and that is because the employers of labour close the door against the female cadets without even giving them a chance.

I am aware that Access Bank and Bank of Industry have products for women. So with the banking industry appreciating the peculiar problem of women, do you think that will open up more opportunities for them and translate to something better?

Certainly, I think it is translating because I have read the report of those banks and some of them have had the opportunities of sitting in the networking seminars for those female beneficiaries. They have made the requirements for accessing loans more flexible and more gender- friendly. For instance, having to say you must have landed property, how many women have landed property? They have the knowledge, they have the drive, they have the skill but how many will have landed property to go and access loan? Some of these banks have looked the other way. Women have also proven empirically that women are better debtors than men. Women pay up their loan more than their male counterpart who accesses the same level of loan. The banks leverage on that and so they are encouraged to take the risk knowing that being a woman and the qualities that are innate in women they would not want to default. Looking at that quality the bank would want to reduce the risk the bank faces. So this new thinking about granting better access to women in finance will definitely bring a positive result. We know that shipping is very risky; most Nigerian banks themselves are not very familiar with ship finance. So even for their male customers, banks are having problem having to give out loans that are related to shipping operation. So there is that unfamiliarity with ship finance which needs to be overcome. And then the next step is to subconsciously look out for female entrepreneurs who are in the shipping world and try to accommodate them, which is the reason we think and I think that with the positive gender policy of the federal government a certain percentage of the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund (CVFF) should be reserved for female entrepreneurs in shipping. We have to follow it through. If the president says lets work towards gender equality, it should not be only in the number of women that are appointed to be minister. It has to be followed through in all the agencies of the governments in different capacities of activities in the agencies. So for CVFF, a specific percentage should be reserved for female entrepreneurs. And then they will look for the best of those female entrepreneurs and encourage the commercial banks that they are working with to make sure that the percentage is given to women. These are the concrete and very positive examples that we can use to tell the government to queue  into this gender agenda because it is good for the society when women are empowered.

Just imagine, a husband dies and you have your wife and children and because you did not believe in empowering women your wife will suffer and your children will because of their inability to maintain the standard of living you gave to the family while you were alive. We should believe that this gender empowerment will benefit everybody, individuals, families, communities and the whole country. We do have our perspectives too as women that is why I am preaching that every opportunity that exists in career, decision making position, etc, they should make sure they use that God-given opportunity to reduce the gap between male and female in terms of economic opportunities because the society suffers ultimately if you do not empower women.

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