Hecken: Piracy Remains a Big Challenge for Maritime Activities 

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Outgoing Chief Executive Officer of the Bonny Channel Company, Mr. Joost Van Hecken, spoke with Kunle Aderinokun on the activities of the maritime company, highlighting its achievements and challenges in its 12 years of existence

What brought about the Bonny Channel Company?
Bonny Channel Company was established in 2004. Before then, the access channel of the eastern ports of Onne and Bonny up to the terminal of the Nigeria Natural Liquefied Gas company and the rivers in the area were maintained through different contracts which always took some time before the actual work is done; it used to be time consuming due to bureaucracy. What you have is whenever there is need for work on the access channel, may be removing a wreckage which is blocking smooth and ease of navigation, installing navigational aids or any other work, it always take a long time to the bid and tender process for the job and this affects business of operators in the area. Due to this people came to the conclusion that a public private partnership spearheaded by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) will solve the problems and quicken pace of work if there was any need for intervention in any of the areas that I have mentioned above so that the channel is navigable for users. Basically this was how and why the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) came to be established in 2004.

What is the pedigree of the technical partner in the arrangement that brought about Bonny Channels Company (BCC)?

The technical partner in the partnership is Dredging International (DI). DI is one of the biggest dredging companies in the world, the company has the expertise and it boasts of many decades of experience is dredging activities all around the world. Dredging International is known globally and acclaimed as a sector leader.

What does BCC basically do?
BCC is the channel manager of the bonny channel. At the moment we are maintaining about 100 kilometres of navigable seaway. This includes 20 kilometres offshore channels from the fore roadways up to the Nigeria Natural Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in Bonny Island. There is another 60 kilometres up to the limits of Port Harcourt ports and an additional 10 kilometres in Onne ports that we are maintaining.

What this implies is that we’re maintaining the depths and width of the river and if it is required we also remove all kinds of wrecks anywhere along the channel so that we can guarantee that it is safe and available for the users who may need to use the channel. Of course we designed it and dredged it. We also maintain all the navigation aids, keeping all the beacons along the navigable channels working at all times is part of our job.

How will you assess your operational success in view of the initial objective for setting up BCC?

Our maintenance work has always ensured that the waterways are navigable at all times. In turn this has ensured continuous traffic of ships at all times since we came on board. Since we came on board, there has never been any traffic congestion may be due to delay in fixing any problems that could obstruct ships from sailing into and out of any of the ports.

One of the ways that we have been able to ensure this and which is also one of the advantages of having a technical partner is the availability of equipment on ground and we can intervene immediately whenever there was need for an intervention instead of having to wait for the process of asking for tenders, sending in quotes and bidding and all that which always takes time and obstruct smooth running of the businesses of operators in the area.

For instance if a buoy is missing we quickly move in and replace it and if a ship is coming in and requires deeper depth, we immediately move in and remove the sands or icebergs before it gets to the place where and avert any delay or jeopardise marine movements on the part of the users. This wasn’t the case before we came on board. We have actually made the eastern ports more navigation friendly than we met it. We have improved its depth so that bigger ships can use it which wasn’t the case before now.

This has also helped to increase traffic of ships in the area as well as economic activities in the area. I mentioned earlier, we have also been ensuring that the users have no cause to incur extra costs, may be because they have to wait for repair works to be completed before they can access the
NNLG terminal or Onne Port. We make sure the traffic continue to flow without any incidence.

Does your operation require that you interface with the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety and Agency (NIMASA)?

As a joint venture business with the NPA, we handle only the technical part of the partnership, liaising with the NIMASA falls within the purview of NPA.

How long has the technical partner been in Nigeria?
As I mentioned earlier on, the partnership was established in 2004 but the technical partner has been in Nigeria for about 25 years.

What is your impression of the country’s maritime sector?
I can only talk in terms of the eastern ports. BCC has done a lot of improvements on the maritime waterways of the eastern ports since its inception. For example we have widen the entrance to the NNLG terminal from 215 to 230 metres, wehave also deepened it from 12.5 to 14.3 metres. We constantly interact with the needs of the users and what wehave noticed is that since we’ve done the improvement works traffic of ships has increased a lot.

For example, since the coming of Bonny Channels Companytraffic of ships to NNLG terminal has increased from 192 to480 per year; because we have widen and deepen it biggerships are now coming in; and this has caused drastic increase in economic activities at the NNLG. Onne Port isalso very important to the area and we’ve deepened thechannel between NNLG terminal and Onne Port from 8.5 to 10metres. As I said, we’ve always interacted with the needsof maritime operators in the area; it’s a cycle; the more improvements that we are able to carry out the more economic activities in the area improves and when it improves further they come back to us for further upgrade to accommodate more vessels; so it goes back and forth, on and on.

So far what are the challenges to your operations?
Bonny area is known to be volatile. Piracy has been a big challenge in that area especially on the offshore channelsto the NNLG terminal so for this reasons our vessels arealmost a floating fortresses; whatever work we have to do whether dredging or salvage works, we always have security vessels accompany us and our equipment; we also ensure to have adequate security on-board.

Have you ever experienced any untoward occurrence?

Well it happens to other companies who are engage in thekind of works that we do, kidnappings have happened but at BCC we’ve always been lucky; may be because we’ve alwaystaken the necessary precautionary measures including takensecurity very serious.

From the picture that you painted, that must beadditional cost for BCC, in what ways do you think
government can help to take away such additional costs to doing your legitimate work?

Well, one way that government can help is to furtherincrease security in the area by having more Navy presence in the area at all times and not only when we want to go out to work. Really, that is a difficult question to answer because if you probe further; what is the cause of piracy? If you ask me, I think it is poverty, frustration and economic hardship. I cannot answer on how that can be resolved but the last step of providing security for us isto increase security personnel Navy-wise in that area. That’s as best as I can say on that.

What per cent of your technical workforce are Nigerians?

Majority of our technical staff are Nigerians. Ourtechnical partner, that is Dredging International also employ Nigerians. As a matter of fact, the operational baseof our workforce is about 200, 95 per cent that number are Nigerians. Among them are Engineers, Human Resources personnel, Supervisors, Engineering Superintendents, nameit, even pay roll staff.

What we do in terms of employment are in two categories.There is the administrative staff that we employ and they get to work even though they still go for trainings alongthe line. Then there are the technical staff that we employ and train them on the job and this is because dredging workis not something you go to the university to learn; rather you learn on the job. Even at that we still send some ofthem to our offices in Europe and our head office in Belgiumfor more on the job training so that they can scale up andwith time are on the same competency level with other foreigners in the employ of Dredging International; be theyBelgians or from any country in Europe where we have
offices. We take transfer of knowledge very serious at BCC.

How are you impacting your host communities in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

We engage the local communities wherever we are working and depending on where we are working from. Besides, ifthere is any loss in economic activities of any of the host communities due to our work we compensate them. Forinstance, in Bonny Island which is a fishing community and they said dredging affects fishing, we always compensated them for any economic loss arising from our dredging activities. When we were widening and deepening the bonnychannel, it affected fishing activities in the community we compensated them.

One of the ways by which we have impacted their lives building Cold rooms for them. Between BCC and NPA we built cold rooms for them so that they can store and preserve their catch and that has really helped them. What you find afterwe constructed the cold rooms is that they no longer have wastages; this way they have been able to maximise income from their fishing activities.

Are you restricted to working strictly for NPA In your operations or you do other third party jobs?

We are always looking for third party jobs since we have our equipment on ground and we offer very competitive rates.
Again, since we have the experience and know-how, sincewe’ve been working in the area for many years it makes business sense to seek out third party jobs and we do that.And we’ve been doing jobs. For instance, under BCC we’ve done some third party jobs at Onne Port.

When is the contract ending?
We started in 2004 and it’s a 15-year contract.

Besides, the building of cold rooms forthe community, does BCC has any CSR initiative targeted specifically at women and children?

I think the bigger picture is what we see and look out for and that is that by engaging the whole community in whatever we do helps to increase their economic wellbeing and when they earn income it has a way of affecting the whole community and not just women and children. When we areworking in a community, we engage people from that community and the environs and pay them very well, so for the three orsix months that we are working in the area we engage them and impact their lives economically.

What is your impression of Nigerians, particularly the people from the area that you have worked in, in respect ofthe work ethics, culture and all?
I have been working in Africa for the last six years, thelast two and the half has been in Nigeria. I have worked inGhana and Angola; I was also born in Africa, Mozambique to be precise so I see myself more as an African. Compared to Ghana and Angola, Nigeria is really different. It can bevery challenging working with Nigerians; I like that attitude. Nigerians always challenge you to give your best.
More than I have experienced with Ghanaians and Angolans, Nigerians always want to get the very best out ofyou.

In what other African country is Dredging International currently working?
We are currently working in Ghana, Congo, Angola andIvory Coast. There are so many projects going on in Africaso much that sometimes you lose track.

Maritimeindustry is a big revenue earning sector, do you think thepotential of Onne Port is being maximise in terms of revenue generation?
Let’s just say Onne Port is still a growing port. Butfrom what we have noticed and due to the intervention work that BCC has done in the area the port is picking up interms of vessel traffic and economic activities. The latest we have noticed is that Maersk vessels – very huge vessel that can carry between 4000 and 5000 containers have been using the port. This started about two years ago and it is because BCC has smoothen some bends so that big vessels cansail into Onne. So, I think the port is in the process of maximising its potential but on the other hand oil prices in the international market as you know is affecting almost every sector, imports and maritime business inclusive.