Craig De Savoye on the challenges and opportunities of sourcing the next generation of crew from Africa.
Late last month, some of the most powerful figures in the maritime community assembled in Singapore to attend the Maritime CEO Forum, which I lapped up. Carl Schou, president and CEO of Wilhelmsen Ship Management, said Africa was coming up as a potential source of new crew. His point of view was eagerly taken up by Carl Martin Faannessen, CEO of Manila-based crewing specialist Noatun Maritime, who queried, “Why more people are not looking at that place is a mystery to me”.
I’ve been exploring the potential of the African seafaring market for 15 years. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt from my numerous trips and discussions over the years and an understanding as to how it can be woven together to ensure Africa is indeed a reliable source for seafarers.
Fear of the unknown
A singular truth in our industry is that manning a vessel is not easy, if it is to be done effectively. Particularly with ratings, crew managers need to have a full grip on the regulatory frameworks (and general business environment) of where they are sourcing crew. Far too often, in so many countries around the world, there are stories of forged certificates, poor training standards, and seafarers who have been sold a dream that is simply not true and therefore grow into dissatisfied crew quite quickly.
I have seen far too often where a company tries to cut corners in Africa
Over countless conversations I have heard from front-line crewing staff that they would much rather deal with known problems in a familiar environment than venture into an unfamiliar environment, get their fingers burnt, and not achieve their KPIs in the meantime.
As one industry vet told me: “We’ve built a nice life sourcing crew in other markets. Even though it’s harder to source crew from them now, at least we are comfortable with the process.”
Weak infrastructure and regulations
It seems the preference of the front-line crewing staff is to have a plug-and-play market with established training institutions, strong regulatory regimes and manning agents who they can trust. As one crew manager put it to me, she felt the manning agents in Africa were run from a coffee shop and she had no confidence in any regulatory compliance or training standards being adhered to. She freely admitted her brief interactions with the crewing sector in Africa had led to feelings of mistrust. It is entirely understandable that she didn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel to source crew from Africa. She knew that she didn’t have the expertise, experience or resources to navigate this frontier market.
This is where the international crewing sector needs to work with African jurisdictions. Africa is not a homogenous continent – it is made up of 54 countries and 75 major languages. Each country needs a different approach just like each country has different potential. Most important to this is that each party has a shared vision and are willing to work together to make it happen.
Effort and investment
I’ve met with maritime administration officials from 40 of the 41 IMO member states in Africa. I’ve toured countless facilities and had unguarded conversations that go deep into what is within the realm of the possible. This is not a one-size fits all solution and choosing a jurisdiction will depend a lot on the manager and their strategic objectives.
One thing is assured, however, is that most administrations are keenly aware that improvements are needed and they are willing to embrace change to improve. They understand the old adage that they don’t know what they don’t know, and are looking to foreign partners to assist.
As much as the big managers love the idea of a plug-and-play solution in Africa, it is much more complex than that. It will require the same scale of effort and investment that has been directed towards the Philippines over the decades, to ensure that the facilities, infrastructure, regulatory environment and general knowledge is at the level in which they can trust. The idea of African SMEs setting up agencies and training institutions that comply with global best practice, and the regulatory bodies staying one step ahead, is simply not achievable at the moment. The big managers will need to step in and dedicate resources, the same way they did in the Philippines.
Do it right
I have seen far too often where a company tries to cut corners in Africa. This is not about sourcing cheaper crew or escaping regulations. If the goal is to find cheap crew with a blind eye to regulations, then you will find yourself in a lot of trouble, very quickly. Working in the dark corners will not lead to a sustainable business venture in Africa.
It’s about a viable pipeline of talent that can keep ocean trade safe and efficient for decades to come. Africa has a population of 1.4bn people, and 60% of them are under the age of 25. This makes Africa by far the youngest continent on Earth. It is one thing to put a warm body on a ship, but it is a whole other proposition to have that seafarer:
- Stay long-term with one manager, eager for career progression and a mutual investment into each other
- Treat that vessel as his/her own – making decisions that assist the manager with commercial success and ensuring the vessel is trading safely and efficiently
- Be comfortable that their own maritime administration is working hard with industry to ensure that the bar is always set high
What I have found is that seafarers (aspiring and existing), maritime administrations and the wider maritime community in Africa are willing to achieve a, b, and c, as listed above. The biggest disconnect is the conduit between the international private sector and engagement in African jurisdictions. What it will take is a lot of groundwork, local knowledge, and a willingness to execute a shared vision, while at the same time navigating the complex African environment.