THE AFRICAN SEAFARER: Are we missing the boat?
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THE AFRICAN SEAFARER: Are we missing the boat?

The challenges of creating a pool of seafarers from Africa

The ambition of tapping into the opportunity to supply a predicted future shortfall of almost 150,000 sea-going officers by 2025, is not as easy to realise as some African countries may have hoped. Often held up as the holy grail of job creation in the sector by aspirant maritime administrations on the continent, this figure fails to take into account the simultaneous over-supply of ratings – and under-estimates the nuances associated with recruitment, training, marketing and managing a pool of potential African seafarers. 

By Colleen Jacka, Editor of Maritime Review Africa

The most recent BIMCO and ICS (International Chamber of Shipping) Manpower Report 2015, which was released in 2016, showed an existing shortfall of 16,500 officers in the international merchant fleet, and highlighted the need for an additional 147,500 by 2025.

The numbers in this Manpower Report have been widely quoted and could naturally lead one to assume that; firstly, there is an opportunity to train officers and, secondly it would be in the shipowner’s best interest to make cadet and training berths available on their vessels.

The report suggested that China had overtaken the Philippines as the largest single source of seafarers qualified for international trade (although the Philippines is still the largest source of ratings). Data, however, noted that these Chinese seafarers were more readily employed on national vessels and that the Philippines and Russia are seen as equally important sources of officers, followed closely by Ukraine and India. Africa did not (and still does not) feature in any great way as a source for crew.

A sourcing shift

Due for publication every five years, it will be interesting to see how these numbers may have shifted when the Manpower Report 2020 is released. There is already evidence, however, that the sourcing of seafarers is shifting. The decline of sourcing from the Philippines is highlighted in a recent article published by South China Morning Post.

“The outsize contribution that Filipino seafarers make to both global trade and the Philippine economy is shrinking fast, with smaller crews and cutthroat competition from other maritime nations among a host of pressures driving a sharp decline in the number of Filipinos working at sea,” writes Huw Watkin in the article.

The article quotes figures of deployment falling from about 440,000 Filipino seafarers in 2016 to less than 340,000 last year. In a blog post on their website, Nelson Ramirez, president of the industry lobby group United Filipino Seafarers (UFS) admits that the country’s position is being eroded.

“The reason the Philippine manning industry grew to be the world leader was hinged on the offering of low cost of labour combined with a strong proficiency of English. As other nations are catching up in English proficiency, while offering cost effective wage scales, the Philippines continues to gauge employers, adding millions of US dollars to crew costs,” he writes, confiding that his interactions with shipowners confirm a trend to remove Filipino crews.

Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Ukraine and eastern Europe are positioning themselves to fill the void as shipowners chase cheaper crewing scenarios. This shift necessarily refocuses the opportunity presented by a shortage of officers for those African countries keen to be a part of the crewing solution by emphasising the need to address wage disparity and the importance of prioritising English proficiency.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence already suggests that some South African vessel owners are disadvantaged when seeking to work in foreign jurisdictions due simply to the costs associated with carrying a South African crew.

STCW status

Supply and demand notwithstanding, the focal emphasis on training for improved penetration of the seafarer market cannot be underestimated.

It is a challenge that Captain Simon Pearson is all too familiar with. Having been involved in training of seafarers from across the continent for a number of decades, Pearson admits that Africa is battling to effectively train people for the international seafaring pool. He notes that funding, berths and the availability of teaching staff rank amongst the most prevalent problems.

white listCouple this to the very real need for countries to ensure that their standard of training meets the International Maritime Organisation’s STCW requirements for “White List” status and remain accredited by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) – and it is clear that a potential seafarer from Africa may be starting off on a back foot.

When news broke earlier this year that the sacred White List was to undergo a radical culling exercise, many were rightfully panicked, and a general scramble by the affected parties to assure their inclusion on the list ensued.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), however, questions the viability of the so-called White List in their annual review issued for 2019. “ICS would not wish to tear up the ‘white list’ without a suitable replacement, but there has to be a more transparent and robust monitoring system of national implementation to ensure that STCW continues to deliver competent and quality seafarers in the interests of maritime safety and pollution prevention,” the report reads.

The ICS intends to make a formal request to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee next year to undertake a fundamental review and rewrite of the STCW Convention during the first part of the next decade. What this rewrite would entail, however, is not currently abundantly clear.

Given that more than ten African countries are already facing omission from the White List redraft and will be undertaking an urgent assessment of their training regimes, a future that includes a “fundamental review and rewrite of the STCW Convention,” will most likely place an added administrative burden on them. And it is a burden that will impact on their locally trained seafarers’ opportunities in the global crewing market.

While the obligations of a member state under the STCW Convention are clear, they provide no room for flexibility from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Geared specifically for uniformity of training standards, the Convention does not allow for local considerations – even if they do not negatively impact on the quality of training provided.

In an interview with Maritime Review Africa, acting CEO of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) , Sobantu Tilayi, explained how this inflexibility has prevented the country’s ability to integrate prior learning from the fishing and naval sectors into the framework for local seafarers.

“Our aim was to create a continuous process of development for South African seafarers for those that started out in the fishing industry and ended up on merchant navy vessels,” he said. “But they (IMO) did not like this and told us not to contaminate the rules,” he added.

As a result South Africa has temporarily abandoned these objectives in an effort to give effect to STCW. According to Tilayi, the Authority will undertake a self-assessment of the new system during December this year with the view to solving findings and putting in place corrective measures before the final IMO assessment in February 2020.

He remains confident that the auditors will find in favour of South Africa’s ability to give full effect to STCW and that the country will remain on the list which is due to be released in 2021.

But he has not given up on the fight for recognition of prior learning and it is an approach that training providers support.

“There are other countries that are interested in this approach – particularly our friends in South East Asia. We will continue to lobby for this, but understand that it will take time – probably the better part of ten years,” stresses Tilayi who believes that it will be of benefit to the next generation of seafarers.

Tackling training

A number of training institutions are tackling training with various degrees of success on the African continent. From Ghana and Nigeria in west Africa to Angola and South Africa in the south and Kenya and Ethiopia in the east – most of the tertiary training providers are struggling with similar problems.

Captain Pearson has visited training providers in Kenya, Mozambique, Ghana, Jamaica and Angola and concludes that the odds are against fully equipping many of these to deliver the training required.

Serving perhaps as a stark reminder of the continent’s stalled aspirations for training a pool of African seafarers is the Centro De Formação Maritima De Angola (CFMA) which was launched five years ago as the most modern maritime campus in Africa.

According to Pearson, built at a cost of about $55 million, the campus is basically deserted. “Its gates are closed because it just does not have the staff. You cannot actually run a viable programme there,” he says explaining that the choice of location in a remote area of Angola has not helped attract staff or students.

The facility was linked to the City of Glasgow College in Scotland with the aim of developing Angolan STCW certification and supporting the country’s IMO White List accreditation. Although these ambitions never materialised, Pearson maintains that the facility could have become a regional maritime campus with the right resources.

Having faced challenges of its own, the Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN) undertook to re-evaluate its facilities and resources two years ago when it set up an Interim Management Committee to undertake an audit.

At an event to open new facilities at the Academy in May this year, former Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi advised the Rector to employ qualified lecturers from abroad and urged current lecturers to improve their own knowledge by returning to school to complete their PHDs.

“We also promised to make the academy first class Maritime Academy; therefore, we need to deal with equipment and teachers because if there are no teachers and equipment, it could be described as a hotel. That is why we need to encourage and fund them,” he said.

At the time the Rector of MAN Commodore Emmanuel Effadua reported that a partnership with Indian engineers would see the development of multi-functional classrooms and the installation of a simulation centre by November this year.

Effedua also noted that improving on the content of the school curriculum will form the next phase of activities for the academy.

On the other side of the continent in Ethiopia, an interesting success story has emerged where the Ethiopian Maritime Training Institute (EMTI) is supplying marine engineering and electrical cadets as well as seagoing officers and ratings to the international shipping market. The formation of EMTI was a joint initiative between the YCF Group from the USA, the Ethiopian Government and the Liberian Ship Register.

Interestingly, Ethiopia is not one of the countries facing culling from IMO’s STCW White List. In May this year, the Ethiopian Maritime Affairs Authority (EMAA) said that it was encouraged by its status and that it would continue to protect this in an effort to increase the demand for Ethiopian seafarers.

“Regional maritime academies are the way forward,” says Pearson who advocates for strategically placed institutions that are resourced properly and managed effectively. “The problem is that everyone wants to host one,” he says admitting that agreeing on the most ideal host location is difficult.

“We cannot afford academies in every city and country. The solution is one regional academy that is well-equipped with simulators,” he adds.

Pieter Coetzer of Seatrain, who has also undertaken a number of visits to training institutions on the continent, points out that they are competing against the traditional seafarer supplying countries where shipowners have already invested heavily in state-of-the-art training facilities.

In South Africa the seafaring community is serviced by a number of universities and private training providers that provide access to a range of qualifications and courses. Some evolution of curriculum has occurred over the last few years. Most notably is the move from Diploma to Bachelor courses at tertiary institutes. A phased-in approach will see the eventual complete replacement of diplomas by Bachelor Degrees. 

A recent development to help harmonise the programmes across these institutions saw the launch this year of the Maritime Academic Institutions of South Africa (MAISA). The organisation represents the interests of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University and the Durban University of Technology’s maritime departments.

“It’s important to have the correct people and infrastructure in place,” says Coetzer adding that the system does need to be tweaked to accommodate a student’s ability to undertake their theory in one chunk and avoid having to go back to college and leave the ship for long periods of time. “The students that enter college straight out of school do better than those who are coming back from sea to try engage with the theory again,” he says.

“The days of getting paid study leave are gone and we need to offer a system that caters to the needs of the student and the industry,” he says.

Speaking at a conference in Durban in October and representing MAISA, Theresa Williams echoed some of the challenges that other African institutions face and acknowledged the difficulties associated with attracting the required maritime lecturer capacity due mainly to the inability to meet salary expectations.

Student complexities and recruitment

Williams also highlighted the need to recognise the type of students that are being recruited into the programmes. “We need to design a programme for the African learner. It is often a learner that that comes from a situation of poverty and may even be the head of a household,” she said adding that, in some cases, social workers are required to intervene.

With school results that are often inflated, she says that these learners are also poor in maths and science. “The type of learner that we get needs to be interrogated,” she says adding that it has become everyone’s responsibility to ensure that graduates are functioning adults that can be employed.

Leon Mouton of Sea Safety Training Group agrees that the standard of learner coming into the system does need to be addressed. “More and more learners are failing the theory component because they cannot cope with the magnitude of the content,” he says. “The only way to solve this is to have some sort of entry test to gauge the learner followed with a proper bridging course to ensure that they will cope with the course content,” he adds.

This, however, is only going to add to the cost of already expensive training for potential seafarers.

“Ultimately as MAISA, we want to develop a certain kind of graduate for the industry. A graduate that is a critical and creative thinker, culturally and environmentally aware, an effective communicator, and confident,” Williams added.

She cautioned, however, that currently seafarers were being produced and not finding placement.

“For the past two decades we have been producing seafarers without placing. What is the goal? What are we educating for and where is the sector going in the next five to ten years?” she asked delegates at the conference.

Cadet quandary

Perhaps the saddest quandary that the industry faces relates to the almost universal challenge of finding training berths for cadets. The assumption that shipowners will aim to mitigate against a future shortage of officers by making more training berths available has been proven wrong.

Having been involved in cadet training and placement, and currently an MSc degree student at the World Maritime University, Yvette de Klerk, notes there a number of factors impacting on the lack of available cadet berths that range from a move to minimum manning to a lack of resources.

“The biggest factor to consider, however, is the company’s commitment to training. Those that believe in investing and training their future work force will do so. The United Kingdom, for instance, requires that each company trains one cadet for every 15 officers it employs, and this is legislated under the Tonnage Tax regime,” she adds. 

Although not a purely an African problem, it is one that impacts the development of African seafarers more acutely for various reasons. The problem is not new and has been debated at industry events for the better part of two decades.

Yet the perception remains that the continent’s youth are being trained for unemployment when they are recruited into national cadet programmes in high volumes but hold scant hope of finding a berth. One only has to read the disgruntled comments of would-be sailors on social media to get an idea of the building frustration.

Both South Africa and Nigeria have instituted national cadet programmes with quantifiable objectives in terms of seafarer output. Although instituted prior to the launch of Operation Phakisa, the Big Fast Results methodology of Operation Phakisa aims to see the National Cadet Programme increase capacity to develop 1,200 ratings and 720 officers per year. Interestingly the initial Phakisa target was to create 12,000 South African seafarers by 2019.

In Nigeria, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Administration (NIMASA) also has ambitions of developing a pool of Nigerian seafarers. The Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) is their vehicle to deliver on these ambitions, but it has come under criticism over the last few months for spending billions on securing out-of-country training and seatime for its cadets. Detractors maintain that the money could have been better spent to rejuvenate local facilities and resources.

Crewing and Training Executive at Marine Crew Services (MCS), Paulette Maswanganyi, believes that shipowners are not viewing the predicted shortfall of officers with enough gravity. “Training budgets have been reduced or discontinued altogether,” she says adding that shipowners seem to have hedged their bets on a future that is characterised by minimal crewmembers due to the increase in levels of autonomous technology on board. 

Maswanganyi explains that the model that MCS was established to build on was that training would feed into crewing.

Capt Pearson confesses that it is disillusioning to have to admit to the students that the possibility of getting a training berth is slim. “We would love our students to get tanker experience because this is where the growth industry is, but we are battling,” he says.

“We seem to be trying to put lots of students through without being assured that we will use them anywhere in maritime industry,” he says adding that we need to look critically at the numbers that are being churned out of the numerous colleges that seem to have opened. 

Mouton wishes more could be achieved by using local resources such as berths available on smaller vessels in order to better equip cadets. “The challenge of finding berths remains. Training and theory are easy enough to address, but our biggest challenge is finding decent placements and berths to qualify our students,” he says, admitting that inflexibility of the IMO regulations has effectively reduced the available seatime that can easily be provided at a local level across coastal fishing and supply vessels.

Solving the shortage of berths

The development of African shipping registries as well as the implementation of some sort of cabotage regime are widely held as a potential solutions for creating more opportunities for cadet training and for the eventual deployment of seafarers.

The reality for both scenarios, however, is that neither have produced the desired results in Africa. For countries to increase the tonnage registered under their flags, they need to present an attractive registry option.  And, judging by the success of the Liberian Registry, being attractive to foreign shipowners does not include the authority to dictate crewing requirements.

The Liberian Flag has attained its status as the third biggest ships’ registry by not being overly demanding in this regard. In fact, Liberian seafarers may well be the least represented African nationality at sea. In 2011, much ado was made of the first 16 Liberian seafarers to be placed on vessels flying the country’s flag.

In an article published by Safety4Sea at the time, the President of Seafarers Section of Liberia, Mother T Kpumeh was quoted as saying; “We are calling on all Liberian Flag state ships to emulate the good example of the NOS Shipping Company for providing employment for the Liberian Seafarers. We hope that this process will continue in order to have more than 3,000 Liberian seafarers employed on board sea going vessels plying the Liberian Flag.”

It’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation. If a country wants to attract significant numbers of vessels to its registry, it necessarily cannot be overly prescriptive. On the flipside, if a country wants to mandate that its seafarers are employed on vessels on their registry – they are unlikely to attract the tonnage required to guarantee long-term training berths and crewing opportunities.

It is also relevant to note that the management of the Liberian Ships Registry was contracted to a company run out of the United States of America with taxes and fees accruing back to the African country. According to another article from 2011 on, the contract, which was awarded to Liberian International Ship & Corporate Registry (LISCR) first in 2000, was renewed from the beginning of 2010 for a period of ten years.

In 2018, however, the country’s aspirations for producing seafarers for the mammoth fleet on their flag was given a boost when the renovated Liberia Maritime Training Institute was inaugurated in January. The centre is being run by LISCR, who should therefore have a direct interest and influence in placing the cadets on vessels.

Nevertheless, some tonnage on a country’s register will certainly alleviate the burden of finding training berths. “Local ownership and management brings berths and opportunities,” confirms Pieter Coetzer of Seatrain.

Implementing a cabotage regime is also often presented as a solution to the problem, but it has only been enforced with marginal success – most prominently in Nigeria where NIMASA has initiated more stringent measures over the last few years to enforce the cabotage requirements that stipulate that Nigerians should be deployed on coastal vessels. 

A pipe dream or a practical reality?

The viability of positioning Africans for seafaring opportunities must ultimately either drive significant and relevant future investment in training, management or marketing – or it must accept that decisions to source crew from the continent will be, at best, ad-hoc.

“We have not marketed ourselves well and we do not have sufficient impact in the recruitment arena. We need good agencies like they have in the Philippines that keep good seafarer records and that market aggressively,” says Pearson who adds that it is imperative to stay on the White List and ensure that the quality of the African seafarer being sent to represent the growing pool of candidates from the continent is seen to be a good ambassador for future placements.

This is a sentiment that Maswanganyi agrees with. With minimal representation in the form of crewing agencies from the continent such as Marine Crew Services (MCS), it is difficult to leverage on the successful placement of African seafarers. “We do believe that there is a lot of potential that can be unleashed provided the right structures, people and frameworks are put in place,” she says.

“We do need to do some marketing,” says Coetzer. “Shipowners are not used to the African seafarer – they are used to sourcing from the East where they can find highly skilled seafarers that are cost competitive,” he says, adding that he still believes that Africa has something to offer the international fleet. “As the East becomes more expensive and the world starts to look at different options, Africa could still become a source of supply,” he says.

Coetzer advocates for a more aggressive approach to marketing, however. “If we are not out there waving the flag, people will not know about us. We need to get out there and sell ourselves in order for people to sit up and take notice.”

“I see a space for us in the market in five to ten years,” he says.



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