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2020 Vision | Debbie Owen
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2020 Vision | Debbie Owen

20 Questions for Maritime Leaders in Africa

Name and Surname: Debbie Owen

Organisation: STS Lawhille Maritime Centre

Current Position: Manager

Follow Debbie Owen on TWITTER


1. What qualifications do you have and from which institutions?

My journey of life-long learning started in the 1990s with a three-year qualification in Public Relations and Communications. Since then I’ve completed a host of short courses in a range of disciplines.  Completing the Anatomy of Shipping course at Cambridge University in 1996 was a particular highlight.

2. How long have you been working in the maritime industry?

Since 1992 when I joined Safmarine as their Public Relations Officer.

3. Are you a member of any professional associations? (Please list them if applicable)

Society of Master Mariners (Associate Member), WISTA South Africa, Cape Town Press Club

4. How many years are you from retirement?

Hopefully many - I am not the retiring type.  At least 15 to 20, if all goes well.

5. How would you describe your leadership style?

A mix of inclusive and decisive. 

6. What motivates/drives you in your daily work life?

The vast, untapped potential of the youth of South Africa and a desire to reduce inequality and poverty in a sustainable manner.

7. What skill (business or pleasure) would you still like to master?

Speaking isiXhosa and/or isiZulu.  I have made several attempts at learning both, with little success.

8. Have you spent any time at sea during your career?

Only brief trips onboard vessel. I would love to visit Antarctica and spend a few months onboard SA Agulhas II.

9. What is your outlook for the maritime sector in 2020?

I have always believed in the growth potential of the local maritime sector and still do.  But we need more enabling legislation and more champions if this is to be realised.   

10. What is your outlook for Lawhill in in 2020?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the pioneering maritime studies programme at Simon’s Town School and it’s a milestone worth celebrating.  Looking ahead, I would love to broaden the impact of Lawhill’s Gr10 – Gr12 maritime education programme in 2020 (and the years) ahead, both to the benefit of more young South Africans as well as to youth across the African continent.  But achieving this in a meaningful and sustainable manner will require change and a willingness to embrace new ideas and ‘do things differently’.

11. What geographical markets are you currently active in?

Our students are drawn from across South Africa and Namibia.

12. What are the current challenges facing the maritime education industry?

We need to relook the current approach to school-based maritime education.  Maritime education should be about quality, not quantity. The focus should be on preparing learners as thoroughly as possible for the workplace and ideally doing as much as possible while they are in the school system.  Soft skills and entrepreneurship need more attention, as does the training of more maritime educators (ideally persons with broad industry knowledge and experience and who are given the time and support to acquire the requisite teaching skills).

13. How should we be addressing these challenges during 2020?

Industry and education need to step out of their respective silos and work together to solve the educational challenges facing South Africa.  We need to identify the key issues, develop a clear action plan, set realistic deadlines and, most importantly, have passionate and suitably skilled champions to implement the plan.

14. How is Lawhill embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and disruptive technologies?

The gap between what is being produced by the education system and what industry wants, seems to be an ever widening one.  Our approach at Lawhill is to listen to industry and to identify what it is they need in terms of skills - and then to fill those gaps as much as we can. This is not easy given our financial, time and organisational constraints.  But while we do what we can to keep up with the demands of an ever-changing workplace, including the emergence of new technologies, we also cannot lose sight of the realities we face and which we urgently need to address, such as the shortcomings in mathematics and physical science.  This said, we see great opportunity to prepare our learners for high tech careers in the industry, as well as for marine engineering, via the use of robotics and coding.

15. What changes do you anticipate in the maritime education industry over the next two decades?

Hopefully, maritime education will continue to move with the times and embrace the increasing use of e-learning, gamification etc.  If we are going to attract the youth, we need to be more relatable in our teaching.  And once they have acquired the knowledge and skills, we need to ensure there is a more effective system in place for matching those who are looking for opportunities, with those who are offering them.

16. How relevant and effective do you think strategies such as Operation Phakisa, AIMS 50 and the African Maritime Decade are to help progress the continent’s Blue Economies?

While many of these strategies are laudable, their real value lies in implementation.  And far too many fall short on implementation because, I suspect, they are trying to be ‘’all things to all men’’. 

17. How can African countries collaborate to collectively benefit from the Blue Economy?

By prioritising collective gain over self-interest. I know, easily said but not easily achieved.

Having observed, at Lawhill, the enduring strength of friendships developed at a young age in a boarding environment, as well as the value of ‘’catching them young’’, I often wonder if we wouldn’t move closer to achieving our common maritime goals as a continent if we simply established three or four African Maritime Centres (similar to Lawhill) where talented, young maritime learners from across the continent would have the  opportunity to collectively learn and develop ideas for harnessing the potential of the African Blue Economy?

18. If you could have a superhero power, what would it be?

To eliminate poverty, inequality, hate and violence.

19. What would you like your legacy in the maritime industry to be?

Hundreds of successful young South Africans contributing positively to society and lifting others as they rise.

20. Please nominate another maritime leader (from the African continent) that you would like us to include in our 2020 Vision series.

Captain Nicholas Sloane.  A visionary leader and someone makes the impossible happen.

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