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Improved waterways imperative for Nigeria’s maritime business




Joost Van Hecken is the outgoing General Mnager and Chief Executive Officer of Bonny Channel Company (BCC). Before handing over to Kristian Faber, he spoke with Business Editor, ADE OGIDAN on the operations of BCC in the Bonny Channels and the impact on maritime operations at Onne Port and NLNG Terminal. Execerpts;

What is the operational profile of your company in Nigeria?

Bonny Channel Company (BCC) was established in 2004. At the moment, we are maintaining about 100 kilometres of navigable seaway. This includes 20 kilometres of offshore channels from the fore roadways up to the Nigeria Natural Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in Bonny Island. Another 60 kilometers 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 and dredged it. We also maintain all the navigational aids, keeping all the beacons along the navigable channels working at all times.

The long and short of it is that we do day-to-day maintenance of the channels and quickly too in order not to cause any delay for users, so that they don’t end up incurring avoidable costs due to the delay or inability to use the channels whenever they need to. We ensure that the businesses that use Bonny channel and waterways enjoy seamless navigation in the area without any delay.

Hitherto, the access channel of the Eastern ports of Onne and Bonny, up to the terminal of the Nigeria Natural Liquefied Gas company (NLNG) and the rivers in the area were maintained through different contracts which always took some time before the actual work was 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 blocking smooth and ease of navigation, installing navigational aids or any other work, it was always taking a long time for the bidding and tendering processes for the job, thereby impacting negatively on the business of operators in the area. Against this scenario, the government came to the conclusion that a public private partnership, spearheaded by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) would solve the problems and quicken pace of work in the channels. Basically, that was how and why the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) came to be established in 2004.

One other factor that made the establishment of a joint venture that gave birth to BCC imperative was that a few years ago, NLNG expanded its operations, necessitating the need for prompt repair works along the route, in order not to stall maritime activities along the way to its terminal.

What is the technical partnership arrangement that brought about 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.

How will you assess your operational success against 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 flow of 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 partnership 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 take time and obstruct smooth running of the businesses of operators in the area.

We also ensure that all navigational aids are in place, like the lights are working, the buoys are there to clearly show the routes and there is no one single blockage along the ways of the ships that are either coming in or sailing out. 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 as well as economic activities in the area. BCC has done a lot of improvements on the maritime waterways of the eastern ports since its inception. For example we have widened the entrance to the NNLG terminal from 215 to 230 metres. We have also deepened it from 12.5 to 14.3 metres. We constantly interact with the needs of the users and what we have noticed is that since we’ve done the improvement works traffic of ships has increased a lot.

Since the coming of BCC, traffic volume of ships to NNLG Terminal has increased from 192 to 480 per year; because we have widened and deepened it, making bigger ships to come in; and this has caused drastic increase in economic activities at the NNLG.

Onne Port is also very important to the area and we’ve deepened the channel between NNLG Terminal and Onne Port from 8.5 to 10 metres. As I said, we’ve always interacted with the needs of 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.

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. If we notice any safety issue may be a risk along the waterways, we investigate it and pass on our findings to NPA, which will then convey it to NIMASA. The agency will then commence the process of addressing whatever the issue is.

So far, what have been the challenges facing your operations?

Bonny area is known to be volatile. Piracy has been a big challenge in that area, especially on the offshore channels to the NNLG Terminal. So, for this reason, our vessels are almost a floating fortresses. Whatever work we have to do, whether dredging or salvage works, we always have security vessels accompanying us and our equipment. We also ensure that we have adequate security personnel onboard.

Have you ever experienced any untoward occurrence?

Well, it happens to other companies who are engaged in the kind of works that we do. Kidnappings have happened but at BCC, we’ve always been lucky, may be because we’ve always taken the necessary precautionary measures, including taken security very serious.

What per cent of your technical workforce are Nigerians?

Majority of our technical staff are Nigerians. Our technical partner, that is Dredging International also employ Nigerians. As a matter of fact, the operational base of our workforce is about 200 and 95 per cent of that number are Nigerians. Among them are engineers, human resources personnel, supervisors, engineering superintendents, and even pay roll staff, among others.

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. Besides, if there is any loss in economic activities of any of the host communities, due to our work, we compensate them. For instance, in Bonny Island, which is a fishing community and they said dredging affects fishing, we always compensate them for any economic loss arising from our dredging activities. When we were widening and deepening the Bonny channel, it affected fishing activities in the community and we compensated them. Between BCC and NPA, we built coldrooms for them so that they can store and preserve their catch and that has really helped them. What you find after we constructed the cold rooms is that they no longer have wastages. This way, they have been able to maximize income from their fishing activities.

What is your impression of Nigerians, particularly the people from the area that you have worked in, in respect of the work ethics, culture and all?

I have been working in Africa for the last six years, the last two and the half has been in Nigeria. I have worked in Ghana 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 be very 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 of you.

In which other African countries is Dredging International currently operating?

We are currently working in Ghana, Congo, Angola and Ivory Coast. There are so many projects going on in Africa, so much that sometimes, you lose track.

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