“ We Are Shareholders of the Oceans, Not Just Stakeholders” – Dr Onyung, President SOAN
High Chief Dr Mkgeorge O. Onyung is the President of Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN). He is also the chairman, founder and co-founder of a wide range of companies and organizations including but not limited to Jevkon Oil & Gas Ltd, Nokoy (Fisheries) Investment Ltd., Epxon Oil Producing Ltd., Capricorn Maritime Co. Limited, St. Eve Concept Limited, White Cross Hospital Ltd, and Jevkon Inc, USA.
As a Fellow of the Association of General Medical Practitioners (FAGP), he is a general practitioner and consultant enzymologist. He is also a technologist, fisherman, ship owner, a maritime and an oil and gas entrepreneur, having retired from the Nigerian Army Medical Corps (Direct Short Service Commission) as a substantive Major in 1982. With over 30 years’ experience in diversified fields comprising marine transportation, industrial fishing and the down-stream/up-stream sectors of the Nigerian Petroleum Industry, Dr. Onyung had operated 6 US built shrimp /fishing trawlers within Nigerian, Gabon and Benin Republic territorial waters exporting tons of on-board processed Atlantic-Gold brand shrimps to Europe and USA. He had since 1990 diversified into downstream oil tanker operations owning and operating a fleet of 5 oil tankers (single hull) in the past, but now a new-build double Hull MT.
In this interview with JEROME ONOJA, he bares his thoughts on SOAN, its coming conference: Lagos International Shipping Expo, and a couple of other burning issues.
What is the vision of SOAN?
The vision of the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) is to ensure we take leadership of the ocean. SOAN consists of companies who own ships, have proven track records, and are registered to carry out shipping business in Nigeria. It’s unlike other groups where only a few own ships. So, our objective is to lead the industry in shipping development and to ensure greater value for our teeming members. To achieve that, we strive to keep our companies afloat and to remain in business. We understand the ocean is an embodiment of mysteries, and are fully aware of the enormity of the task. We show leadership and take responsibility for the ocean, so as to guaranty continued benefit from the blue economy.
What strategic role(s) are you playing in the big picture as regards enhancing national development?
We are collaborating and engaging with government and its agencies at the highest level towards national development, and ensuring the Nigerian people benefit from the oceans. As a matter of fact, I have the authority of my executive council to host a ground breaking national programme: the Lagos International Shipping Expo. This will take place from November 20 to November 22 at Snake Island, ending with a gala night at Oriental Hotel.
However, it’s important to note that the takeaways from this conference should impact government’s decisions because operators from across the globe will be in attendance and it will also be a forum to engage the government. With this there are possibilities of Foreign Direct Investments. The theme is “Ocean Blue Economy and National Development”. It will be a robust conversation.
In order to maximize the wealth from the oceans, someone needs to take responsibility in terms of sustainability, innovation, the health of the ocean and particularly, the life under the sea which God has created. You will agree with me that the maritime industry generates a lot of employment globally and has this peculiar multiplier effect. For every maritime professional employee there are seven others employed to cater for one need or the other. Considerations around the advent and eventual introduction of smart ships to Nigerian waters are ongoing. There’s also the general conversation about the world making the oceans its next huge resource for access to renewable energy. These and more will be in perspective when we gather to discuss at the first Lagos International Shipping Expo.
What are you doing about the plight of cadets seeking sea time training to eventually become seafarers?
Perhaps, you must have noticed my presentation was skewed from the regular tone of other speakers during the Seafarers Day event. For all intents and purposes, ship owners must distinguish themselves from other stakeholders. We aren’t just stakeholders; we are shareholders of the oceans. That’s the concept I want us to run with in my tenure as a leader. We have borrowed a lot of money from the bank and we must stay afloat. We have a responsibility to the oceans and the environment; we must rid it of pollution; we must ensure sustainability and introduce innovations so aquatic life will continue, we must guard against sea creatures going into extinction. It behoves us all to do these because we are one of the largest investors in the oceans.
It is well known that one out of every five vessels on the sea belongs to a Norwegian. Twenty per cent of the global fleet belongs to them. It wasn’t achieved in one day. Like the illustration I made the other day, “…those who do not have booths won’t be allowed to play football. You won’t even be on the reserve bench! At best, you’ll be a spectator! My point is that there’s a need to own more ships in Nigeria! Yes, we have some, but we need more. I was in Norway not long ago, and met this young managing director, barely 44 years old. He owns 650 ships! He inspired me. As ship owners, we are willing to take this to the next level. We are willing to channel more investments into maritime equipment. With these desired equipment, we will be able to change the lot of the seafarers.
We are already in talks with the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron to see how we can absorb some of these cadets on our ships for them to acquire the needed training. In line with gender equality and inclusiveness, we shall be announcing our decision to absorb the lady cadets shortly once our consultations are done.
As regards the trained but unemployed seafarers, whose numbers run into thousands, about four to six thousand; we presently don’t have the capacity for everyone. It’s going to take a lot of investment in new ships. So, we are in discussing with NIMASA and a couple of global financial institutions, not limiting ourselves to Nigeria. The strategy is to have more ships which will eventually take care of the seafarers’ plight.
How are you going about accessing the CVFF?
About the Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund (CVFF), we’ve talked and cried and are beginning to sound like a broken record. But there is a vista of hope in this new government as the change is beginning to happen. We see the transformation at relevant government departments and believe it will bring about the needed reforms and sparks we desire across board. We are law-abiding and will stay the course until we are heard.
There are huge loans we are servicing. Part of my strategy is to continue collaborating with NIMASA, as we have created issues-focused groups at SOAN to spearhead these conversations. A team of about two or three persons will take time to deeply look at pertinent issues, engage the top echelon at NIMASA to smoothen the rough edges and look at the grey areas with a view to finding lasting solutions. These things shouldn’t be about magnifying issues only. That’s the approach we are deploying to solve the CVFF issue.
We are glad NIMASA now has the International Shipping Promotion Unit for wet and dry cargo. We have met the team informally, and do hope to escalate. We are all part of this democratic government and must play our part. So we believe, and are positive there will be disbursement of the CVFF before the Lagos International Shipping Expo in November. Ships are the answers. Without it, there’s no NIMASA. Without ships, there’s no seafarer. Seeing the ocean holds tremendous wealth, there are multiple stakeholders, and everyone is talking; so they end up sending confusing messages to the government. We should separate the noise from sound counsel.
What is your parting shot?
We are very patient people at SOAN. Shipping isn’t a quick-return business. We wait eight to nine years before we begin to reap. That’s how the oceans are. You don’t plunge into the ocean. You test the waters first. The Scandinavian countries were transformed by the wealth from the ocean and maritime infrastructure. Global trade consists of ninety per cent maritime businesses. Ocean controls the world’s economy. We take seafarers as members of our family because we invest millions in these equipments which we eventually leave in their custody. If we don’t recognise their welfare, then our businesses will be in jeopardy; thus my shout out goes to the seafarers and the girl child who wants to be a seafarer tomorrow.