In an interview with our editor, EZINNE AZUNNA, Princess Vicky Haastrup, Chairperson, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) and Vice President, ENL Consortium encourages women to do more to show their competence in the maritime industry. She speaks on mentoring and how to push the envelope as a female. She relays some of her most challenging times in the maritime profession and how she pulled through. Hope you find it interesting!
Why is mentoring absolutely necessary for females in the industry?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: I am really passionate about women and development of women in the maritime sector. The maritime industry used to be male dominated industry several years ago, but women in Nigeria are rising up to the occasion.
Maritime is a very large industry, it is an industry that is encompassing in nature in terms of the people, the professionals, the services, and the opportunities that we have in the industry. There are so many things that women can do… in fact, all things as far as I am concerned. So, for me women should put themselves in the right place, nobody will put you there. You got to put yourself in the right place.
It is very important to encourage younger ones. Some of us are getting old, so there is a need for us to actually equip and mentor the younger ones to take our place so that the gap would not become visible as time goes on. If you look at seafaring today, you would see there is a wide gap. We do not want that to happen in that industry. Women are coming on board right now; we are encouraging young women to participate in the activities of the maritime industry at large. I am very happy mentoring younger ones to occupy whatever space. Some of us don’t want them to wait until we leave; we want them to start occupying immediately and as we begin to see how well they are coping, we checkmate them to become better.
How do you deal with people with different personalities at work? How do you manage such situations?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: Every person is different. Children born from same parents are different in nature. One would expect that in one’s life journey, wherever you find yourself, you would meet people of different nature, different personalities. Being able to cope with people of different personalities makes us thick. That should be part of your training…to be able to adapt to other people’s personality. That other personality could end up being a blessing to you so, it is about compromise. Compromise is the key even when the other person is wrong, there are ways you can manage them, make them to listen to you and see things from your own perspective. It is very important for us to be able to tolerate and accommodate other people even when they don’t see things the way you reason. It is important you accommodate them, appreciate, encourage them or persuade them, so you can prove that the way you want it done is the right way. We need to be patient and communicate properly to do this.
What is the most difficult situation you have dealt with as a terminal operator?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: In my journey as the Chief Executive of ENL port, I have passed through many hurdles, very difficult situations. ENL took over operations of the port, of terminal C and D in 2006 April precisely. We inherited well over five thousand (5,000) dockworkers. Imagine how old I was then, and dockworkers of that time -the dockworkers we have now are the improved ones, they are professionals- the dockworkers we inherited had no orientation whatsoever. You just could not control them; they would not even listen. Alot of them took marijuana while working and they would puff it to my face, asking what I was looking for. “Why are you here? Do you think you can change us? You better go back”, they would say. I also received a lot of death threats.
Don’t forget that that port was built in 1956, long before I was born. It is a port with a lot of history and it is a multi purpose port where we handle all kinds of cargo, particularly the edible cargo and the type of cargo for the open market. The greatest challenge that I had then was dockworkers. How do you stand up to over five thousand dockworkers? Little me, that was the greatest challenge then. I did not expect that, I didn’t sign up for that. How do you re-orientate them and create a new life style and work culture. That was a serious challenge, but I just sat down and said to myself, ”Vicky, you can d0 this.” I took my strength from the Word of God that says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I also took another verse that said, “God has not given me the spirit of fear, he has given me the spirit of boldness and sound mind.”
The good thing about my personality is that I have never been someone who feels intimidated by anybody in my life. I am a fighter, a serious fighter at that from when I was born. I would not just fight for myself; I fight for other people, particularly girls because I hate injustice and bullying, I hate people intimidating and cheating others.
I told myself that I have what it takes inside of me to do the job and I started. Dockworkers were stealing peoples cargo, wharf rats… we inherited over one hundred and fifty wharf rats living inside the terminal. There were rats, cats, dogs and chicken and all what not. Baba White, he is late now was the president of Wharf Rats Association of Nigeria and he was living right in ENL port. I said to myself that I had to break that; they won’t break me. I said if I couldn’t bend them, I was going to break them. It was a decision I made within me, and I was determined to overcome. There were times when I turned myself to be my own security. I would sit right at the gate, at 7am, have my daily operational meeting, do my work and then sit right at the gate. I wanted to see any dockworker that had the guts to steal somebody’s cargo and take it through my gate. I did all of that and of course they didn’t find that funny.
I was also dealt with. In 2008, they destroyed the entire terminal within the space of five hours. Over five thousand dockworkers plus all the motor boys in Apapa invaded our terminal and destroyed every equipment, tables, cars, computers, photo copying machines etc. Unfortunately for them, I wasn’t in the office early that morning. They broke through the wall of my office and entered. They were looking for me. “If you see Vice Chairman, kill her”, that was their mandate. They were looking for me inside the ceiling, fortunately for me, as God would have it, it was just one of those rare occasion when I didn’t come to work early because my husband came the night before from Abuja. That saved me! I had to make sure I prepared his breakfast and took care of my husband before going to work; that was what saved me. It was devastating.
But that was also the beginning of the transformation that I wanted. My staff were beaten up seriously. They thought I was going to run away. Government shut down the port for two weeks. It was during the period of President Yar’dua so he set up a presidential committee to investigate the cause of the riot at the port. I remember that the day we resumed, right in front of the administrative block in the port, the representative of the Ministry of Transportation, people from presidency, Nigerian Port Authority, everybody was there and the leadership of the Maritime Workers Union was there, and when it was my time to talk after everybody had spoken, I said, “look at me, you think you can break me? Look at me! I am not broken! ENL is here to bring the wind of change and I am here to do a job. If the Federal Government of Nigeria didn’t feel we had the capacity to do the job, they wouldn’t have given us the job. I am going to do that job and I will do it efficiently. This is the wind of change, if you are ready to let the wind blow you in, do the right thing, then we will be friends. If you are not ready to do the right thing, that wind of change will blow you out of the terminal, and that is it. If I cannot bend you, I am going to break you.” You could hear a pin drop. That was the beginning of transformation. They understood that I meant business.
I immediately stopped all those malpractices… what they call ‘akube’. I stopped the stealing of people’s cargoes. In those days owners of rice cargo lost a minimum of six trucks but you know, that have become the thing of the past. By the grace of God, today, we even declare excesses on cargoes that were not properly declared. When we have such people, we impose penalty, and ask them to go and make additional payment to Custom service.
Today we have an industry where dockworkers listen. They have become completely transformed and are fully reoriented. We have an industry where we can sit down with leaders of dockworkers and talk. When I go to the terminal now, they call me mama, good morning mama. And some times, some of them want to take pictures with me. We have an industry where if there is problem in any terminal in Nigeria today, if someone gives me a call, I can call the leadership of the Maritime Workers Union and say please, tell your boys to stop it and they will stop.
We see that as a great achievement on the part of Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria. It is commendable and we thank God for that.
Have you been confronted with a client who was disappointed?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: We’ve had several occasions where clients feel disappointed and there were times where in the cause of my duty in the terminal, clients walked straight up to me and complained. The first thing I do is to thank them for patronising ENL terminal. That calms them down, and they talk about the problem. Sometimes, it might not be our fault; at other times it could actually be our fault. When it is our fault, I am humble enough to accept and say “I am sorry, Sir.” I take responsibility and promise to fix the situation. Sometimes if we can’t load all the cargo that day, I make sure they don’t pay additional rent the next day. There is this saying that customers are always right, whether they are right or wrong, they are always right. If you don’t have customers, then you don’t have business. So, you must be humble enough to accept when you are wrong, even when you are not wrong, you explain to them.
Some customers could be very difficult because of their expectations, probably because some of those clearing agents are also getting a lot of pressure from their customers. You know this thing is a chain and as a service provider, you just need to appreciate your clients. You explain to them and give them assurances that you would look into that problem and solve it for them.
For so many ports today, the two most important keys to the future are infrastructural improvement and the state of the intermodal connection. How does this play in your terminal?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: ENL terminal has actually done a lot of infrastructural development. Before we took over in 2006, the entire road connections, the inner roads within the terminal were filled with potholes that could almost swallow up cars. Everything, even that building that we did up to become the administrative, were in the most dilapidated state. It was completely run down, full of the stench of faeces everywhere. We came in and fixed them all. That administrative building has a lot of history; that was where Queen Elizabeth was received when she came to Nigeria. We tried as much as possible to keep the historic nature of the building. It was when it was built in 1956. You see those windows they are old windows, even when dockworkers broke a lot of it we found a way to fix them so that the historical nature of that building is there.
We fixed all the roads within the terminal and bought a lot of equipment. We invested huge money on equipment- cranes, reach stacker, 40 tonnes, 60 tonnes, because if you don’t have those equipment you can’t discharge those cargoes. They are mainly project cargo, for example, we have a lot of project cargo for Dangote refinery, Dangote cement and many other companies.
ENL terminal is the main terminal that handles general cargo in Nigeria. We kept to that, but by and large we are now discovering that ENL needs to do further port development. We have planned this for the nearest future. Our drafts are not deep enough so we want to deepen the draft so we can get bigger vessels to patronise us. The quay aprons are weak, so we will do some of that also. We plan to spend well over 160 million dollars. It is a cause that we are committed to and we will do. Port development is really very important, people must be able to come to our port and see it as a port that works.
Gender balancing at work depends on an inclusive culture that allows women pursue their dreams and career aspiration. Do you agree?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: I tell my fellow women out there, “you have got to prove it to earn it.” Just don’t sit somewhere and expect that you will be picked up like that. You got to be able to prove yourself that you can do it and do it well or do it even better. So wherever we have women at work- ENL or the Nigerian Port Authority, wherever women in Nigeria find themselves, they got to prove themselves. We have seen a lot of women surpass men in their chosen field. We have seen it over and over. We have seen it in Nigeria. We have seen what Ngozi Iweala did, we have seen what Akunyili did. We have seen women who have surpassed the achievement of their fellow women or their male counterparts even in the maritime industry.
The Maritime industry is not meant for men alone. It is meant for all gender, both men and women as long as you are competent. If you have the knowledge, you have the ability to do the job, get up and do it. Don’t let anybody deter you or discourage you, fight for what you can do. Just don’t sit. The problem with some of us, particularly women is we want to sit until somebody calls us, No, just get up and do something. Be seen everywhere, Become visible.
For example, we have women who are in the logistic sector. We have the Folakes of this world sorting it out with her male counterparts and doing it very well. Folake is a goal getter and she is not going to take No for an answer. We have women who are truck drivers- trailer drivers! My take is that women just need to get up and prove themselves. Prove that they can do what men are doing and even do better.
I have done it before and a female senior staff in ENL was promoted to a manager. She was doing so well. Something happened in my office here. I was here and it was around 5.30pm, I didn’t close early. I heard a lot of noise outside and asked what the problem was. I saw soldiers, they said they were going to burn down this place and destroy it. And I asked what happened? And I saw this lady in commercial came out and was trying to solve the problem. I asked where is her manager and she said he had gone home. The Manager said his agreement with ENL is 5pm or 4:30pm. He left this lady to face the soldiers. They wanted us to deliver their cargo, which is ammunitions but it wasn’t our fault, the ammunitions were stacked under cargos and we could not discharge it. I pacified and assured them the cargo will be delivered the following day and they listened. You know what I did, that lady was just a senior staff, by the following day I promoted her to the position of the manager for her good deed. From a senior staff position to the position of a manager! She proved her ability and earned the promotion. I had seen her around several times before then while the manager left.
Women need to rise up. We have women as crane operators and even mechanics. You know there is nothing women cannot do. There is nothing a man does that women cannot do. Just get up and push yourself in, even when nobody pushes you.
Ask questions. I have seen young girls who walk up to me at events and say “please ma, I will want you to mentor me.” I have a lot of them that I mentor and help one way or the other to become better. They are courageous enough to say they have been watching me and ask if I can mentor them. I give them a very big hug. Those are the kind of things I want to hear. We thank God. We are doing that, God has given us the strength to continue to impact.
What policies for female inclusion would you want to see government put in place for the sector?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: The Nigerian government needs to give opportunities for more participation for women in the industry, maybe make it as some kind of policy and say that certain percentage of NIMASA staff needs to be women… Shippers’ Council, NPA and even port operators. We must give more opportunities for women. The Maritime industry is not designed for men alone. It is designed for both men and women. Men don’t have two heads, it is this one head we all have. The brain is the same. Intelligence has nothing to do with gender; it has to do with what is in your brain. If you are smart, you are smart. If you are intelligent, you are intelligent. If you have the competency, then you have got it. It has nothing to do with gender.
Government needs to make it like a policy and say so percentage is reserved for females. And that should not be only in the maritime industry, even in politics. How many women do we have in House of Representatives? How many women do we have as Senators? When it comes to the election; that is when they recognise women. We need a balance. Mrs Jonathan was talking about 30%, I was even saying 30% was not enough. We don’t even have the 30% so maybe we should just start from that 30% now. Government supported it then, we should enforce it now. Some other countries in Africa are really setting the pace already and some of them are even Moslem countries and they are setting the pace for women, giving women opportunities to achieve their dreams or to even occupy positions in government.
Have you or your work ever been under estimated? How did you overcome that situation?
Princess Vicky Haastrup: Several times, I have being underestimated because I am a woman, because of my gender. And I tell you, I have this holy anger in me when I see that. It makes me very angry so what do I do? I will tell you that I can prove to you that I can do it and I can do it well. I have done that over and over, even before I got into the maritime industry, I was in the Oil and Gas industry and I proved that. When people put you down or look down on you because you are a woman, sometimes you even have men tell you: “ I have your type for house.” It is very annoying. I just tell them, “Sorry you don’t have my type! I am different. I am a woman of different nature. “ Then, I prove myself, I prove my worth. Their underestimation gives me this strength. I think it is our culture in Nigeria. Anyway, people who know me don’t say things like that to me anymore. I tell you, it is such a blessing for me for being a woman and I thank God everyday that I am a woman. Of all my father’s children, my father had six daughters before he had my brother. And when my brother came, he was like this is the boy that I have being looking for. And what happened? I was able to prove to my dad that a female child is as good as a male child, may even be better because we take care of our parents more than the males actually do.
We need to believe in our ability to make changes in this port. Look at what is happening in Nigeria today, women in Nigeria can become the game changer. All you just need to do is get up and do something, and prove to the world that you can do it different. You can be the game changer, you can bring solution. I am looking forward to the day a woman will be president of Nigeria. I believe that when that happens, that would be a complete turnaround for Nigeria. What a woman will be, will be something that would be different, a holistic transformation.