Bandari College revival a blessing for jobless coastal youths

Foreign Affairs PS Amb Macharia Kamau when he visited KICC to inspect preparations for the Blue Economy conference which took place between November 26-29, 2018. [David Njaaga,Standard]

At the age of 15, I walked into the old Seamen’s Union office on Jomo Kenyatta Road, Mombasa and proudly announced I wanted to join the union and become a seaman. Three burly seamen looked at the skinny young boy and told me to go back to school.

To this day, I wonder what would have become of me had they accepted my request.  Despite the rejection, I have a strong affinity for seamen. This month, the President did two things that could fundamentally change our country if we follow them to their logical conclusion – or we could lose major opportunities if we allow bureaucratic inertia.

The President pushed the privatisation of the second container terminal through Parliament, essentially handing it over to the Mediterranean Shipping Corporation (MSC) and a dead corporation called Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL).

This is a very positive move if managed the right way. First, bringing the national shipping line back to life is like raising Lazarus from the dead. Until it truly rises from the dead, MSC will carry the onus of managing the terminal and creating the new jobs it has promised.

If MSC lives up to its promise to hire and train Kenyans, it will be great for the country. More importantly, this terminal will be run privately and will give Kenya an opportunity to benchmark its performance vis-a-vis  the port.

If they can run it more efficiently and profitably, then KPA will have to face some hard questions. It will keep the port on its toes. Privatisation will only benefit the country if it leads to greater efficiency and profitability.

Heavily congested

It is also critical that KNSL should be active now that it has been ‘revived’. We must ensure Kenyans are trained and take over from Italians as soon as possible, otherwise we shall have abrogated our national responsibilities to the Italians, and all profits will automatically flow to Italy.  

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This opportunity raises the question; Why are we not encouraging smaller ports along the coastline of Kenya? At one time, India suffered a great deal because all its major ports were heavily congested and waiting periods were as long as three months. Later, India allowed the building of private ports. The first private port was in Kandla and it turned out to be very successful.

Soon there were private ports all along the coast of India and this improved efficiency to the benefit of India. I do not see why we cannot allow private ports in Shimoni, Takaungu, Kilifi and wherever it is physically and commercially viable.

Why should the business of ports be a monopoly of the Kenya Ports Authority?  We need the courage to try new ways of doing business and providing services.

The second thing that the President did was to open a new revamped Bandari College. This has been a sore point for many coastal people because they could not get seamen’s books in Kenya and had to travel to Dar es Salaam to get certification.

Bandari College

At one point, I even went to Dar to try and get their maritime academy to open a branch in Mombasa, or do a joint venture, but they saw no reason to reduce their flow of students to Dar. I desperately wanted to send more boys to sea to make a living and the one thing that stood in their way was the seamen’s book. The President has solved this problem with the revamped Bandari College.

Let us learn from the Philippines. In 1996, there were 250,000 Filipino seamen working on ships worldwide. This number has risen to 378,000 men in 2019 and 25 per cent of all seamen in the world are Filipinos. This did not happen by accident.

It was planned carefully to create jobs. Today, the lowest earning Filipino seaman earns $1,000 per month. In 2018, they contributed $6.1 billion to their economy.  Compare $6.1 billion contribution to the $2.1 billion that the entire Kenyan diaspora sends home every year.

The Economist Magazine wrote in its February 2019 issue that “ at any given time 250,000 Filipino mariners are at sea. If they stayed at home the world economy would convulse”.

Bandari College will help train Kenyans for the sea.  The coastal people are dying for this opportunity. However, in addition to training, we also need to market our sailors.

Every Kenyan embassy should have a placement office whose sole job is to deal with shipping lines and find jobs for our sailors. It must be a national strategy to place our trained sailors. Next time the President visits a shipping country, he should appeal for jobs. Kenyans with our entrepreneurial spirit will find jobs for other Kenyans – just opens the door for us.

Mr President, ignore the noisemakers and push both Bandari and the KNSL to perform. The Coast is in dire economic straits. We need all the help we can get to create employment for our youth.

Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of [email protected]

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Kenya National Shipping LineMediterranean Shipping CorporationBlue Economy