By Christy Anyanwu
Mrs. Margaret Onyema- Orakwusi is a lawyer and businesswoman. She is an active player with strong influence in the maritime sector of the Nigerian economy. She is the founder and chief executive officer of the Morbod Group, which deals in deep sea shrimping, fish trawling, fish farms and ferry services. She was the first female president, Nigerian Trawler Owners Association (NITOA). She is also on the board of Nigerian Shippers Council and chairman, Ship Owners Forum. She spoke with Saturday Sun in Lagos about the maritime sector and others.
As the ex-president of Nigerian Trawlers Operators, could you give us an outlook of what the fishing trawling business is in Nigeria today?
It’s so unfortunate because instead of us seeing increased performance, we are either standing still or for the operators relocating our trawlers to neighboring countries or leaving the business altogether which is rather unfortunate. There was a time Nigeria trawling fleet was almost 200 in number. There was also a time in the non-oil sector of foreign exchange earners, export in fish and fisheries ranks second in earning foreign exchange for the country. What has now happened? You have the problem of insecurity, piracy, armed robberies, which means lives, equipment, and products are not safe out there. You may wish to also think like the educated class, how about insurance? But, we are no longer attractive to insurance companies. Most of the losses are carried out by us and transferred to the market. That is the effect of the piracy attacks.
Then the environment under which we work is not encouraging. You have big vessels coming into our waters to poach our resources; this is a great loss to you and I. What is going on on land is also going on in the sea. You will recall that our stones, minerals are being stolen. Same thing happens out there in the sea and the sea is even worse. On land, at least you can see security, you can see the police, you can see army, but out there is like a no man’s land and it shouldn’t be. For some of us who have been victims, we have advocated over many years that there should be a form of dedicated security agency out there in the sea.
In some countries they call them coast guards. They are dedicated to policing the waters not just for security issues, for safety issues too. If you have a distress call from a vessel in Nigerian waters or just by Nigerian waters, who goes out there. So, we should have a dedicated security agency that we can hold responsible that we can call, that when you see robbers or pirates wake up in the morning that they are going to carry out operations there, they themselves will think it is either they succeed or they are caught but a situation where about 90 percent of the chances is victory for them is unacceptable. And the cost of running these vessels in this country skyrockets every time. We buy trawlers with dollars, not naira. As the cost of exchange rate is going on, so also is the cost of running our businesses. Most of the spare parts we buy in dollars. Today, I think dollar is selling at N500 for one dollar. I never knew I will be alive in this country to see that because when we schooled abroad, naira was more powerful than the dollar. Most of our products are sold in the international market. Our competitors, the cost of funding to them in most cases is two percent or three percent. To us, it is about 20 percent. That is the interest rate in whatever loan we get. We are competing with people whose interest rate is in single digits. They have all sorts of amenities that we don’t have. They have good roads, they have good ports, some of us, for almost one month, we have our refrigerated containers meant for export still at the port. It is so difficult to operate in this environment but we are not giving up. We are just hoping that one day the right thing will be done as regards the ease of doing business to attract foreign investors. About fishing, we have advocated for over 20 years that we should have a dedicated fishing terminal. That is what operates in serious fishing nations.
Why should we have a fishing terminal?
It is a dedicated place just for fishing and everything relating to the business of fishing. You don’t have to have a trawler to partake in it, you could just be providing cold room services, mechanical services, carpentry services, engineering services so that you decentralize the operations and you make it cheaper for people to come in and it makes operation very cheap. It creates more employment and also specializes what everybody does.
Right now, if you want to come into fishing, you have to look for money, buy your own trawlers, you have to look for jetty, create your own cold room, transportation, refrigerated truck, mechanic workshop, who can do that? We visit other terminals all over the world, and we see what is being done there. Look at the abundance of our waters, most countries don’t have what we have. When President Obasanjo was in power, we got an area in Kirikiri, Apapa; they said this will be a dedicated fishing terminal. Over a period of time we started losing the right to it and right now, there is none. We are still advocating and talking about it. We are also talking about having a Ministry for fishing and fisheries. When we go out for conferences, for workshops, you see people from other countries being represented by their minister for fishing. Don’t take it lying low, fishing creates a lot of employments, it earns foreign exchange and above all, it’s the cheapest source of protein for citizens of a nation. Over 70 percent of the fishes and fisheries we consume in this country are cheap imports from other countries. You can’t even guarantee the quality of what is even sold in the market. Can you compare those frozen rotten products that they import into this country to the quality of our products? Products caught in our environment is the best anywhere in the world. These are the issues and this is why we should dedicate time, efforts, and provide the infrastructure to encourage the growth of fishing in Nigeria.
With your vast experience in life, would you consider going into politics someday to work on some of these things?
When I was much younger, a governor invited me to give me an appointment as a commissioner and I said no immediately. He said I should go give it a thought and I said no. Then, he said if you don’t like the ministry, choose the ministry of your choice. I still said no. Then, I was under 30 years. He asked why, I told him that he would fire me the very next day because I will tell him the truth and I will tell him the things he wouldn’t want to hear. He went to my father, and my father said something to him. He said ‘you see all my children, I don’t interfere in their choice but this my daughter will not be part of your administration.’ My father never discussed it with me and that is who I am. I cannot be a politician, I will never be a politician because I am against a lot of things. I hate injustice, nepotism, talking down on women. I cannot be there and keep quiet then somebody that is more than qualify for a position you don’t give it to that person because she’s a woman. It’s not going to happen. I will not also sit on a table where a discussion is going on and people from one part of the country are being neglected, for what? My son asked me once about this discrimination in entrance examination going into the university, how would you explain to a young Nigeria child that there is different cut off marks depending on where you come from. You are destroying our children. You have a child, who probably score 90 percent in an exam, then you fail to take that child, you are taking somebody who probably scored 5, 10 percent and it is known to that child, isn’t that injustice from their country to a small child? So there are so many wrongs. For those of us who oppose these things, I will rather stay out and scream, nobody can do anything to me. I’m a private sector woman, I have nothing to hide, which means God has given me a voice and I have chosen to use that voice in a manner that I would go back and sleep in good conscience.
You look good, being passionate about fishing and all it takes, I was not expecting to see a prim and proper woman coming to your office, what is the secret?
The credit actually goes to my mother. She was very beautiful and elegant. She’s polished. I’m my mother’s daughter, I have to be a lady at all times. I have to know when to laugh and how to sit, how to talk, these are signs of strength. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also a fighter but I don’t just fight for fighting sake. You are a mirror, you are a mentor to people you don’t even know. So somebody looks at you and say this woman is busy and she still finds time to take care of herself, so they are learning. Women say because I have to nurse my baby, I have to do school run, there is no excuse for looking haggard, and there is no excuse for not being a lady. There is no excuse for being dirty. You have to be neat, you have to be clean. Your cleanliness should come from within to outside expression. For somebody like me, I like to breathe fresh air. I like to also give out fresh air too.
What has life taught you as a person?
Life is not a bed of roses. Everyday is a struggle, everyday is a challenge. You decide how to see it. No challenge puts me down. I would have been a comedian. What that means is that I laugh at every situation and by so doing, I conquer that situation. I believe so much in God Almighty. When I was a kid, I used to have this dialogue with God which I grow up with. Any difficulty, I say my God, you have to go through this for me. You know your limitations, you know when to hand over to professionals, because of the different things I do. I also understand my limitation, when it comes to engineering I look for the best; is it marine engineers, is it this, is it that. I hand over to them; I become their student, because I have to learn and read to be able to control them, to take the decisions. Is it about my vessels, I have to know the parts of the vessels, I have to learn but what they don’t know is that they are teaching madam. You don’t come to me and blow one engineering grammar; you have to break it down. One should know their limitations, and the thing is, what you give to life is what you harvest from life. When you smile at the world, the world will smile back at you. I like to work, I like to keep busy, at times, and I feel sorry for my body. I don’t have the luxury of having malaria because when the malaria comes, you are meant to lie down and nurse the malaria and maybe a vessel is distressed or they are calling you at the jetty, you forget that fever immediately, and jump up and down and for some awkward reason that is the healing process for it.