Capt. Marvin Abe is the Managing Director, Apapa Bulk Terminal Limited, a subsidiary of Flour Mill Nigeria Plc. In this interview with Shulammite ‘Foyeku, he speaks on why the company won’t sack its workers despite the negative impact of COVID-19 on businesses among other sundry issues.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your operations and is there any plan by the company to reduce its work force?
Within my own company, we were proactive ahead of even the country in our response to the pandemic. We were particular about infection rate in trying to ensure that our employees are safe because we have foreign ships that were coming and we needed to manage them; that was the first and primary goal for us. At the height of the lockdown, when movement was really difficult, we had to accommodate some of our people in the hotel in Apapa to ensure their safety so that they don’t go halfway and get beaten up by security agents. We also provided them with feeding stipends to keep them going and up till now, every two weeks we disinfect the terminal as safety measures because all the trucks that come into the port, some of them come from far away north and we don’t know what they are carrying. So to avert community transmission, we ensure the drivers sanitize and take their temperature as they move around. The COVID-19 impact is universal. Businesses have dwindled, the traffic at the port has also increased because there were ships outside that couldn’t come in because there was no space at the port and that was because the factories that were supposed to consume the raw materials weren’t working at their optimum production capacity and so the ships were backing up and delaying and that has continued till today. That has impacted on our revenue in terms of how many ships we handled, but I try to look on the positive side that I am able to perform and still able to serve my customers in a satisfactory manner.
We were very worried at the beginning when the pandemic was kicking in and one of the scenarios that we developed was actually a total shut down if it becomes impossible to move out because it will be too risky. So we planned that as our worst-case scenario. Not activating our continuity plan to that extent for me is a bonus. So far so good, business has continued and we haven’t had to shut down for a day because of coronavirus related issues.
ABTL is a member of the Flour Mill Nigeria Plc group. As a company, our immediate focus is not downsizing for obvious reasons that you are doing more harm than good. As a subsidiary, that is the same spirit we are looking out. So far, FMN has been consistent in payment of salaries and nobody’s pay has reduced. ABTL too is doing the same. So we have kept to our part of the bargain even though as somebody in the system, I know it is a tough environment. We value our people and the benefits they bring in because we have invested in a lot of them already and we will be very sad to have to lose all of those investments and valuable people. So, that will be the last thing we will be looking out on our list. Nobody takes pride in disengaging another employee and prevents him from having an immediate livelihood but there are times when a ship is at a great risk of sinking, when you have to make some tough choices as a leader to salvage the company in the interest of the company and other employees.
What are your thoughts on concerns over the looming food crisis as a result of the pandemic?
Farmers couldn’t go to farms during the lockdown and the way we feed in Nigeria, we don’t have large-scale commercial farming. The normal strategy we adopt as a country in farming is that during the rainy season, we make do with what we receive from the last season, harvest and plant for the next raining season. So we feed hand to mouth. Some of the foods that are being stored for this raining reason were already distributed as part of the palliatives for COVID-19. I am not talking about wheat-based food like semovita or pasta because they are mostly imported and the food processed here. I am talking about foods like rice, yam, cassava base and millet that we have produced a certain amount as volume that was harvested and people are going to feed for all this time until the next harvest season comes. Since we didn’t store more than we need or enough to feed twice our population, we even barely have enough to feed half of the population and we have now started distributing some out in advance. Those who got the palliatives are even small compared to those who did not get and that means the food they could easily have bought from the market few months down the line is already distributed in advance to somebody and if we add the Nigerian factor where people hoard, someone may be making money out of this jamboree and further compound our problems. If we don’t think carefully about moving down, suddenly, we may find prices of food going up or it is either we go to Ghana to import or we will live with some food crisis. Government needs to recognise the challenges faced by farmers to find ways to mitigate the losses they would have. If they were short of grains, they should provide them with grains they need to plant or funds to support them and ensure they stay above water and be able to continue to keep their farms going and hopefully they’ll be able to give us some harvest from the next harvest season.
With the crash in global oil prices, do you think the government is doing enough to diversify the country’s revenue base?
Diversification plan was one of the top campaign promises President Muhamadu Buhari rode on to come to power so I believed him when he said he wanted economic diversification for us to live less on oil and more on agriculture and other areas where we are better. However, I do not agree to the same degree on the implementation aspect. Those who implement at the lower level do not carry out those activities in the right direction. If we want to diversify our economy to be strong in agriculture, I will expect to see not just a few big players who are given huge loans at very low interest rates. They can still be key players, own the big poultry farms but we also need to see how these loans trickle down to the smaller farmers so that they could be empowered to grow their capacity and how they will achieve that is obviously through mechanized farming other than the conventional method of using hoe and cutlass. So, in the area of mechanized farming, I would have expected the government to have imported a significant amount of machinery into the country and then form clubs within the different farming regions or communities where people can go and loan these facilities, utilize them in their farms and return them. Apart from that, there need for financial support to help the farming communities. Little by little as the government supports the farmers, they do less and make more and so they become more empowered and agriculture becomes a bit more attractive to people, even the well educated ones will begin to see the benefits of going back to farm having had the advantage of mechanized farming to support them. That is the only way we can truly compete. There is also something on the oil side that we are not considering. Oil itself is a blessing to us but we have chosen not to utilize it as such. Personally, I do not subscribe too much to export although it is good to generate income. For instance, the oil price is crashing; that could be a blessing for us, there could be silver lining in the sense that since we have this great commodity but today it is now considered useless and not so valuable and we have power challenge in Nigeria, which is the only reason Nigeria’s industrial growth has been stunted because we don’t have adequate power supply but we export this product particularly LNG (liquefied natural gas) that we have in abundance to Europe and the rest of the world to power their own plant. So maybe this is the time for us to sit back and think about the need for us to build gas power plants. If we are worried about building the gas plants for our own consumption that we won’t manage it well, it can be a conglomerate of companies that would run it and that particular grid would be for the industrial sector only. By the time we cater for these sets of people, we will soon find foreign companies will come; auto industries will start looking for how to key into Nigeria. So we are in a vantage position to be the local champion of this region. We already have the resource, so we can expand in that area apart from the agriculture part. When we do that, we will find out that we would complement the agriculture the government is also building on and at the end, we will have a great country.
The Apapa gridlock has persisted despite efforts by government to bring sanity to the road. What do you think is the best approach to solving this problem?
The persisted gridlock in Apapa has continued to be a challenge. The solution has been proffered a long time ago when the NPA proposed the call-up system to eliminate human interface so that movement of trucks into the port will be done in an unbiased manner. I think that is very simply because we are in the technology age. Second is the issue of holding bay. We have talked about this several times so I won’t want to belabour the issue. Until we have a place where we will keep the trucks and only trucks that are needed in the port are allowed to come to the port areas, then the problem will continue. If we have the holding bays, it will eliminate what we are having at the moment where drivers go into the port and park for days, hoping they will get customers. So they just loiter around in Apapa hoping they can get into the port or sometimes they carry an empty container and refuse to deliver it until they get a return trip, then they drop off and immediately pick another consignment because they don’t want to come back empty. When trucks are not allowed to hang around, then there will be some order on the road. Tin Can has a holding bay that has been hanging there incomplete for a very long time, and there is another one at Orile-Iganmu. With those two, if we have the will as a government, we can expand the port area. Apapa is the driver of our economy because that is where Customs generates their most income for the Federal Government and a huge portion of our oil comes from the waterfront. Nothing stops the government from deciding to expand the port. The city has moved and married the port and we can’t see any difference, so the government can push people back from the port area and compensate them as they should do.