Dr. Victoria Haastrup is the Chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, STOAN, she is also the CEO of ENL Consortium; operators of Terminals C and D at the Lagos Port Complex Apapa. She is the current President of the Certified Institute of Shipping of Nigeria, CISN; and a Trustee of the Women in Logistics and Transport, WiLAT.
In view of her contributions to the service of humanity, she has won several awards both locally and internationally including Shipping Personality of the Year for three consecutive times since 2011.
She is also a renowned public speaker and passionate about women empowerment. In this interview, she speaks on her journey in life as a child, aspirations and determination to succeed. Excerpt:
Give us your background briefly
My parents are from Kwara State. My father is from the Ijarasin area while my mother is from Isanlu area, a neigbhouring village close to Ijarasin in Kwara State. But my maternal grandmother hailed from Ayide area of Ekiti State. I got my industrious orientation from Kwara State and my sense of character from Ekiti State. So, the combination of Kwara and Ekiti virtues moulded my life.
How did you start the business?
It is a family business. My husband and I established the company. My husband believes in me and gave me the opportunity to showcase my potentials because he knew I had the intelligence and the capacity to operate it.
What exactly does ENL Consortium do?
We discharge ships. We have been operating for 12 years. I came on board in 2006 and it has been a wonderful experience with lots of challenges. Port operations is supposed to be a masculine business but I have entrenched myself in the industry and proved that women can do it better than men. If you are not bold and courageous and have the intelligence and capacity, you cannot do ports business in Nigeria. It is a male-dominated environment. I have lots of male dock workers who are stronger, yet I have to withstand them and correct their excesses. At some point, I had over 5,000 dock workers in the terminal who I had to manage in the port. I brought a wind of change into port operations in Nigeria and I did all of them by the strength of God and what I believed in.
Did you have any experience or education in maritime prior to going into business?
Not at all, but, I developed myself. I did research and sought for advice and help where necessary, especially with people who have been in the industry and they obliged accordingly. I also learned on the job and within six months, I was able to explore beyond expectation. It was as if I had an experience of 20 years and that was what makes me a woman. What a man can do, a woman can do better. Woman has no limitation on what she can do. The capacity is huge when a woman is encouraged just the way my husband encouraged me to do this job.
What is your area of specialisation in terms of women emancipation?
My focus is on the downtrodden in society. Women who are unable to fend for themselves; women who cannot put food on the table for their children. Women who are unable to support their husbands financially. I am talking about women that need urgent attention and help in terms of capacity-building. Those who need to be developed in all areas of life.
What have you done in that regard?
I have been talking to awaken the consciousness of women in whatever capacity and opportunity available. There is need for women to develop themselves financially. I am passionate about the financial capacity of women. I am a woman that started from nothing.
I had such a humble beginning and I always told other women that if I could make it, they can also make it. Women are special people. They have the energy, intelligence and the capacity. All they need do is to be encouraged to develop themselves and that is the song that I sing anywhere I have the opportunity to talk about women. Many women don’t know that they have so much potentials in them. They need to project themselves and start from their little position. They do not need millions to start a business. Women should not be pulled down. Today, there are troubles in most homes because women are not supporting their husbands. Women need to rise up to the challenge. They need to do something with their hands. They need to know that they have more than enough potentials to earn a living.
Is the campaign only about talking?
I think talking is a good starting point because people suffer for lack of knowledge. You need to impart knowledge in women so as to know what they are capable of doing. A lot of women do not know what they are supposed to do. There was a young woman who attended one of the conferences I attended in Nigeria who I met when I went to Dubai for a wedding. She called me and said: “Princess, I need to share this with you.” She gave out beautiful slippers at the wedding and said to me, “this is the result of what you taught me. When you spoke at that conference, I did not have enough funds to do anything, this is what I do now.” She was producing slippers locally by herself. Today, she has been able to put food on the table and help her husband. That is the testimony that I get. I met another woman at a forum somewhere in Lagos, she also acted on the knowledge she received and today, she produces juice locally with the little funds she generated. To me, that knowledge is life and it is money. So, women need to know what it takes to make it in life.
The major challenge is finance and that is why the Small and Medium Enterprises, SMEs should be encouraged to support the downtrodden. They should have access to funds. It does not have to be huge amount of money. I know government is trying in that aspect but I still believe there is much left to be done. We need lots of financial institutions to stand up to the cause of women. Banks should encourage SMEs to flourish. Government should ensure a policy that mandates banks in Nigeria to support SMEs particularly for women. I know Bank of Industry has a policy for women in business and so women should take advantage of this. We need such intervention because women have a lot to do in bringing up children. A woman will not sleep until her children are properly fed. Women would send children to school even if they would have to go hawking or cut firewood in the bush for their children to be trained.
Do you have a foundation where women are trained?
I have a foundation but not for women only. I just realised that there is a lot to do in encouraging the womenfolk and I am considering a special foundation for women.
Away from the foundation, what other things have you been doing to champion the cause of women?
I am a member of Women in Logistics and Transport Nigeria, WiLAT. I am a matron of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, the women group.
When did the campaign start?
It is part of me. I have always had passion to help women. If a man and woman come for help, I would rather attend to the need of the woman before the man. When you help a woman, you are helping the entire family. I have been vigorous and active in what I am doing.
Something would have propelled your reactions. Tell us the challenges you faced growing up.
When I was young, enough attention was not paid to the girl-child. Parents would usually pay attention to the male child because they believe he would project the family name and he is also more intelligent. My father thought he should lay more emphasis on the male child. I could see the male child was more focused on than the female child. The male child got more attention and financial support. But, I grew up with the mindset that I should not be pulled down. I am vibrant and I am a go- getter. I fought emotionally over the years especially at the age of three. So, I was determined to become an exceptional woman. So, I am always pained when I hear that women collect chop money. It irritates me. Why does it have to be men that should give women chop money? Why can’t women put food on the table for men? Why can’t they work to support their husbands, pay school fees, provide for their families? I believe what a man can do, a woman can do better. I believe there is no limitation for women. There is no height a woman cannot reach. God created us equal except the sex. I am not an advocate of feminism but I am only encouraging women to take their rightful position in the home. They do not need to pull themselves down if nobody pulls them down. A woman needs to support her husband, earn her income and demonstrate to the world that she can do exploits. In politics, women are not given their rightful positions. The characteristics, values and intelligence of a person make her better than another person. No gender is better than the other.
Will it not amount to taking on another person’s responsibility?
It is not written anywhere that a man must provide for his home totally. I am a Christian and my Bible tells me according to the book of Proverbs 31 which highlighted the characteristics of a virtuous woman; how she puts food on her table. She works, she does merchandise, travels long distances to trade and in the end, people see her husband as the husband of a blessed woman. So, I do not understand why some men would say their women should not work. Women have more grace and strength than men. And that is what makes women tick. They have capacity to work and take care of the home. There is something that makes women tick and that is why women are called We Men, that is a woman is more than one man. If any woman decides to be a housewife and not work, it is a choice. But, I did not make that choice for myself. There are lots of men who have left their families to suffer after they died because of the choices they made. The message is that women can do something to support their husbands.
Nigeria as a country seems not to be fair to women in some cases. How do you think the government can key into championing the cause of women?
I think, there is need for a legislation that allows equal gender participation in politics. Appointment of people into governance should be in ratio 50:50 looking at the population of women in Nigeria. There is need for a policy that recognises gender equality in Nigeria. Women have the intelligence, strength, character, values and education to occupy sensitive positions in the society. There is nothing that says women should not be governors or president. How many women do we have as senators? In my state, there is no female senator and it is sad. So, every state should be able to produce at least one female senator. Women are not treated well in Nigeria.
Women are said to be their own foes, is that correct?
You are absolutely correct; though not in all cases. That played out during the US election when Hillary Clinton vied for presidency and women turned her down. It is a major problem all over the world. But, it is gradually changing now. We need to support ourselves. We should not be our own greatest enemy. We can only achieve much if we support ourselves. If women are not well positioned financially, it will be difficult to make a difference in politics.
How would you advise a growing girl?
Every girl-child should know that God has deposited some potentials in her to be great. She needs to be determined in life and not allow anyone pull her down. She should give it all it takes to be successful in life and not look up to a man before she eats or provides for her family. Every girl-child should realise that being pregnant at a tender age would ruin her life. She should be determined to be educated whether or not her parents have the financial capacity or not. We should withstand all rigour to be educated and become relevant in life. If I could become something, any girl-child could. I grew up in a village called Ijarasin and farmed with my aunt while growing up. At a point, I hawked to make little income and still went to school. I sold oranges as a child because no one was there to give me pocket money as a child.
You hailed from a royal family, why did you have to hawk?
My parents were from royal families, but it was part of our upbringing in those days to be hardworking. I hawked joyfully and that was what made me the woman I am today. Sense of responsibility and hard work are part of my life. Who I am today is as a result of what I was as a child and that is my testimony. The foundation of my life was based on hard work and it has strengthened me. Women should start with the little they have and grow with it. Do something to provide for their families and allow your children to go to school.