OCEANGLORY Commodities Limited founded by the legendary Rev (Dr) Cole Chiori, a key player in shipping, parades viable offices in Calabar, Port Harcourt, Ghana and London. In this exclusive interview with IZUCHUKWU OZOEMENA and ROLAND EKAMA, Peter Cole, its managing director, says the federal government must encourage the operations of Nigerian farmers and exporters so as to boost foreign exchange earnings through agricultural exports that are proving a reliable alternative to oil and gas. Among other issues also, he sheds light on his passion for the shipping industry, how Nigerian export products are commended in Europe, dock labour operations, the company’s string of businesses, movement within Apapa Ports area, etc.
Who is Peter Cole? Being a young man, what are the challenges you face as the Managing Director of Oceanglory Commodities Limited?
My name is Peter Cole Chiori. I am from Ohafia Local Government Area of Abia State and, by Gods grace, I have been in the shipping industry for the past 20 years. I will say it has been a beautiful and wonderful experience so far. In the course of my business and dealings with other people, I have been able to understand the principles of diversification of business and the system that helps to build a unified Nigeria. I have worked with people from all over the country. I have worked with Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo etc and interestingly, it makes you add more value to oneself, what one is doing and further understanding of how people behave with the system of life. A man who wants to grow will find it very interesting to add value and really understand how to approach certain kinds of people in life.
Oceanglory has been a major player in the shipping industry. We have been able to sanitize stevedoring operations in the ports, thus reversing the ugly public impression hitherto hanging on the system. Oceanglory has been working with many terminal operators to discourage pilferage, diversion of goods; ensuring that commodities imported through Nigerian ports are delivered to the appropriate consignees and to ensure that we build needed business transparency in Nigeria.
We actually started by handling rice vessels. Thank God, today we are able to handle commodities that can assist our ports and the economy. At the moment, we do a whole lot of exports. I mean break-bulk vessel exports of containerized commodities. We are one of the frontline players in the system. Today, by God’s grace, Oceanglory has grown from strength to strength and we keep learning from everybody including our customers, Customs, NPA, NIMASA and all other parastatals in the port just to find a way to add value to ourselves. We have been very careful in ensuring that we uphold transparency in what we do with them.
How many vessels do you have on your fleet?
We don’t own vessels; we husband vessels. However, owning vessels is something we look forward to as soon as the system is good for us. Vessel management takes a lot to handle and manage. It is not easy to get the right people to actually be on- board to see that the vessel management is profitable. So, for now, I will say with the right system in place we should be able to own and manage our vessels. This is one of the goals we have as a company to support the maritime business in Nigeria.
What operational challenges has your company been grappling with following the current economic recession in the country?
We are faced with lots of challenges. The dollar and naira romance is not palatable. We all know that the dollar has its dominance over naira but at least we thank God that things are gradually taking shape and we hope that things will get better. This is what we will pray for. I believe that it is our prayers and consistency in terms of trying to still be at work and ensure that we reach our set goals as a country. That is why you see the exchange rate just starting to come down the ladder. I remember buying a dollar at the cost of N500. But as God would have it, today, it goes for about N360 and we are still looking forward through prayers to see that the government continues to put the right policies in place to enable us really go back to how we used to do business. This has really affected us because it has discouraged our partners and clients from doing business in Nigeria. At a point, it became very difficult to determine what the dollar rate would be the next day. But as we speak, we can see stability and you can see how the ports are getting back to shape as activities are coming back to normal. We will continue to pray to make sure that our targeted goals are achieved.
Your organization is into exportation. How do you rate the standard of Nigerian products that are exported to other countries of the world?
Based on my own experience, I will say Nigeria has one of the best crops and commodities exported to other countries. This year alone, we have done a lot of break bulk exports. The first vessel we did was 5,500 metric tons; the next we did was 10,000 metric tons and from there, we went to load 28,000 metric tons. We export a lot of commodities from Nigeria. These include the hibiscus flower, sesame seed, gum arabic, ginger, soya bean, cocoa, cashew and a whole lot more. Indeed, Nigeria is blessed. We export yam chips, even garri as well.
Rate the standard of dock labour in Nigeria.
Based on my experience in shipping and vast knowledge of ports operations in many countries, I think the Nigerian stevedoring and dock labour are one of the best. They are quick to adapt to any given system. I must commend the maritime workers union because they take their time to educate and enlighten stevedores on what to do when there are issues on how to navigate the system of loading commodities. This continues to earn us a lot of commendation from buyers abroad. One of our customers recently asked are you sure this commodity was done manually by men working at the ports?’ They are so amazed that Nigeria’s export commodities are always well arranged and loaded manually. I pray that government should look inwards to build on Nigeria’s export commodities and support farmers to do a lot of that because this will eventually gain us a lot of foreign exchange.
Usually, our exports are not enough to satisfy the needs of the international business community. Sometimes we don’t have sufficient quantity of commodities to export despite the seasons because farmers lack the capacity to supply expected volumes. Most times, this negatively affects contracts and the business. If you are not able to meet a certain amount of tonnage required then you will have a penalty to pay. We just pray that government will look into exportation and encourage farmers. Government needs to support farmers that are into exports to boost foreign exchange.
Are you satisfied with the activities of terminal operators in Nigeria?
Terminal operations is a growing system. We will keep growing. Before the private operators took over port operations from the Nigerian Ports Authority, I knew how it was. The experience then was not really good. For example, the system of bureaucracy was affecting operations negatively. But I will say that issue is now of the past; there is more sanity at the ports. We now work with all the agencies to actually sanitize the system in terms of pilferage and malpractices in the port. As at today, we have been able to eradicate those anomalies. This alone gives players in the industry some level of security and confidence to do business in Nigeria. I believe we have been able to achieve that to a large extent.
Terminal operators have done well in terms of ensuring that commodities come to Nigerian ports and gain berthing spaces immediately; consignments don’t have to stay at berths for too long. The only problem we want the government to address has to do with charges. My clients sometimes have issues with us over charges and these are the things we have to look at. We have businesses in Ghana as well. When you look at the charges over there, you find out that the difference is huge. We need government’s intervention to address issues of charges in our ports. The terminal operators are doing a great job considering where we are coming from. Oceanglory Commodities Limited is working with virtually all the concessionaires in Nigeria. We have our presence in all the ports in the country. I must commend the terminal operators.
Since taking over from your dad as MD of Oceanglory Commodities Ltd, you have been running the company so well. What is the secret behind the smooth sail?
Right from when I was young, I have a knack for maritime-related businesses. Back then, I would go with my dad to his office and he would take me round the port to see where the ships are berthed, how workers off load and load items. This made me have interest in shipping business. So, when the opportunity came, I just had to take it. I will say it’s a dream come true.
Do you still consult your dad on technical issues relating to your operations?
PIX: OCEANGLORY Commodities Limited Managing Director, Peter Cole
No, I don’t. The only area I consult my dad has to do with decision-making and decision-taking. But in terms of technical issues, how to move and grow the business, how to add value to what we do, I take responsibility as the MD. My dad is a very passionate man, he is always interested when we want to do charitable things to support the less privileged. Like the last time we have to build some boreholes for a particular community, he took it upon himself to stay in that place for a whole week to ensure that the project was completed. He has been able to put smiles on faces. However, it’s just a part of us to give back to the society.
By way of diversification, your company is also into the entertainment sector. Throw more light on this.
We understand that there are so many opportunities around in terms of diversification in business. We got that from our partners over the years. We find out that many companies are into real estate and other kinds of business ventures apart from what they are really into as businessmen. We entered the entertainment sector almost the same time with Oceanglory. The entertainment company is called Achievers Entertainment.
We are into music and movie entertainment. We have an agency that scouts for good footballers. We are into boxing as well. I have a younger brother who is a boxer as well and he looks after that department of the company. We have been able to carry out some charitable matches in Nigeria just to support upcoming boxers around. My brother was able to give them materials and items needed for training of the boxers as a way to support them in their dreams and career. We are also into movie production and like I said we also have a football academy.
We are also going into the production and manufacturing of cassava flakes which is garri in a mechanized system. I think we should be the first because we have carried out research to see if truly we have competitors in the existing market.
We have to be the first to face all the problems and design some kind of system on the working nature of the machines. We started production last September last year and it has been great for us because for now I don’t think we are able to meet up with the demand of our product. Garri is the most consumed commodity in Nigeria.
Our garri is called Nature Fresh. We are right now waiting to finish the NAFDAC registration after which we commence production in small sacks and bags and distribute to supermarkets. The major purpose of the business is to sell the name and the brands; we want to gladly do that.
Where is the garri processing factory located?
In the south west, Oyo state to be precise, very close to Ibadan. What we have done is to carry out research on how to get cassava which is the raw material. We find out that Oyo state is actually one of the biggest in terms of the raw material that we can get. To be honest with you, the community has been amazing; they are so nice and friendly unlike other parts of the country. The chiefs, obas and the people have been amazing. I am thankful and grateful for the100 percent support.
How would you describe the Apapa traffic of late?
I think it’s just the passion and love I have for the job that has made me to survive coming to Apapa. Even with the traffic, we make sure that we get to work at the right time and do things the right way. As a shipping agent, we deal with foreigners; we deal with foreign companies who have given us their vessels to move commodities from point A to B. We need to ensure that we give them security; ensure that we are always around them and make sure they are happy. We move them around. For instance, if they want to go round for sight-seeing mostly on weekends, because of the traffic, we take them to the island and other parts of the state to see how beautiful our country is. We can only pray for the government to address the situation of traffic in Apapa. The roads are bad, vehicles maintenance is extremely high. For us Apapa is hell. For you to be successful in life you need the human capacity and if the people are stuck in traffic for three hours or more that’s a problem. The roads just need to be accessible.
Against the backdrop of commendations Nigerian export products receive overseas, the European Union still places a ban on 24 items. Is this not a source of concern?
I think that aspect is based on regulation. Europe has one of the highest regulations in terms of acceptability. The last vessel we handled had serious commendations from our buyers in Spain for meeting every requirement needed despite the manual nature of loading the items. It’s unbelievable to them that in this modern age and time, we go about loading the items neatly. It takes two to three days to get a vessel loaded and we are able achieve it within a record time.
However, the thing is that they have a system where edible commodities are packed with the nutritious content which includes the level of protein, salt, carbohydrate, etc have to be indicated. But most Nigerian exporters that handle such edibles don’t pay attention to such. These are the things European governments pay attention to by way of regularization and packing. If not for that, I think we have the best produce the world over.
What’s your take on President Muhammadu Buhari’s performance in the maritime sector in the last two years?
For the maritime industry, I don’t think the present administration has done much. Truly speaking, this government has not positively impacted on the industry in any way. This administration has only helped to increase the rate of smuggling. Smuggling has been extremely high and imports have dropped because of the currency issue. Even though activities are gradually picking up and people are busy, going to work to earn a living should be the primary objective of every government through employment. Another reason for not being impactful is that the port access roads are too bad and I appeal to this administration to look into the situation. We interact with port users and agencies and I will say it has not been easy at all for everybody. Most times, you see elderly people going on a bike to their offices due to the traffic resulting from dilapidated roads.
But the good thing about it is that the Apapa Police officers have been up and doing because they are strategically positioned to provide security for people working and doing business in the ports. It’s been long I heard about robbery in this community even as we complain about the bad roads. The federal government, I will say, needs to do more for the maritime sector. Transport fare is extremely high for the common man considering the fact that most transporters no longer want to access the port to lift consignments due to the deplorable state of the port access roads. What we do at the moment is to persuade them by adding extra money as a way of convincing them to come over to the port and lift cargoes. This extra charge I am talking about here is between N20,000 to N40,000 per trip. These are some of the financial burdens transferred to the end users of those commodities.
Can we have a pip into your educational background?
Earlier, I didn’t go to school to study what I am doing right now. But later, I went back to study public administration and business development. I have a masters in transport management, a maritime-related discipline. I still have the intention to study up to PhD.