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Harry Barnes-Dabban is the Founder and Executive Coordinator of Ports Environmental Network-Africa (PENAf), an organization created with the sole aim of securing the environmental health of African ports. Harry is influencing the future of African ports towards addressing existing challenges through local and international partnerships for a better future. He studied Environmental Policy and Governance and currently holds a Ph.D. from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.


It’s a pleasure to have you, Harry.

We’ve (ANTOA) seen the level of cooperation between maritime companies coming together to provide sustainable and innovative solutions in curbing challenges at the seaports in Africa. Before now, what was the cooperation like between local and international bodies?

When it comes to marine environmental issues, it cannot be confined to one geographical location. Marine environmental issues are cross-boundary and therefore they know no boundaries. So, the best way to approach challenges is through international collaborations. And this is what the maritime sector understands and therefore approaches all issues in that direction. But of course, they’ve been challenges regarding diversity, knowledge, and political institutions. These are issues that have to be dealt with. But the principle of international collaboration is well-accepted by all. And PENAf has the objective of closing the gap of environmental capacity for African ports. These ports have been in existence for decades and some centuries. As the subject of environmental deterioration became a global issue, and could not be ignored anymore, Africa lacked behind in this. Africa had a challenge with capacity for effective implementation. We realized they were gaps. So, PENAf set itself up to create environmental awareness in Africa, and help human capital to improve the implementation of conventions and their own environmental performance to promote sustainable development. The environment is very essential for the success of any business globally.

Recently, PENAf participated in the WACA Call for Innovation Management Program. Harry, what was it like working with other international companies and what was your major role?

WACA (West Africa Coastal Areas), basically is to address issues of coastal erosion and flooding. Along West African coasts all the countries suffer from these challenges. And the Call for Innovation looked at the development of port infrastructures and how they influence erosion and flooding. Coastal flooding and erosion is a subject that is multi-disciplinary cutting across various disciplines. So, no one person has the solution to it. It calls for all stakeholders and management to work together. Before this time, a lot of port development infrastructures in Africa had been basically focusing on engineering solutions by developing structures that could fight nature. But when you fight nature, it has its way of responding to erosion or flooding. As stated earlier, marine environmental issues are cross-boundary. So, if we build a port in Ghana and the tidal wave shifts eastwards, the effect will move to Togo, Lome. And if it continues, it gets to Benin and so on. So, the whole idea for the innovation was to shift developments in the coastal areas from the country-focus projects into a regional approach to have a common and effective approach. The international companies all have their specialties. Witteveen+Bos for example is a coastal engineering company, while PENAf has vast experience in governance issues-particularly in West and Central Africa. Whatever development you want to do without considering the local situation and adaptation that favors the local context, may affect sustainability. So, PENAf brought in West African knowledge, and Witteveen+Bos, its technical and engineering approach while and other partners all have their roles to play. With the know-how of the West African landscape, existing political institutions and arrangements, how stakeholders operate, and how policies are made and implemented, we were able to come up with an integrated approach: Systems Approach for Port Development (SA-POD).

Having read one of your publications,  “The Influence of Regional Coordinating Unit of the Abidjan Convention” published 3 years ago, what are the policies set in place to prevent shipping pollution in what so far?

It was PENAf’s proposal and then we got UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) to work with us. The idea was to bring countries and ports together to come with a coherent approach for policy-making by identifying and prioritizing existing issues. The issue of shipping pollution was addressed during MARPOL Convention which encouraged ports to have adequate reception facilities in order to collect wastes from ships as they journey from one port to another. There are six annexes including oily waste, waste in packaged form, chemicals, sewage, and garbage discussed at the convention. In Africa, not all the ports can effectively implement all of them. For now, there are both formal and informal arrangements to structure how ships are received and how wastes are processed but our goal is to have a uniform approach. So far, a lot of the ports have private sector participation to contract some operations of the facilities. In Nigeria, there’s Africa Circle Pollution Management handling waste coming to Nigeria in all of its ports. In Ghana, Tema port has about 8 or 9 private waste companies. In Congo, they’ve also recently gotten a private waste company and so on as this capacity is being strengthened. So, when ships come they can adequately discharge waste at the ports or otherwise due to poor capacity they discharge in the sea. In some ports, ships come in and pay for only what they discharge which isn’t a good system as other waste ends in the sea, while in other ports you pay whether or not you discharge waste. We are planning with European Ship Waste Handling Association to bring together all private port reception facilities operators starting with West and Central Africa to share knowledge and build up more effective mechanisms to prevent ship pollution.

What’s the impact of Environmental Education and Policy-making to the economy, Harry?

Ports are the backbone of all economies. If you want to see how the economy of a country is performing, look at how the port is performing. If the port is doing well, it reflects on the economy. The African ports are far from perfect but there has been continuous improvement and that’s what we’re asking for. You can’t get them perfect to start with but to put work in progress is paramount.

Where do you see the African ports in the nearest future despite the climatic shocks and pandemic?

PENAf will continue to work with the African ports towards the path of sustainability. In that context, we’ve come up with the Sustainable African Ports Initiative,  SAPI. We will be partnering with international ports like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and also Environment Ministry in the Netherlands, universities, and research institutions as well. With these, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel again but to bring in diverse knowledge into Africa.

Thank you for talking with us, Harry.

By Elijah Christopher,

Elijah Christopher
Elijah Christopher, a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IoT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.



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