Described as a “trendsetter” who has excelled in a field with few visible women, a “mentor to many”, and a “great leader” whose integrity “is unquestionable”, International Maritime Organisation secretary general candidate Nancy Karigithu MICS brings much to the table.
If successful, Ambassador Karigithu, currently serving as principal secretary at Kenya’s State Department for Shipping and Maritime, would be the first female secretary general of the IMO and the first from Africa – both significant milestones.
The shipping industry will find out who has secured the appointment in July 2023 when the 40 Members of the IMO choose the next leader.
In advance of that, Shipping Network sat down with Ambassador Karigithu to hear about her passion for shipping, professionalism, and thoughts on gender parity and the equitable transformation of the sector.
How did you first become attracted to a career in shipping?
I grew up in rural Kenya in an agricultural community more than 800 kilometres from Kenya’s coastline. Very hot weather punctuated by sporadic heavy monsoon rainfall would create instant water puddles on the black cotton soil.
At age six, an expatriate teacher from the UK taught me how to make paper boats. Along with the paper boats came the gift of a cowrie shell and a poem about how the shell carried “the murmurs of the sea”.
As I grew up, I loved to hold that shell to my ear and listen to the “murmurs” of the sea.
At the age of 17 years, I chose to study my A levels at the coast and finally came in touch with the sea and my second life. Not knowing at the time what careers were associated with the ocean, I studied law at university and moved back to the coast before joining the port as a legal officer – my maritime career was born.
How did you get from those beginnings to announcing your candidacy for the IMO SG role?
I have built a life-long career in the maritime sector, from the low echelons of Government, and steadily rising the professional ladder, gaining knowledge and experience that has grounded me in managing complex issues in the private and public sectors at national, regional and global spheres.
I have gained vast experience both within Government and at the IMO – first as a consultant establishing maritime administrations in Africa and then as a delegate, thereby gaining personal experience and a deep understanding of contemporary issues facing the international maritime sector and maritime administrations.
As a maritime transport expert at the African Union, I rendered support and technical advice to the Member States. I have had a long-standing association with Kenya’s maritime industry, nurtured and overseen its growth, exceptionally after being appointed the head of Kenya’s Maritime Administration.
After many years of service at the operational level of the maritime industry, I was finally entrusted to offer my expertise at the policy-making level.
On the international front, I have been a consummate diplomat for the maritime industry, having led Kenya’s delegation to the IMO for over 18 years, spearheading national technical cooperation programmes as well as collaboration and cooperation in the development of the maritime sector.
Under my watch, Kenya instituted maritime security programs which were critical in keeping navigation lanes in the Western Indian Ocean open and safe, especially during the height of piracy in waters off the coast of Somalia.
In 2010 I was elected to chairperson IMO’s Technical Cooperation Committee and led the committee for three sessions, which provided me with invaluable insight and experience in consensus building in a multilateral environment, which IMO typifies.
In 2018 I served as vice chair (Africa) of the International Maritime Satellite Organisation. I guided Kenya’s successful bid to host the Maritime Technology Cooperation Center for Africa, the IMO/EU project aimed at building capacity to mitigate climate change and greenhouse gas emissions in the shipping and maritime sector.
I have been the chair of the MTCC-Africa Project Steering Committee since its inception. I initiated and led a global initiative for the protection of wildlife that resulted in adopting Guidelines for the Prevention & Suppression of the Smuggling of Wildlife on Ships engaged in International Maritime Traffic.
The Guidelines were adopted at the 46th session of the FAL Committee in May 2022. This wide range of experience has fuelled my personal and professional growth to a point where I am well-qualified and ready to launch into global maritime leadership.
How has your legal background helped you in your current roles and in your candidacy for IMO SG?
The legal training and experience have been beneficial in my career, especially as I rose in the ranks and assumed more responsibilities.
My legal training constantly reminds and heightens my awareness of the legal risks, responsibility and accountability I owe to multiple stakeholders in my work environment.
My approach, therefore, has always been to lead by example, setting the tone at the top and always adhering to the behavioural standards and governance structures already established for the IMO, and where none existed, creating the same.
In this regard, I was among the first CEOs in Kenya’s public sector to undertake a corruption risk assessment of the IMO’s operations and adopt a whistleblower’s policy.
Under my watch, the State Department consistently received recognition for adherence to financial governance standards. This high level of integrity and ethical standards has given me the confidence to stand my ground on issues of conviction and accountability and, in so doing, avoid legal pitfalls both personally and for the organisation.
I understand that you are a governor at the World Maritime University. How important is sector-specific learning to the maritime sector?
General education and sector-specific learning are complementary to the maritime sector. The fundamental subjects of broad education are as relevant to the maritime industry as any other.
Such subjects include law, education, the social sciences, public administration, and engineering.
It is, however, also accurate to say that the unique nature of the maritime sector and the strong expression of that uniqueness globally in all jurisdictions makes it very important to have very specific learning to complement the more generic learning areas.
For example, education for seafarers is highly specialised, as are the unique areas of maritime law, whether relating to public international law or private international law. This is also true for maritime governance in general. It is in these specialised areas that WMU not only excels but is also unique.
What are your goals for your tenure at WMU?
It is an honour and privilege to sit on the Board of Governors of the World Maritime University, given its position as the apex educational institution of the IMO. One of the motivations for my candidature is to bring back multilateralism and consensus building at IMO meetings and deliberations, which are currently fractured and on a trajectory of being deeply divisive.
The WMU’s Charter and Mission is to build capacity, which aligns well with the need to have all stakeholders represented optimally at IMO to ensure the sustainable growth of the maritime industry, which is, in essence, the spirit within which the IMO set up the university.
My goal as a BOG member is to ensure that the university is positioned to continue excelling as a tool/mechanism to build the capacity of States in a manner that enables them to be competently represented in the global discourse involving all stakeholders.
This is vital to ensure that any and all global challenges are addressed most effectively. In this regard, my aim remains to work with the other governors to ensure the university’s financial sustainability so that it can act as a cutting-edge capacity-building and research tool for the IMO in the key areas confronting the maritime industry.
As a co-founder of WOMESA, how important is achieving gender parity and diversity in the maritime industry?
The United Nations’ SDGs embrace a global call for action to transform the world, with the core principle of all the SDGs being to “Leave No One Behind” by the year 2030.
Women’s Empowerment is crucial and has been enshrined as a standalone goal in the SDGs and is projected to result in the achievement of gender equality, elimination of discrimination, increased participation of women in the maritime economy and accelerated development.
The fact that women in the maritime industry still only make about 1.2% compared with their male counterparts highlights the glaring need for diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion.
It has been proven that economies grow when women prosper – and when women have economically empowered, the gender gap narrows. Growing a sustainable and resilient maritime industry by fully including women’s potential will benefit society and the economy by expanding the talent pool to better address the demand for skills and, in turn, advance all the 17 SDGs.
In your view, what three actions would really move the dial on achieving gender parity in shipping?
The maritime industry is at a crucial transformative phase, facing an unprecedented challenge. Governments and industries must become more intentional and take urgent actions to raise women leaders.
My three key proposed actions are:
1. Insulating the recruitment process from being influenced by unconscious bias.
2. Consciously or unconsciously, men tend to recruit men. The road to a diverse working environment will be closer if we have enough female managers.
3. Visibility and more visibility: This is key for women; therefore, they must purposely say ‘yes’ to every invitation to participate or speak.
They must occupy more space, be visible and become role models to every woman in their environment. Developing mentoring, sponsorship and coaching programmes will help in building capacity, thus helping more women embrace this visibility and advance their careers. Industry-wide leadership in establishing such programmes will be encouraged.
We need to be deliberate in cultivating an industry-wide diverse pool of thinking, through education in schools, from primary to secondary levels.
This will help create more awareness and sensitisation among educators on careers in the shipping industry and thus create a wider talent pool. Most important, it will help address one of the major contributors to the gender gap in STEM fields due to a limitation in size and diversity of the pool of talent available for satisfying the demand for skills, thus slowing down gender equality in the maritime sector.
How significant are peer support and membership groups to nurturing talent and facilitating innovation in the industry?
One of the objectives of WOMESA is to mentor and provide role models for the next crop of women professionals.
Peer support and membership groups like WOMESA and the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers help by bringing people with shared experiences together to share their experiences and support each other to grow. The groups provide safe spaces where members feel accepted and understood, which helps to increase members’ confidence, self-esteem and coping skills.
The members benefit from being embedded into social and professional networks, having a shared vision, unique skills, and tactical knowledge.
Such a collaborative framework fosters the development of customised solutions to defined challenges through sharing expertise, networking, pooling of resources and resource mobilisation. The benefits and outcomes cannot be underscored.
If you are successful in your bid for the IMO SG position, what will be the pillars of your term?
My candidacy for IMO is driven by my passion and a desire to take IMO to the next level, especially at this time when multilateralism is at a crossroads.
My vision will be:
- Guarantee to ensure IMO Member States comply with their commitments under international law, UN Charter, and other agreed UN treaties.
- Multilateralism and south-south triangular cooperation build the bridge between the North and South on contemporary global issues that currently divide the IMO Member States.
- Ensure no one will be left behind in the ongoing transformation – decarbonisation, digitalisation, port development – happening in the maritime sector, especially the Least Developing Countries and Small Island States. Incentivising the availability and scalability of low and zero-carbon marine fuels and technologies and ensuring all Member States’ ability to participate in this transition is paramount.
- On gender equality, I will promote the visibility of women’s contribution in the sector, advocate gender equity, improve women’s access to maritime training and technology, and promote their advancement to key decision-making levels in the maritime sector. The human element: put in place measures to address safety issues related to alternative fuels, being cognisance that relevant training for the maritime workforce is absolutely necessary as we chart the way forward into decarbonising international shipping.
To improve the implementation of IMO Instruments, I will continue to develop and execute projects to provide targeted capacity building and technical cooperation that fosters, promotes and supports the implementation of IMO instruments.
All this work requires great collaboration, communication, and cooperation among all the IMO Member States, the shipping industry, and all stakeholders. I am ready to accelerate communications and scale up partnerships towards these goals.
First published by the Shipping Network. Only the headline has been changed.
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