Vanessa Davidson, Special Projects Manager at Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone (SBIDZ), was nominated for the inaugural Blue Economy Champion Award for Special Projects. Vanessa is a founding member of BlueCape, “established in 2019 to support businesses and investors in the ocean economy, to remove barriers to entry, and to support skills development and transformation for job creation”.

She played an essential role in the South African Boatbuilders Export Council, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing up workplace protocols to negotiate a rapid return to work when many sectors remained shut down. In 2019, Vanessa was unanimously elected as the Chairperson of the International Marine Certification Institute (IMCI) – the first woman to hold the position and is a member of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA).

Tell us a little about WISTA and your involvement with the organisation?

WISTA was re-established in 2019 under the leadership of Clare Gomes, the current Strategic Planning and Communications Executive at the African Marine Solutions Group (AMSOL). I was one of the women at the initial meeting and I have maintained my membership since then. WISTA brings together women working at the management level in the maritime, shipping, trading and logistics sub-sectors with representation from government, industry and non-profits. It facilitates the exchange of experience, knowledge and opportunities between the members and plays a critical role in supporting junior maritime women. In addition, WISTA has an international interface with other WISTA branches globally and supports ongoing education and networking opportunities for its members.

Describe your role at the SBIDZ?

I was appointed as Special Project Manager to oversee the development of new port infrastructure to support the SBIDZ’s vision to be a maritime and energy services centre. I also have a Business Development role in the marine sector.

You have a full plate: Chairperson of the International Marine Certification Institute, a founder of BlueCape and now at SBIDZ – what excites you about working at the SBIDZ?

Having worked in the marine manufacturing and services sector for several years, I see the need for industry-led new port infrastructure, and managing the port project at the SBIDZ is a legacy project for me. With the increasing urbanisation of Cape Town and the competing demands for space in the CBD and surrounding areas, my view is that there will be a “push” factor for marine manufacturing to locate further from the city in time. Being part of this new port infrastructure to accommodate that future need and expansion opportunities on a global shipping route is exciting. The size of the project, the vision of the SBIDZ leadership and the wealth of expertise in the SBIDZ team is an exciting combination that has offered me opportunities for growth and learning.

The world depends on ships. The impact of shipping lines has been described by some as the physical equivalent of the Internet’s impact on communications – are we living in an exciting time of change?

COVID-19 shipping disruptions have shown us just how vital our dependence on ships and their associated logistics are to the global economy. I think the exciting time of change lies in the transition to green fuelled shipping and the commitment we see from shipping lines to reduce carbon emissions. We also need to recognise the terrible impact the pandemic has had on shipping crews, and we must ensure that it does not happen again.

Will the transition in the maritime industry help establish gender equity?

I think gender equity needs to be deliberately supported by the entire industry. Proper gender parity will not happen unless we are intentional about it. We have seen much better gender equity in our maritime state-owned enterprises recently, but there is still room for improvement in the private sector. There is an opportunity for young women to carve their niche in the industry and for more seasoned professionals to bring a new leadership style into the mix. We need to promote economic activity in the maritime space, and women are as much a part of that conversation as men.

What would be necessary to turn a place like the SBIDZ into a world-class maritime centre, and what would that future centre look like?

We need alignment of thinking concerning port planning and operations. We need a commitment to cutting through red tape and seeking solutions that can be implemented quickly. Finding new ways of doing business with the public and private sectors is key. The future is a vibrant, well run, efficient port that works 24/7, 365 days a year servicing vessels, ship and boatbuilding, repairs, maintenance and dismantling, and marine component manufacturing. Essentially a cradle to the grave shipping centre, backed by the research, development and testing facilities planned for the SBIDZ Innovation Campus – an integrated centre that actualises all aspects of the marine value chain and creates opportunities and jobs for Saldanha Bay. Keeping it green and environmentally friendly is also a vital part of that future.

What made you turn to the sea for a career?

I first turned to the sea as a volunteer with the National Sea Rescue Institute at Station 2, Bakoven. That led to an ocean crossing and a career in the yacht charter industry in the Caribbean before I returned to South Africa and joined the boatbuilding industry. I guess being curious about the boat that safely sailed me across the Atlantic and how I got there without significant mishap planted the seed for my subsequent work.

What are the two or three things you would say to young women entering this sector?

Ask for help and seek out mentors – many people are willing to share their knowledge and networks to help you advance your career. Be bold and dream big.

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About the Blue Economy Champion Awards

The awards aim “to recognise those individuals who are influencing the positive trajectory of South Africa’s Blue Economy by promoting awareness of the maritime sectors; developing or mentoring new talent; working as an activist to improve the maritime landscape for new entrants; working outside of their job description to build capacity or grow the opportunities in the sector, and recognised as a maritime expert in their field with significant influence and following.”

The selections were based on four pillars within the industry:

  • Respected – people that are well-respected by their peers.
  • Expertise – people that have significant expertise.
  • Mentor – people that take the time to provide mentorship.
  • Influence – people that can influence awareness.