Peter Van Bruggen: Projectwise

Peter Van Bruggen: “At first, people had to be convinced that local builders can do the job well... but now there’s no doubt.” Peter Van Bruggen: “At first, people had to be convinced that local builders can do the job well... but now there’s no doubt.”

Despite Tanzania’s many lakes and waterways, there was a time that buying a locally built, commercial vessel “was impossible”, Peter Van Bruggen of Dutch-based Projectwise told MJ. “In fact, it was the same story across the whole of East Africa,” he said. “You couldn’t award a contract to a local yard, there just weren’t any, not in Tanzania, or even in Uganda or Kenya.”

“So, when I started helping the local authorities commission new ferries back in 2003, they were bought in one piece, despite the expense of transporting them.”

Now it’s a very different scenario: over the last six years Tanzania and Van Bruggen’s role has evolved with the advent of an ingenious, low tech alternative to a slipway. The method is simple: jack the hull up just a little, place large, sturdy balloons underneath and inflate – launching is a matter of rolling it down the airbags. “Balloons allow you to construct on any shore that you can level,” he said. “So now experience and capacity are steadily being built up. It’s changed shipbuilding in Africa.”

However, the region hasn’t yet gained a complete, home-grown manufacturing base (“although that’s now growing” he says) and for the time being there’s still a need for steel and components.

This is where Van Bruggen’s expertise really pays off. He brings everything in “so that when the workers open the containers they have all they need”. That sounds simple till you realise it means marshalling, labelling and boxing many tonnes of steel plate and thousands of parts “from lugs to paint, to winches and navigation lights” as getting an extra pipework joint, for example, isn’t a matter of calling a local supplier. Even the original sourcing is not always easy, he adds, “as you can imagine, a lot of companies aren’t that interested in supplying Tanzania”.

It’s a pretty arduous business. Typically after marshalling two or three containers in Rotterdam (which, since shipping companies won’t pick them up, have to be purchased and are usually left as storage space), there is a six week trip to Dar es Salaam, another ten days negotiating clearance at the port, then a 1,200km road trip by truck to a warehouse near the shores of Lake Victoria.

More, Van Bruggen is still on the job right through to sign off “which is rather satisfying, as you start from nothing, but then in the end – it swims”.

However, the recent MV Nyerere sinking in which over 200 people died saddened him, highlighting operational issues which are hard to guard against. Overcrowding, in this case exacerbated by seasonal winds, remains a problem and has been responsible for a number of incidents in the region’s recent history: the largest being a 1996 ferry capsize which claimed the lives of 800 people.

Despite the challenges, Van Bruggen is still proud of the strides that African shipbuilding is making: “At first, people had to be convinced that local builders can do the job well... but now there’s no doubt.”

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