Two KwaZulu Natal men have realised a lifelong ambition by becoming the first 100 percent black-owned ship-owners in South Africa.
Durand Naidoo and Thuso Mhlambi, both 33, are the owners of Linsen Nambi, a company they started in 2012 and which made local maritime history when they bought Grindrod’s Unicorn Bunker Services earlier this year.
With their female empowerment partners, Women in Oil and Energy (Woesa), they became the role model for government’s initiative to unlock transformation in the maritime and liquid fuels industries.
“Therefore we are well placed for strategic acquisitions and organic growth to develop our infrastructure further.”
He said the deal took a “concerted effort” from the private sector (Grindrod), government (Industrial Development Corporation) and oil majors (BP, Engen and Chevron).
“It is unbelievable that it took this long, but is a first win for the recently legislated Combined Maritime Transport Policy, which calls for black ownership in shipping,” Naido said.
Mhlambi added that there was a great need for the private sector and the funding institutions to “better align themselves with government's development plans to unlock more deals like ours”.
He added that “I would like to see the private sector opening up this space to new entrants, something that will facilitate the creation of employment.”
Naidoo and Mhlambi said they have set a goal to become the leading African shipping company with a global presence.
Since the establishment of Linsen Nambi six years ago, the company has bought three bunker vessels in the ports of Durban and Cape Town. These bunkers supply fuel to vessels.
Mhlambi said they were proud of their transformation successes, as “seven out of twelve masters are black, all twelve chief officers and all twelve chief engineers in the company are black”.
The story of the inception of their company is one of a friendship that goes back to 1996 when they were both 10 and in Grade 4 at Montclair Senior Primary School in Durban.
“We became instant friends, Thuso was, and still is, the funniest person I’ve ever met,” said Naidoo.
The men added that they stuck together when they progressed to the New Forest High School in Yellow Wood Park in Durban.
They took different forks in the road at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Naidoo got his Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting degree but said becoming an Auditor didn’t interest him and decided to study further and, by chance, chose Maritime Economics as an elective. He went on to complete his Professional Qualifying Exams with the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers to become a Shipbroker.
“It’s the most prestigious shipping qualification and I was very pleased that I did well, winning the “student with the highest marks in South Africa prize, as well as getting top marks in the Legal Principles of Shipping”.
Naidoo also has a Diploma in Marine Surveying from Lloyd’s Maritime Academy through the North Kent College. He joined Safmarine as a graduate and gained invaluable experience as he moved within the industry, rotating through finance, exports, and imports.
Mhlambi obtained his BCom Honours in Accounting at the University of KwaZulu Natal before completing his articles at KPMG.
In 2012, Naidoo proposed that they start their own shipping company.
Mhlambi said: “I was working in a corporate job as a financial manager when one day, during my lunch break, Durand came to visit me and said he’s thinking of starting a shipping company and did I want to join him as his accountant? I thought why not?”
Initially, shipping company Linsen Nambi offered shipbroking, marine surveying and consulting services.
Naidoo said he conducted shipping business across the African continent, visiting the likes of Uganda, Sudan, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“We were a service orientated business and as such we could not scale our business as we did not have assets and could not build a balance sheet.
“In 2014 Thuso and I took the decision to pivot our business model to become asset-based.” The business took off. The men are in agreement that there is much work that needs to be done within the South African shipping landscape, as they felt it “severely lacks meaningful transformation and the economic inclusion of black people is minimal”.
According to the pair, their disappointment with the lack of transformation stems from the fact that South Africa is among the top maritime nations in the world in terms of the cargo volumes that move across seas.
“The Port of Durban is the busiest container port in Africa, the Port of Richard’s Bay is the busiest coal terminal in the world. You have only to consider the effect of mining commodities on the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), that can only be transported by sea, to understand how much of cargo moves across South Africa,” Mhlambi said.
Naidoo added: “There is a saying in shipping that cargo is king. However, in South Africa, even though we have the lion’s share of cargo, we do not have South African-owned ships. China, Japan, Britain and India are examples of other maritime nations in the world with cargo movements such as ours, but which have ships registered in their country.
“South Africa is dominated by foreign-owned shipping companies which carry our cargo, resulting in a loss of GDP to our country.”
Their vision is sweeping and includes the beneficiation of South Africa’s long coastline.
“The oceans can feed us and provide us with a livelihood, yet it remains locked with high barriers of entry for new entrants to participate.
“South Africa suffers from a high unemployment rate, yet most black people have never considered working at sea onboard vessels because most of these positions are not advertised in South Africa,” Naidoo said.
He added that efforts are afoot to change this and that government has launched initiatives, including Operation Phakisa, to kick-start the oceans economy. It is estimated that the oceans can contribute R177 billion to the South African GDP. The men call their partnership with the women-owned Woesa “amazing.”
Mhlambi said: “They give us the support and trust that we need to run the business.
“We selected Woesa as our partner on this deal because like ourselves, as black youth, black women have been marginalised in the South African economy. Therefore it was easy to sell them on the vision of reforming a sector that has been slow to change"