As the world marked this year's Seafarer's Week, Kenya was celebrating one of the longest serving International Transport Federation (ITF) woman port inspector and the youngest first woman pilot in the sector.
The week was recently marked with an intensive campaign by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) encouraging seafarers, both male and female, to show solidarity for gender equality in seafaring,
Betty Makena, Africa's first ever ITF inspector based in Mombasa Port could not hide her frustration on how she survives in a complex maritime industry dominated by men.
For close to seven years now as ITF Mombasa Port Inspector, Ms Makena says working in a male-dominated field can be intimidating for professional women where male members would make cynical comments like "She can't make it because she is a woman or I can't talk to a woman."
Many women have bowed to pressure and become depressed before going into another field. But Ms Makena has braved everything. She has had to act professionally to address a number of challenges in overseeing safety and welfare of all sea passengers and ship crew members ashore in east and central Africa.
"When I was elected to take up the job in the male dominated environment, I couldn't turn down the offer since I had knowledge of what had been affecting people in the sector having worked as a docker for 22 years. It was a big challenge to me as many people in the sector are men but making difficult sacrifices and putting on a brave face has made me achieve a lot," said Ms Makena.
The Inspector who described the job as challenging said dealing with ship owners who do not comply with international maritime laws and male chauvinism in them has not detered her to ensure vessels dock safely and also that there are decent working conditions for seafarers.
Ms Makena recalls her worst experience was in her early days in 2012 in a Russian flagged ship when the owner declined to talk to her on the ground she was a woman. “I don't talk to women and I can't give you any ship documents,” she reports the ship owner as saying.
"What I encountered in the ship was disgrace to me, but it gave me strength and I had to call my seniors in South Africa who ordered the ship be detained until I access the documents," she said adding he had to comply before any work continued in the vessel," said the inspector.
The inspector who has since transformed the industry said she will remain focused despite work challenges, vowing that she will not be intimidated by anyone.
"My main aim is to raise standards, protect the vulnerable and eradicate exploitation in the maritime sector. My day-to-day duties involve inspecting any ship in the Kenyan water and assist any seafarer in the vessels as described by the ITF laws," said Ms Makena.
Ms Makena is responsible for the safety and welfare of passengers and crew members and implementing the International Labour Organisation's Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 popularly known as the Seafarers Bill of Rights which sets out the minimum rights that a seafarer should expect.
"My work is to ensure crew members in every ship over 500 gross tonnage operating in international waters or between ports of different countries are safe and this is achieved by a special code which we send to every ship to get updates allover the world. the ship has to have a maritime labour certificate and maintain set workers' standards and it is a pleasure being able to effectively address challenges and influence the east and central African ports,'' she said.
Ms Makena joined ITF in 2012 after working in the telecommunication department at the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA). In line, she was the third ITF Mombasa port inspector since the country joined the global ports network which today has 136 male inspectors.
The Seafarers' Union of Kenya (SUK) and the ITF have helped recruit new seafarers in line with a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Government of Kenya and different shipping lines with the latest being the 32 seafarers who were employed by the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).
In August 2018 the MoU was signed and guaranteed recruitment of Kenyan seafarers to work on MSC vessels. The SUK, ITF inspector Makena and Kenya's ministry of transport played a big role to ensure that was achieved.
As celebration of the Seafarers' week continues, with the advocacy of gender equality in the seafaring with a worldwide hashtag #IAmOnBoard with gender equality, the IMO has developed an online interactive space in which participants discuss the best practices in empowering women in maritime community can be achieved.
The IMO in its statement also recognised Kenya's first pilot Elizabeth Marami who made history by becoming Kenya's first female marine pilot but the journey was not as easy as many may think.
Born and raised in the coastal city of Mombasa, Marami had initially studied law at the University of Nairobi. She later opted to pursue navigation in Alexandria, Egypt, for five years.
Her job as a marine pilot entails assisting vessels find their way into Kenya's territorial waters.
According to law, vessels entering a country's territorial waters may not progress to the harbour without Kenyan officials.
June 25 marked Day of the Seafarer celebrating maritime workers around the globe for their contribution to world trade and globalisation. It is only through their effort that goods are able to disseminate across oceans, national borders and cultures.
According to the IMO, more than 80 per cent of the goods in the world that are transported are shipped via seas, thus highlighting the importance of the day and of seafarers.