Thursday, August 9, 2012

RoRo Freight and Walk on Passenger Ferry Disasters Could Be Averted with Usizame

Potential for 'Don't Drown' System to Save Lives Worldwide
Shipping News Feature

TANZANIA – US - WORLDWIDE - Regular readers will know that we at Handy Shipping Guide take the bête noir of ferry disasters very seriously, including those in Tanzania, and lambast the global authorities and operators who regularly risk the lives of thousands of others with a casual attitude to maritime safety. Twenty five years ago we in the UK witnessed the distressing sight of a RoRo freight and passenger ferry foundering due to incompetence with the loss of nearly 200 lives but this disaster pales into insignificance in the face of the wanton slaughter of innocents seen in foreign waters.

Rachel Hamada is a British born journalist who settled in Zanzibar four years ago with her husband. On the 18th July this year Rachel’s mother in law and her niece were drowned in the sinking of the MV Skagit, a ferry recently arrived from the USA and which Rachel says was travelling a long way in the open sea for which she was considered unsuitable (her previous routing was on the inner Puget Sound between Seattle and Vashon Island). The vessels was deemed only to be fit to sail within twenty miles of the coast (she foundered approximately forty miles offshore) in fair weather and to carry a complement of 148 passengers (she had around 290 on board when she sank, half of whom were reported lost).

The restrictions were imposed due to the vessel's age (23 years) and the fact she had not operated as a ferry since withdrawal from service in 2009. The fact she went down in bad weather with so many passengers aboard is yet another example of profiteering in markets where an abundance of poorer people need to use cut price inter island transport as the only method available to them. The owners paid only $400,000 for the Skagit and her sister ship the Kalama plus the cost of transport, the price of a decent house in many modern countries.

Unlike so many when grief is thrust upon them, Rachel Hamada has reacted swiftly to try and ensure that others do not suffer the same fate as her family. Rachel is a founder of Mambo magazine and thus used to the wonders of modern communication. She has created a website called Usizame (Don’t Drown in Swahili) and a test bed for a spectacularly simple system which has the potential to be rolled out to other areas where overcrowding of unsuitable vessels causes seemingly unending heartache.

Usizame provides a free SMS based system which can both warn passengers of bad weather and actual capacity whilst recording accurate data of passenger numbers aboard. If the ferry overloads a documentary record exists of an operators wilful negligence and an alert goes out to every passenger registered as being aboard that sailing giving the opportunity to complain or disembark before getting under way.

Most individuals living in Tanzania these days have some type of mobile phone with even the most primitive handset having SMS capability and all a passenger needs to do is enter their name onto the Usizame text message site as they board. Should a worst case scenario arise and the ferry get into difficulties the system sends out an alert to all stakeholders including subscribers and their families, social and mainstream media and the authorities.

Photo: The Skagit in happier days about to dock in Seattle.

Editors Note: Since writing this piece Rachel Hamada has asked us to point out that the Usizame initiative was launched with her co-founder, Mbwana Alliy, Tanzanian by birth he has worked in the US, Europe and Africa and is passionate about the introduction and implementation of new technology including his management of a seed capital project for budding African tech entrepreneurs the Savannah Fund. He is now also the project manager for Usizame heading up a team of volunteer coders and developers all trying to make the seas a safer place.