In conversation: Shantha Martin

'Africa is a continent waiting to assume economic leadership on a global scale'

Shantha Martin

Africa's role in the global economic order is no longer a matter of debate. For the shipping and logistics business, it has assumed importance as a high potential domestic and global transhipment hub. Shantha Martin has been overseeing the company's successful run in the region as CEO - Indian Sub-Continent, Middle East and Africa at ECU Worldwide.

As one of the very few women executives who have risen to senior positions in global logistics, Ms Martin is often sought for her views and thought leadership within the sector. She has received various awards during her 22-year career, which include CEO of the Year at the Women's Leadership & Innovation Awards, 2014 organised by International Women's Leadership Forum, the Bharat Vikas Rathna and the Women Leadership Achievement Award for excellence in logistics & supply chain sector by the World Women Leadership Congress, Mumbai in 2015.

In this interview she opens up about her work and personal journey, the unique challenges she has faced, about Africa as a market, her experiences working in the region and the opportunities for Allcargo/ECU Worldwide.

Q Each country in Africa is distinct in its culture, economy and local business behaviours. What has been your experience in dealing with this market?

A As a company operating on a global level, we are required to familiarise ourselves with the culture, geopolitics, economy and the potential of a region to effectively conduct business there. Dealing with these aspects not only brings a better understanding of the dynamics of the industries we are working or allied with, but also leads us to a vast repertoire of knowledge and wisdom in terms of our presence in the region.

Q How has the market, and ECU's business in Africa, shaped over the years?

A Africa is a continent waiting to assume economic leadership on a global scale. With its resources, it has the capabilities to step into the shoes of fast developing nations. However, issues of law and order, corruption and infrastructural backwardness remain. African countries need to focus a lot more on empowering their youth through quality education and healthcare. We are optimistic about the intent of its leaders to make this change happen. In logistics, there is already a focus on improving infrastructure and power supply, and we see several projects unfolding in the coming years.

Q Please share details about ECU's presence and operational strengths in different parts of the continent?

A Our network in Africa is an eclectic mix of self-owned offices and partners. We are present in 48out of its 54 countries, which makes us a major player in the region. ECU Worldwide's primary offices are located in high growth and logistics traffic markets such as Kenya, Morocco and South Africa. With 16 of our own strategically located offices and a well-connected team of experienced partners, we provide hinterland coverage to all major countries. We offer global direct services to all major seaports in Africa through 27 direct export trade lanes from Africa and 171 direct import trade lanes into Africa. Our special expertise in over-border shipment handling through South Africa ensures the safety and speedy delivery of consignments across the continent.

Furthermore, being a logistics partner to the United Nations for movement of their humanitarian aid consignments equips us to be responsive to societal needs in the region.

Q What is the break-up of owned and agent offices in Africa? Could you please provide some numbers to indicate the volumes and transactions that ECU handles in the African market?

A Our 47 partner associates in 40 African countries partners form the bedrock of our operations in the continent. The strength of our partnership networks allows us to synergise our capabilities and ensure timely delivery to the remotest of locations. This is supplemented by 16 of our owned offices located strategically in the gateways to Africa. The owned offices handle over 10,000 TEUs in a year, in addition to providing other value-added services.

Q How is ECU preparing to further tap into the vast potential of the African market?

A ECU's core competency is its presence across the globe and an extensive hinterland outreach. Our owned offices and partner agencies are well-poised to deliver on client needs. More than just being a market leader, we aspire to be an innovation leader amongst the logistics companies that cater to the African market.

Q How does ECU deal with the impact of geopolitical shifts in its operating markets, globally?

A Geopolitical challenges are a reality for any business, and they must be prepared for it. At ECU Worldwide, we are prepared to be nimble and responsive to such situations and innovation has a big role to play here. We have and will continue to thrive in a state of flux, and geopolitical situations are a major part of this flux.

Q Would you like to highlight one of the biggest strengths and challenges from each region you manage (ISC, GCC, East Med and Africa)?

A It is said that there is strength in diversity. No two regions, countries or people are alike. This diversity opens infinite possibilities for us to develop creative and market-leading solutions for our clients. It also helps provide the best service while navigating the nuances of logistics in a simplified manner.

However, no business is free from challenges, and these are evolving. Competition is no longer the primary challenge; contending with a VUCA world is a new reality for every business leader. Rapid geopolitical, economic, legal, cultural, religious and even environmental changes ensure that businesses are always on their toes.

At a global level, the world is in the throes of uncertain times. We are yet to emerge fully from the last recession, and now there's growing political instability across the world. Factors such as these contribute to uncertainty and volatility in the business landscape, the world over.

Q Your role involves a lot of travel. What has that taught you?

A Travel, whether for leisure or business, brings with it many enriching experiences. Exploring the vastness of cultures, their diversity and the spoken and unspoken rules leaves you with many lessons learnt, in terms of the facets of our existence. These lessons have been humbling, and have made me stronger as a professional.

There have been times when upon landing in some cities I found myself a bit lost. There are times when I miss my family but it is very reassuring to hear my little daughter's voice from across thousands of miles.

Q You have been associated with Allcargo since 2002, been part of its major milestones and won many awards. Please share your thoughts on your fifteen-year journey here?

A Winning awards does feel good, but I must confess here that our success as a company is because of many unsung heroes who made it possible. I dedicate all my awards to my very able team and to the guidance and dynamic leadership of our chairman, Mr Shashi Kiran Shetty. My peers too have been very honest and forthcoming with their views, and this has added value to my decision-making capabilities. Fifteen years is a long time in one's life, and I am glad that I have been associated with this company through its nascent stages to where it stands now.

Q How do you manage your 'work-life balance'? How do you unwind after work?

A 'Work-life balance' is a very interesting term coined in 1986. It means that we have a work life and we have a home life and that the two must be separate from each other. Whether this is humanly possible as per the definition proposed, I wonder.

Mentally, I carry my work home and my home to work, and I can do it quite well since I am able to delegate some of my work to my husband and daughter. This brings about a lot of fun and bonding.

This is more of a concern for my husband, since he keeps complaining that he must manage a 'work-wife balance'. Tania, my daughter, has always been an ample source of much needed relaxation and energy. Her funny quips enthral me often, and I count myself fortunate that, I can carry my family in my heart, whenever I travel to faraway places.

At Allcargo, it's all in a day's work!

  • Our network in Africa is a mix of self-owned offices and partners. We are present in 48 out of its 54 countries.
  • As logistics partner to the United Nations, we are equipped to be responsive to societal needs in the region
  • Winning awards does feel good, but I must confess here that our success as a company is because of many unsung heroes who made it possible