An Exclusive Interview with Malini Dutt, India Representative to Port of Antwerp

8 mins read  Sealuminati TeamJuly 1, 2021
"My advice to aspiring youth would be to constantly have passion and strive to do better than the people around you. It is important to have a streak of innovation and creativity.", says Ms. Malini Dutt, India Representative to Port of Antwerp.

Team Sealuminati got the exclusive opportunity to interview Ms. Malini Dutt- the first Indian woman to grace the chair of India Representative to the Port of Antwerp. The exclusive interview aimed at discussing her career graph; drawing inspiration from the same. Ms. Malini's close coordination with the Port of Antwerp is surely illuminating on the current initiatives in the port sector and the prospective graph of the supply chain in the digital and advanced perspective.

How a kid from Kolkata made it all the way to the grand Port of Antwerp? Was it always a part of your plan to join the industry?

To answer the latter part of the question, it was never a part of the plan. In fact, I have never planned my personal or professional life. Having said that, I was always diligent about any task that I undertook and I completed it to the best of my ability.

I was indeed born in Calcutta but the MNC that my father represented moved to Bombay when I was merely 2 years old and so did we. So, my attachment with Bombay is much stronger in comparison to Calcutta currently. However, we always visited our grandparents during the summer or Diwali vacation, so we never really forgot our roots.

As for my professional life, I spent a lot of time in the international marketing arena focusing on developing mainly two skill sets- paid promotion and investment attraction. I worked with the Australian government for almost a decade for an agency called Austrade which was the Australian government's trade and investment promotion arm. This had also given me a lot of exposure in the international business. Following this, I got the Port of Antwerp role.

To sum it up, while I did not ever plan it I am really happy with the way life shaped up and where I am now. I'm really excited about what I do. And I’m really excited to be here today.

Can you please elaborate on your role in the Port of Antwerp and how do you manage to work to your full potential and give your best every day, even during these difficult times of pandemic and lockdown? How has all this affected you professionally and personally?

My role at the Port of Antwerp is to profile the port as a crucial link between the India-Europe corridor. We promote the port as a premier gateway for maritime cargo. We also have two centers of excellence- a training arm which is called APEC and a consultancy foundation called Port of Antwerp International. A part of my role is to promote these facilities in India.

As you rightly said, the pandemic presented us with a lot of challenges. Personally for me, one way to stay very motivated was to get into my home office, start my work and think about what I can do differently today. So, passion is very important to complete your tasks on a day-to-day basis.

My job is that of a relationship manager where typically physical interaction is very important. I am a strong believer that the digital mode of interaction can never match physical interaction. But given the situation we are in, we all learned to be a bit more creative and compassionate. I started talking to my customers and they made me realize that the Port of Antwerp is an important European entity. Everybody in India wanted to know what was happening in Europe. So I took this opportunity and initiated a few digital webinars where I got a few interesting thought leaders from Europe and that was a hit!

The pandemic was definitely a challenge on various levels but it also gave me the opportunity to be more innovative. I utilized my spare time to my advantage by getting fitter and I have never felt so healthy ever in my life.

Quite recently, Belgium joined in and began the EU’s first seafarer Covid Vaccinations. The vaccinations are presently taking place in the port of Antwerp and will soon begin in the port of Zeebrugge. How do you think this is going to benefit the maritime community and how efficiently is the Port of Antwerp managing to execute the whole thing?

The initiative is taken by a company called Medico. As far as the Port of Antwerp's role is concerned, we'll provide logistical support in this initiative along with back-end political lobbying. There are positive affirmations from the Belgian government regarding the vaccination of international seafarers. When given the green signal by the Government, the Port of Antwerp will ensure to provide all the logistical support that is required.

How does it feel being the first female international representative for the Port of Antwerp and holding such a position of high repute and esteem and motivate the youth to achieve great heights?

It is certainly a nice little milestone to have. However, back at the Port of Antwerp, we also have several female ambassadors. Being a gateway to International and Indian businesses, the scope of work increases immensely. My advice to aspiring youth would be to constantly have a passion and strive to do better than the people around you. It is important to have a streak of innovation and creativity.

However, in pursuit of standing out in the crowd, one should not forget the key responsibility areas.

The pandemic has affected every sector equally, the maritime domain is also facing major issues like blank sailing and shortage in equipment at ports and several other concerns are affecting the port operations profusely. What is your analysis of the whole situation and how is the port managing the cargo movement and business activities?

When the pandemic hit in 2020 we were operational 24/7. We had a task force in place which comprised of the players in the port. The port of Antwerp authority was heavily involved but we also had logistics players at the port, the customs authorities, the terminal operator, the business operators- all of whom were concerned with the smooth trade facilitation during these challenging times.

In addition, we also had green lanes and green channels which were developed to ensure that the goods reach the European hinterlands. This was done with full visibility to the customers.

Evidently, this was visible in figures. Last year was a record year where we had about 12 million TEUs in terms of cargo volumes that were handled. We achieved a growth of about 1.3%, thanks to our buoyant container throughput rates.

The pandemic also presented an opportunity to re-engineer the supply chain. The port of Antwerp tried and convinced the customers to look at the re-engineering and maintain stocks in Europe because we as a port offer so much warehousing space at very competitive rates since we are one of the largest in all of Europe. The supply chain managers also proved how they could save costs for their company.

The Portable Innovation Open Network for Efficiency and Emissions Reduction Solutions(Pioneers) project aims to rethink all aspects of port operations at the Port of Antwerp ranging from terminal operations, concession agreements, mobility, connectivity, fuels to model for cooperation and production, storage and use of energy. This collaboration will use Envision Digital’s EnO artificial intelligence and IoT(AIoT) technology to build a digital twin-port, modeling, simulating, optimizing, and monitoring port activities, including logistics, maintenance, traffic, and energy consumption.

As someone who has been observing such modern developments closely, do initiatives like digitalization and energy transition really make a positive impact on the port business, and how?

During the transition phase of 2020 to 2021, the Port of Antwerp has made several investments in the area of the energy transition, digitalization, as well as mobility to ensure that we have a sustainable future and provide it to our customers. On the basis of this, we are looking for a brighter outlook in 2021.

We believe that both energy transition and digitalization are very vital to the port of Antwerp. Our approach is to identify USPs through these investments in energy transmission and digitalization.

In the field of digitalization, we have recently launched an initiative called Certified Pickup (CPU). This project will go live on 1st July 2021. This initiative will digitally ensure a safer process for container release replacing the traditional method.

The energy transition is another critical point of development at the Port. The European green deal is in place now as Europe is trying to be climate-neutral and the Port of Antwerp is one of the leaders in this scenario. We are striving hard towards being a green port that is not only environmentally safer but also serves as a USP in itself.

The world is aiming to diversify every industry. We are told that every sector is welcoming diversification with the same zeal, but is it really true? What are your close observations regarding the same?

You spoke about diversity and zeal and I think it is also on us to show zeal in order to increase diversity in a specific sector. Traditionally, women tend to look at some industries as their favorite and I really appreciate the women seafarers on the panel today because it is a male-dominated sector and it is commendable that you have shown interest to have woman representation in this side of the industry as well. The initiative has to come from us.

Personally, I have worked in several sectors and banking was one of them. I think everybody in India knows this for a fact that the banking sector is well-represented by women right at the top. The bank (Axis Bank) that I worked for was led by Mrs. Shikha Sharma. Several other banks are led by strong women. In fact, at the Port of Antwerp, our chairperson is a young and vibrant lady, besides many other women in leadership positions. So, it is important to back yourself and you will go places.

Since you have a rich experience of working almost for a decade with the Australian Government, what are the specific areas where India can forge stronger partnerships for the prosperity of India as per your opinion?

India has been trying to be the factory for the world in many sectors like farming, IT, automation, etc. There's a rising interest to get involved in the global supply chain. India has been striving to cater to its aspirational middle class because it represents a significant chunk of the total population. In comparison, Australia has focused on resources and energy which is a big need for India. Technology is another interesting area of inspiration- be it clean energy and water technology or perhaps digital solutions as well. India can perhaps forge a partnership with Australia on these fronts.

Antwerp has recently announced candidates for the NextGen District. Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO of Port of Antwerp, sees this as an opportunity to pioneer in the energy transition, with the aim to grow into a hub for innovation and cross-pollination in the circular economy, giving oxygen to the next generation. How does this project create new jobs that will favor the sustainable growth of the Port of Antwerp?

Sustainability is one of our topmost corporation goals and we see ourselves as a world port reconciling climate, economy, and people. As you rightly mentioned the NextGen District, is a hot topic of discussion. The Port of Antwerp hosts one of the largest petrochemical plasters and now that Europe is going green, it puts us in an awkward position.

Having said this, the reason behind the port's success amidst the pandemic is the diversity in our cargo throughput. As a result, we have never depended on one particular sector despite having the big chemical complex at the Port of Antwerp. There's always been an interest to look into various sectors and hence the NextGen District was born. With the advent of the NextGen District, the focus has been on manufacturing, energy transition, setting up green businesses, or the process industry enabling CO2 reduction in the port.

Besides this, new skill sets would be encouraged and new jobs would be created.

Despite being a geographically blessed country like India, what is the reason for the Indian ports to be not as efficient as they can be?

We have one of the biggest coastlines. Belgium, on the other hand, has a much smaller coastline but the Port of Antwerp is thriving. One of the reasons for the Indian ports not doing so well is the proximity among one another. This results in the competition of the same cargo. Given the limited cargo, does it justify having so many ports? Hence, optimization of choices is something to look into.

Secondly, most of the industries are not near the coastal area. This was the whole reason why Sagarmala came up with the idea of port-laid industrialization. This is already prevalent in the European nations. I believe the Indian Government has already taken steps to improve our ports facilitation.

How can Indian businesses benefit through their engagement with the Port of Antwerp?

Indian businesses are extremely resilient. The private sector despite not receiving any grants from the government has been able to spring back. The Port of Antwerp can continue to contribute to this resilience.

Like I said earlier, the pandemic also gave us the opportunity to rethink supply chain management. One of the ways would be to look at the Port as a warehousing and distribution hub. It would be smart to maintain some stock in Europe to avoid a disruption in the supply chain. The Port of Antwerp is connected to the end destinations can serve as improved good business connectivity.

What are your thoughts on efforts such as Sealuminati, which is being spearheaded by young maritime students in the direction to create an innovative, creative intellectual ecosystem?

I am overwhelmed to know that I am the first guest to be interviewed on the Sealuminati. First of all, you all are doing a great job. Even at the Port of Antwerp, we believe in building a community.

It is very important to organize such initiatives for the betterment of the community.

I think you have already set the foundation for it, and you must keep moving forward. It is essential to bring issues troubling the industry into the spotlight.

My suggestion would be to take up topical subjects and discuss them on a forum like this. Bring thought leaders who can talk on the subject and put it up on social media. Keep up the good work. I'm really proud of what you're doing at this young age.

Ms. Malini Dutt's rich expertise in International Business and Port Management Corridor reflected through her insights on the matter. Moreover, her career timeline is truly an inspiring template for the young workforce irrespective of any field to pursue their goal with utmost passion and work towards making a real difference.

Watch the interview here: