By January 2017, Durban’s Maritime School of Excellence will be home to a R30 million high tech dredging simulator and one of only four dredging schools in the world.

Operating much like a flight simulator used to train pilots, it allows students to try their hand at removing sand from harbours to deepen shipping channels. Once they’re ready to tackle the real thing, there’s less chance they’ll damage ships and infrastructure in the port.

The project is a joint effort by the Maritime School of Excellence, the Transnet National Port Authority and Dutch company, Royal IHC, which is building Transnet’s Ilembe dredger.

Tenderers are expected to contribute towards development as part of their contracts.

Royal IHC is not a newcomer to the South African port scene. It also built Transnet’s trailing suction hopper dredger the Moffat in 1981, the Ingwenya in 2007, the TSHD Isandlwana in 2010, the new grab hopper dredger the Italeni in 2014 and now the newest member of the dredging fleet, the Ilembe.

These investments were all part of Transnet’s R2 billion dredging services’ fleet replacement programme.

Transnet has spotted an opportunity to provide state-of-the-art dredging training facilities for Africa’s maritime industry – a potentially lucrative endeavour given that many African ports are spending billions on port upgrades.

“Dredging is the unsung hero of every successful port. Now, instead of sending staff overseas for dredging training, we can do this locally through the dredging school.  A number of regional ports are ramping up plans to expand port capacity, including major dredging projects, so we will be able to supply the human capacity for that,” said Transnet CEO Richard Vallihu.

Nonkululeko Sishi, the TNPA’s group chief HR officer, pointed out that a significant increase in trade with growing volumes of cargo at all African ports was fuelling this port development surge. This not only meant looking at port efficiencies but how to manoeuvre the much bigger ships that were plying the oceans into ports.

“The reconfiguring of port layout, increasing berths at existing ports and conducting dredging more often have been strategies that numerous ports have employed to meet this need,” she said.

Back on home soil, the setting up of a dredging school will result in skills development, job creation and preservation and small business promotion as well as contribute to government’s aspirations to grow the blue economy as part of Operation Phakisa.

Now that a poor economy is slowing down and, with it, port development, South Africa stands to lose as cargo that would ordinarily enter through Durban to Africa’s newly upgraded ports.

As a provider of dredging technology and skills development, Transnet would retain a competitive edge in the region, Sishi said.

“The training of facilitators will contribute to the transfer of associated skills and knowledge transfer to support a sustainable regional supply base which will ultimately lead to improved capability, efficiency and regional capacity,” she said.

50 students are expected to graduate from the dredging school over three years. Some students have already been signed up to start next year.