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View from the Bridge: Judith Thimke

The World Food Programme plays a critical role in preventing hunger worldwide, and the shipping industry plays a pivotal part in its efforts

SHIPPING is an industry with many challenges, but few people in shipping face the challenge of trying to feed the world as part of their job description.

But for Judith Thimke, that is all part of the job. As chief of the World Food Programme’s ocean transportation division, Ms Thimke is at the cutting edge of humanitarian food assistance and the head of a unique maritime logistics organisation.

Based in Rome, the hub for the UN’s food-based agencies, the WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency for fighting hunger.

“Our vision is a world where every man, woman and child can access the food they need for an active and healthy life,” says Ms Thimke. “This is a vision we are channelling into the Zero Hunger initiative, which is our raison d'être. We reach over 80m people a year in over 80 countries on an annual basis and have about 15,700 people working for the organisation, most of them in remote areas working with the hungry poor.”

WFP has a strategic plan with four major objectives: to save lives and protect livelihoods in emergencies; to support food security and nutrition and rebuild livelihoods in fragile settings; to help reduce risks, by working with communities and nations to meet their own nutrition needs; and to reduce undernutrition and break the intergenerational cycle of hunger.

Since 1961, WFP has seen its role as enabling rather than doing, using its knowledge and knowhow to leverage and harness the work it does to focus its efforts on helping countries address and solve their hunger problems.

“It is really important that these strategic objectives are met,” Ms Thimke says. “If you respond to an emergency you immediately focus on ensuring that livelihoods are not wiped out. You then move on to ensuring resilience and building, partnering with those around you. The strategic plan that underlines this is reducing under-nutrition and breaking the intergenerational cycle of hunger.”

This step is not just addressing the acute hunger faced by people in places such as Iraq and Syria, but is also about working with governments to address the root causes of under-nutrition.

Ensuring that children under the age of two are receiving the right type of nutrition starts a self-perpetuating cycle, Ms Thimke says, and has much to do with the links WFP has with other agencies, including Unicef.

“We found that the longer we can keep girls in school in impoverished countries, the less likely they are to be married or end up having children young. That then kicks into that intergenerational cycle that we’re trying to break,” she says.

“One of the ways we’re trying to do that is to make sure mothers give really good nutrition to their children in their early years and trying to keep young girls in school. It leads to a virtuous circle that breaks the cycle.”

This ‘teach a man to fish’ principle works well enough most of the time, but when conflicts such as those in Yemen and Syria, and natural disasters such as tsunamis and Ebola come into play, achieving broader sustainable development goals becomes a constant juggling act.

“We have to do airdrops into besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria or in places where rains have cut off our ability to deliver, but at the same time we are working for that longer-term big picture, which is helping families thrive and giving governments the right tools.”


An accidental shipper

It is difficult to imagine anyone better qualified for taking on these sorts of challenges than Ms Thimke.

Raised in a small American Midwestern city with no maritime links, she studied international relations and development, and later studied in Spain. But her move into shipping was accidental.

“I jump-started my career on the docks of Dakar,” she says. “It was a unique experience.”

That experience came first from a job with now-defunct Spanish carrier Mediterranean Africa Container Lines.

“I was the owner’s representative in Dakar, Senegal, overseeing our appointed agent, looking at commercial activities and marketing strategies,” Ms Thimke says. “I was also responsible for the technical co-ordination of vessels. When they berthed I was in charge of co-ordinating the operations, monitoring the overland operations between Dakar and the hinterland, negotiations with Senegalese shipping authorities.”

From there she went to Delmas as service chief for its fishing operations in Dakar. “This was another hands-on role dealing with a team of 40 Senegalese and extremely challenging and good fun,” she says.

This was a time when there were few women working in shipping in such a hands-on way.

“Some of my northern European colleagues and associates were questioning the appropriateness of sending a young woman out there to do a job that involved handling crises at three in the morning, dealing with crane operators and Senegalese dockers, as well as people in the Ministry of Transport. They had a lot of doubts and I had few role models,” she says.

“I had to win everyone’s confidence. Sometimes in industries where there aren’t a lot of women we have to start out proving ourselves, where a man in our position wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to convince people he is capable. That being said, I was able to do that and able to thrive, and it was important for my later development in WFP.”

The move to WFP was also accidental, Ms Thimke says.

“A neighbour who worked for the UN one day bounced upstairs with a job advertisement from WFP looking for people for their roster pool,” she says. “They were looking for someone who had spent five years in a developing country, who spoke a few languages, who had experience working in shipping or transport. At the end it said ‘women are strongly encouraged to apply’. All that was lacking was my name.”

After applying, Ms Thimke skipped the roster stage and was employed directly in Rome with a new logistics team gearing up to address some of the big major emergencies.

“I joined a team of really sharp guys and was the first woman on the team,” she says. “I started as a logistics officer, dealing with the handover of food from ships to the teams on the ground.”

She found herself looking over contracts and setting up operations during the Liberia conflict, then later managed logistics and operations following the Rwanda genocide.

This was followed by a break to work on the ground for WFP in Central America, where she lived for 11 years, until around five years ago she was asked to apply for a job back in Rome as the deputy chief of the shipping service.

“It came a bit out of the blue, but I did feel qualified for this position and thought it would be interesting,” Ms Thimke says. “Two years later my chief was transferred to North Korea as a country director and I applied and was appointed chief and have been in this post for four years now.”


Managing relationships

Part of Ms Thimke’s role at the WFP is to convince carriers and owners to send ships to some of the most remote and operationally challenging places in the world. Doing so requires commitment from both sides of the table, she says.

“One of the biggest issues is for us to be able to contribute to that sense of trust and find those owners willing to lean in,” she says.

During the Ebola crisis WFP needed to deliver food to affected countries because local markets were fragile. But there were questions over how it could get any owner to call to parts of West Africa.

“We devised a strategy to do everything in breakbulk and put the food in jumbo bags,” Ms Thimke says. “This minimised the extent of onboard stevedoring. Because we have the BIMCO-approved World Food 99 charter party, one of the clauses allows the crew to do the stevedoring in force majeure situations. We asked that the crew hook the bags rather than have 20 stevedores doing a conventional discharge, which would have made the crew uncomfortable and increased the risk of contamination.”

The solution was put together in a way that was carefully orchestrated and was agreed to by the owner and the crew.

WFP also has to operate in situations where the commercial market cannot. The prime example of this was supplying food aid to Somalia during the height of the piracy crisis.

“When you’re saving lives, you cannot afford to take the long way around the Cape of Good Hope so we partnered and EUNavfor stepped in, providing escorts to vessels in the high-risk zone,” Ms Thimke says. “To this day, they do extensive relaying from one warship to another so they can intervene if there is a problem.”

Moreover, EUNavfor provides onboard “advanced vessel detachments” on a time charter vessel WFP operates between Mombasa and Somali ports.

“We would have never been able to deliver hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food aid without EUNavfor’s support,” Ms Thimke says.

One of the advantages of having its own charter party is that WFP can ensure the humanitarian emphasis of a commercial arrangement.

“If we really need to divert a vessel that is heading to one place but is needed somewhere else, unless there is a very good reason the owner would be obliged to help us divert the vessel.”


Bad for shipping, good for aid

While the entire shipping industry has been suffering from low rates and overcapacity in most sectors for the past several years, WFP, which is entirely funded by donations, is benefiting from shipping’s woes.

“If I have $10 and I spend $6 on freight, I have the rest left over for assistance,” Ms Thimke says. “If I spend $1.50 on freight, I have a lot more left over. We have been benefiting over the last four years from a depressed shipping market. I know that the lines and owners are suffering tremendously, but in this case we are benefiting. We have more money to deliver more food.”

It can, however, be more difficult in a strong market, as the WFP works on commercial terms. But having a business partner is key to the programme’s humanitarian aims.

“We as the humanitarians are operating in a commercial market and there might not always be a match,” Ms Thimke says. “We feel it is our duty to create an awareness and interest, and to invite owners and carriers to understand our mandate and our mission.”

WFP’s hope is that carriers value WFP cargoes, not just from a commercial perspective, where there are contractual agreements that regulate the commercial transactions.

“The issue for us is having partners that will go the extra mile to ensure the cargo doesn’t get damaged or that the rotation is respected and can help achieve the objective of what we are trying to do,” Ms Thimke says. “Any carrier that is willing to support and engage in this journey for a sustainable partnership is welcome to us.”

For some of the niche locations, which are not on the beaten path, few vessels may be offered in, but WFP doesn’t normally have a problem finding the tonnage it needs. There are usually owners and lines willing to help and sometimes the programme has worked with lines to get a specific call made that is outside the normal service, or has negotiated a transhipment.

Last year around 60% of WFP shipments were done on charter shipments and 40% went on liner services. Charter vessels are generally in the handysize range and used for bulk grains. But cargo packaged and break bulk is used in niche markets. Syria, for example, in the current context has limited port absorption capacity and WFP therefore delivers as break bulk in pre-bagged consignments.

“We use containers for packaged cargoes, such as oil and pulses in bags, in containers,” Ms Thimke says. “Our special nutritious foods, which are highly specialised goods, are sent on containers.”

WFP has a liner team and a network of freight forwarders, but works directly with some of the major container lines as well.

“In places like Yemen you have to have a dialogue going because it is extremely challenging to get containers in,” Ms Thimke says.

While WFP works through brokers, in many cases the relationship with the industry ends up looking like a partnership, Ms Thimke says, as many lines and owners work with the programme on multiple occasions and share the agenda.

“One of the most rewarding moments in this job is when we can have that contact with the industry,” Ms Thimke says. “Often this is under difficult situations around an emergency but when many of partners feel it is a privilege to be supporting the WFP. That is where the real magic happens.”

This article appears in the November issue of Containerisation International.

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