November 15, 2018
Absence of modern vessels, railway connections and cargo handling facilities at ports continue to hamper efforts to revive trade and transport on Lake Victoria between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Port Bell, for instance, is Uganda’s main link to Kenya and Tanzania through the Kisumu and Mwanza ports, but until recently, was abandoned with ships plying the route grounded.
Water transport on the lake declined after a 2005 accident in which two Ugandan ships — MV Kaawa and MV Kabalega — collided while transporting goods to and from Tanzania.
A commission of inquiry was set up and it recommended that both vessels be rehabilitated and issued with new certificates of worthiness, but the process was interrupted by the privatisation of the railway network when a contract was awarded to Rift Valley Railways in 2007.
This led to the abandoning of the port to water hyacinth and the vessels to bats and mice. The railway line connecting Port Bell to Kampala was vandalised. The story was the same for the Jinja port, which has similar facilities to Port Bell.
The abandonment by the government forced traders to turn to haulage of cargo via road from either Dar es Salaam or Mombasa.
The revival of a multi-modal transport route from Dar es Salaam Port to Port Bell in Kampala through the use of trains and wagon ferry services was on the agenda when Tanzanian President John Magufuli met his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni on November last year.
The meeting discussed modalities of implementing the memorandum of understanding on joint co-operation for improvement of ports, Lake Victoria inland waterways and railway transport services.
The agreement signed last year in July establishes the use of trains and wagon ferry services in the Central Corridor, which starts from Dar es Salaam Port and serves Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now, Uganda is working round the clock to ensure that the Corridor is open on its part but is facing financial constraints. The railway line from Port Bell to Kampala has, however, been renovated at a cost of Ush1 billion ($263,270).
The government has rehabilitated the port and now two ships — Uganda’s Mv Kaawa and Tanzania’sMv Umoja ply the Mwanza — ply Port Bell route.
Reports indicate that government borrowed Ush160 billion ($48 million) from two German banks — AKA Bank and Commerzbank AG — to develop the port.
Charles Kateeba, executive director of the Uganda Railways Corporation, the body that runs the port, said that the restored service includes the 22-wagon capacity Mv Kaawa and 200m long general user berth that allows only two vessels to dock at a time. The port receives general user cargo and wagon ferries.
“What we plan to do in the future is to increase the length to 400m. It means we can accommodate up to four ships from current two,” Mr Kateeba said.
Even with the capacity to handle two ships, the port can only load or offload a single ship in an hour.
With two vessels carrying 22 wagons and each wagon carrying 40 tonnes, a total of nearly 1,800 tonnes can be carried per round trip.
Uganda plans to increase the tonnage by rehabilitating the defunct MV Pamba but the government has failed to secure the needed funds, estimated to be $4 million.
“Our plan is to run about 10 to 12 trips per wagon ferry. We plan to prepare the second ship so that we have two Ugandan and one Tanzanian vessels.
If that happens the total capacity will be 63,000 tonnes per month,” said Mr Kaeeba.
However, there are no plans to rehabilitate the sunken MV Kabalega because “it doesn’t make business sense,” so the government is better off buying a new ship.
The Jinja port, which has similar facilities with Port Bell has not been in use since 2007, when operations at Port Bell stopped. The railway line connecting the port was also vandalised but the general user cargo side is fine and does not need rehabilitation.
URC has secured funds to rehabilitate the railway line by March next year for operations to resume.
Mr Kateeba said that there is an overwhelming response from the business community wanting to use the route way beyond what the government had expected in a short period of time.
“Right now we have more cargo, so we are trying to build up our response capacity. The major constraint now is wagon supply and the number of ships,” said Mr Kateeba.
These ambitions, however, are hindered by the fact that some traders still do not find the water route attractive or flexible enough and there are more imports than exports on the Ugandan side which creates a discrepancy in the size of cargo.
“If we had enough exports so that every ship carried the same tonnage and it went full with exports and came back with imports, we should be able to carry our maximum capacity,” said Mr Kateeba.
In Kenya, the railway line from Nakuru to the Kisumu port was also abandoned. One of the Kenyan vessels, the MV Uhuru that used to ply the Port Bell route, stopped operations in 2006.
While the Mombasa Port remains the favourite route for many Ugandan traders, the Kisumu Port would be the best option, but there is currently no activity between Port Bell and Kisumu. This is mainly because of a missing railway line at the Kenyan port, which Uganda officials say Kenya is reluctant to construct.
“We are not able to go to Kisumu now because there is no rail connection to Kisumu. The line between Kisumu and Nakuru is dysfunctional and there are no plans from the Kenyan side to restore the line because they want to connect Kisumu to the standard gauge railway,” said Mr Kateeba.
There is hope that the SGR will connect Kisumu to Uganda.
Uganda contends that transport around the lake should not be limited to the links of Mwanza, Kisumu, Jinja or Port Bell but rather should look at general trade, tourism and sports between the islands on the lake.
Key among these Islands is the Kalangala archipelago. The government is non committal on plans to revive the landing sites, passenger and freight services to the islands.