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Untapped gold. That is how one would describe the idle Kisumu port. The facility, which ought to be the gateway to the East Africa community member states, is now in a sorry state.
Untapped gold. That is how one would describe the idle Kisumu port. The facility, which ought to be the gateway to the East Africa community member states, is now in a sorry state.

The port’s operations have been choked by the ubiquitous hyacinth weed and heavy siltation. Then there are the bottlenecks associated with legislations touching on the agencies charged with its management.

There is little activity at the port and in the inland container depot set up to facilitate trade through the railway. The facility that could earn the country millions of dollars in freight levies has been converted into a site for local tourists who pay a paltry Sh20 per head as gate entry fee.

The port, rated by shippers as the best in East Africa owing to its strategic location, only receives at most three vessels in a week. Yet if well maintained and utilised, the port would serve Jinja, Mwanza in Tanzania, Entebbe in Uganda and Muhoma Bay in Rwanda.

The port can also provide a shorter and cheaper export route for nations in the Great Lakes region through Lake Victoria.

However, the old railway built in 1901 by the colonial British Government connecting Mombasa port to Kisumu has been neglected. This has adversely affected the lakeside port.

One of the largest ships, Mv Uhuru, that transported cargo between Kisumu, Mwanza, Port Bell and Jinja has not operated since 2006 yet is in good working condition.

The ship cannot be put to use because the port is in a bad condition. The 1,800-tonne ship is currently occupying the dry dock at the port, obstructing operations.

The port’s cargo handling facilities built by the British colonialists are now being eaten up by rust and vandals have run completely down some of them.

Furthermore, debris that find their way into the lake have caused heavy siltation at the port and making it difficult for large vessels to access it.

Mr Edward Ted Odero, a maritime consultant, attributes the poor state of the port to neglect by the national government.

He says the government, through the office of the Attorney General, has not ratified an amendment to the law to allow the Kenya Ports Authority to manage inland waters.

“The Kisumu port is the best so far compared to the ever busy Mwanza port or Jinja. Ours is a case of neglect by the government that has protected hauliers who have invested heavily on road delivery systems regardless of the damage they do to our highways,” Mr Odero said at the port recently.

“At the moment, KPA is busy maintaining facilities in deep seas because of the challenges in the interpretation of the Kenya Railways Amendment Act.

The sad part is that someone is sleeping on the job at the AG’s chambers.”

Another challenge the Kisumu port faces is that Lake Victoria does not have updated navigation maps.

“We have hydrographic maps that were designed in 1957. These don’t consider the fact that the waters have receded a great deal making the lake unsafe for vessels,” Odero said.

Captain Samuel Wabwaya of Mbita Ferries said navigation aids built by the British colonialists have been vandalised.

“You cannot risk having a ship steered by novices on this part of the lake. Beacons that marked danger points have since been vandalised,” Mr Wabwaya said.

Mr Odero said the gulf is also becoming shallower yet the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, formed to instil safety measures on the East African waters following the Bukoba boat tragedy, “is always busy with meetings and conferences”.

In 1996, the steamer, MV Bukoba, sank on Lake Victoria near Bukoba in Tanzania with 600 people on board. About 400 died in the tragedy.

“We want the LVBC to come out of boardrooms and perform its role” he said.

Mr Odero also took issue with the way licensing of traders is done at the port.

“The licensing process is shrouded in mystery and poses unfair competition to investors banking on large vessels. How can we trade fairly when unprofessional users get licensed to operate at par with large ship owners?” Mr Odero posed.

“At that rate, you cannot convince ship owners to work here when they will not make any profits.”

The port’s woes have also been blamed on the concession that led to the railways being handed over to a private investor – the Rift Valley Railways (RVR). Kisumu Port manager Michael Disi said the facility became idle when RVR stopped operating on the route in 2011.

“The situation of the port, railway station and its rotting facilities cannot be blamed on the corporation,” Mr Disi said.

He said RVR, which entered into a concession agreement with the Kenya Railways, ought to take care of the entire facility.

Kisumu port management is banking on the planned modern rail to shore up its fortunes.

“We are expecting the standard gauge railway line here in Kisumu as well. It will be built in the second phase of the works after completion of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Malaba line,” said Mr Ndisi.

“Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda cannot definitely do without Kisumu. The port will actualise its full potential when the railway line is refurbished.”

Dr Ally-Said Matano, LVBC programmes officer for projects development and partnerships, agrees that siltation not only affects transport but also the biodiversity of the lake.

He said sediment in the lake is the result of poor land use practices such as deforestation, poor farming methods, riverine deforestation, roadside erosion, monoculture and destruction of wetlands.

“This phenomenon is similar within the basin and not unique to Kenya. For instance all the cultivated areas in the basin districts of Tanzania, especially in Kwimba, Magu, Misungwi, Musoma and part of Sengerema districts, which lack vegetation cover, have been exposed to different levels of soil erosion risks,” Dr Matano said.

Transport in the lake is also affected a great deal by the proliferation of aquatic weeds such as water hyacinth.

Dr Matano exonerated the commission from blame over sedimentation saying its mandate is to help Lake Victoria Environmental Programme (Lvemp) implement programmes aimed at solving the problem.

On outdated maps, the LVBC said a consultancy formed in 2008 to undertake survey on access routes of the ports in Mwanza, Port Bell and Kisumu did not complete the work due to lack of funds.


“This (survey) was supported through a partnership fund. Nonetheless this was not enough and therefore through the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programmes, the commission intends to map the entire lake. Once this is completed, it will facilitate smooth sailing. Furthermore, under this initiative, aids to navigation equipment will also be installed,” Dr Matano said in an interview with Smart Company.

He, however, added that the dynamics of the lake have not changed significantly to render the existing maps totally useless.

“It is worth noting that most of the reported deaths (about 5,000 people yearly) in the lake are due to bad weather, overloading and mainly involve small vessels that would not otherwise use the navigation charts,” he said.

Furthermore, the commission said it was negotiating with the African Development Bank to fund an investment plan for maritime communication, safety and transport in Lake Victoria.

According to the Kisumu county government, Lake Victoria has the potential to offer mass transport for goods and passengers across the region and beyond. The county is currently negotiating with investors to set up ferry and boat services, construct a shipyard and supporting rail system.

Governor Jack Ranguma said there are also plans to develop a dry dock port in Kisumu city.

“The features of the proposed dry dock will include storage and clearing facilities, as well as offices, banking halls, hotels and restaurants,” he said.

Mr Ranguma said the county has entered into an agreement with the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to revamp port facilities in Lake Victoria to ease docking of cargo and passenger ships.

“We have signed an agreement with KPA and the national government through the Kenya Railways to allow KPA to have the mandate of reactivating port facilities in Lake Victoria for enhanced transport,” said Mr Ranguma.


The agreement took into account issues such as overall management of lake port systems. The deal would also lead to the acquisition of vessels that can dock up to one metre deep.

“There has been a continuous challenge of reduced water levels making it difficult for ships to dock. Kisumu County is considering buying sea buses that can land at any point on the lakeshore to pick passengers and cargo.”

Mr Ranguma said the county is working on budgetary allocations for building facilities required to handle cargo.

“We are working on a budget that will help us upgrade existing piers and build new ones in collaboration with KPA,” said Mr Ranguma.

Siaya governor Cornel Rasanga said the lake should be handed over to an authority that can marshal the required human resource to manage fishing, transport and overall maintenance.

Mr Rasanga said road transport increases the costs of doing business.

“Think of a situation where someone wants to travel to Migori from Busia. They can take a ship at Sio Port and disembark at Muhuru Bay in fewer minutes than when they use the road,” said Mr Rasanga.

Mr Israel Agina, the chairman of the business community in Kisumu, said the port lost business because of the dilapidated railway and the fact that most hauliers prefer the Nakuru-Eldoret-Malaba highway.

“We are losing millions of shillings in revenue. The situation is no longer the same as it was six years ago when we had an active train transport system,” Mr Agina said.

Agina’s sentiments were echoed by Mr Amin Vipul, a freight consultant, who said a lot of jobs have been lost following the closure of the railway.

“There are many people who were engaged in offloading and loading cargo but now lack meaningful work. The few who have stayed put can go for days without having any cargo to load or offload as a result of the low business through the port of Kisumu,” Mr Vipul said.