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Wine, women and song lure thousands of Kenyans to Uganda

By Oscar Obonyo | July 12th 2015
The main street of Busia town on the Ugandan side.

NAIROBI: When the first rays of the sun pierce through the sleepy border town of Busia, they immediately ignite a bustle of activities. The sun rises from the Kenyan side and sets on the Ugandan side.

Curiously, the daily activities of scores of residents living in this town follow the pattern of the sun.

Upon sunrise, teachers, civil servants, county government employees, students and scores of other residents routinely troop to the Kenyan side in large numbers. By evening, they “return with the sun” to the Ugandan side.

This trend now poses a major headache to the Busia (Kenya) County Government officials. An exasperated Sospeter Ojamoong’, the Busia governor, protests that this pattern of movement has led to closure of several businesses and massive job losses on the Kenyan side.

But the Mayor of Busia-Uganda Municipality, Michael Mugeni, is exuberant about the current developments. He says Uganda views Kenya as “our biggest market”, and adds with a bubbly chuckle that “we are winning numbers because we ensure the social life of our people is affordable.”

Indeed, affordability is the key factor influencing the movement across the Busia border. Owing to friendlier house rent, food and other costs, scores of Kenyan teachers, medical staff and civil servants live on the Ugandan side and cross the border every morning and evening to and back from work.


The sum total of this trend is that Busia County is losing millions of shillings  in revenue to Uganda as crowds of Kenyans flock the neighbouring country. Henry Madiang’i, a Kenyan in the construction industry, is among those addicted to Ugandan “hospitality”. He sweats away in Kenya at construction sites most of the day but enjoys the fruits of his sweat in the evening in Uganda.

“There are better opportunities and well-paying jobs in Kenya, but Uganda has affordable offers in three areas — beer, women and food,” Madiang’i says.

Patrick Makokha, a boda boda rider who operates between the two countries, attributes his love for Uganda to tough alcohol consumption rules in Kenya.

“I stopped the risky affair of drinking while standing on one leg, in readiness for flight,” says Makokha in reference to Kenyan police officers who ambush and arrest patrons taking alcohol outside the official drinking hours of between 2pm and 11pm. In the words of the boda boda rider, a good number of Kenyans eat and drink in Uganda and carry the contents in their bellies for deposit in toilets on the Kenyan side.

The cost of a bottle of soda averages Sh80 in Kenya and Sh30 on the Ugandan side (Kenyan currency). The disparities are even higher in alcoholic beverages. A bottle of Guinness, which retails at  between Sh170 and Sh200 in Kenya, sells at between Sh120 and Sh150 in Uganda. The Tusker brand costs Sh160 in Kenya and Sh120 in Uganda. Ugandan brands including Nile Special, which retails at between Sh90 and Sh120, are much cheaper, yet more potent.

This goes for rent too. A one bedroom house in Marachi on the Kenyan side, for instance, goes for between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 a month while the same house in Sofia estate in Uganda fetches just Sh3,500.


Godfrey Musungu used to run a bar on the Kenyan side but has since moved to the Ugandan side. The businessman used to pay rent worth Sh14,000 but currently pays UG Sh160,000 (about KSh3,500).

Musungu, who runs “Pembeni Pub” in Uganda’s Sofia estate, says running a business in Kenya is comparatively too costly. He singles out requirements of various certificates, sanitary facilities as well as various trade licences from the liquor and licensing board, national and county governments as prohibitive factors.

“Here in Uganda, I only need a single trade licence from the Busia municipality — no more paperwork or harassment by police over sanitation or drinking hours,” he says.

The Standard On Sunday further observed that commercial sex traders in Uganda are more innovative. They book hotel rooms in advance, from where they prepare luscious dishes and proceed to lure male patrons. In essence, there is no double payment for the man here. Nalongo is perhaps the most famous joint for this arrangement that puzzles most foreigners. Other adjacent pubs include 99 Kisses, Kagrass, M’Big Pub and Black Mamba.

However, Busia (Kenya) County Executive Committee Member for Trades, Industrialisation and Tourism, Hillary Makhulu is not amused by what he terms as “brothel services being offered right behind bar counters”.

Ugandan businessmen, he claims, are winning over Kenyans through dirty and immoral avenues. The minister defends the strict business policies in Kenya, saying they are meant to ensure quality services.

But the Ugandan mayor views the goings on differently. Noting that the people of Busia are one people separated only by colonial borders, Mugeni calls for peaceful co-existence between Kenyans and Ugandans.

Wilson Odoli, a retired civil servant from Majanji (Uganda), some 27 kilometres away, observes that over the decades, residents from the two sides of the border have depended on one another. “What is happening now is the exact opposite of what we experienced around 1984 to 1987. Then beer was very expensive and we used to cross over to Kenya for entertainment and return in the night. I can remember even now that a crate of beer went for Sh200,” recalls Odoli.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and Kenyan authorities are feeling the pinch on the toes. A growing number of Kenyans are now living in Uganda, buying land and investing heavily in the country.

According to the latest census (2014), the mayor says about 60,000 residents live within Busia-Uganda municipality, about one per cent of who are Kenyans. But the mayor believes the number could be higher as most Kenyans are believed to have stayed away during the night of census.

Ojamoong laments that his government is a victim of a carefree system in Uganda, with no clear taxation rules and trade policies. The situation, says the governor, has exposed business people to huge losses and led to the dumping of cheap goods in the market.

The ensuing scenario points to a harsher taxation regime in Kenya. To survive competition in beer business, for instance, most bar owners have resorted to purchasing Kenyan bottled beer on the Ugandan market back to Kenya, where they sell at slightly lower rates. Newcomers to Busia-Kenya would also be forgiven for thinking they have arrived in President Yoweri Museveni’s territory. Vehicles with Ugandan number plates are all over the place.

“Besides fetching nearly half the cost of the purchase in Kenya, one can circumvent the rule that restricts importation of vehicles manufactured over eight years,” says Ndile Mudibo, a local businessman.

Makhulu regrets that little can be done to reverse the situation. Noting that counties along international boundaries face unique challenges as compared to those in the hinterland, the minister appeals for immediate redress. “Our solid revenue base is under attack from factors that are beyond our control. We need some say in the affairs of international trade,” argues Makhulu.

Meanwhile, the county official divulges that there are plans to harmonise the licensing of businesses within the county government by consolidating all the licences into one, to reduce on the current laborious exercise. Until then, movement of residents in Busia continues to revolve around the direction of the sun. And as sunset beckons, residents troop back home from Kenya. Even the nocturnal imbibers stagger past the border points after official closure of bars in Kenya at 11pm. Here, nightlife has just begun.

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