A 4000-tonne dredger stands marooned in hyacinth at the Kisumu port. About a kilometre away, construction of a ship assembly yard is ongoing.
The yard is expected to put together four hyacinth harvesting machines to clear the lake before the towering dredger digs up the port area into a harbour for large shipping vessels and a 63km kilometre shipping channel.
Mango Tree Group Limited, a Chinese company, is refurbishing the port into a modern facility capable of handling large volumes of cargo with fast turnovers. It was part of an ambitious Sh15 billion plan to make the lakeside town a commercial nexus for the region.
These plans were relying heavily on the immediate restoration of the Nakuru-Kisumu metre gauge railway line to build trade impetus for the anticipated Standard Gauge Railway and a new, bigger port.
But the prospects of reviving Lake Victoria as a cheap and efficient transport corridor into the East and Central African region are now clouded in uncertainty, following the government’s decision to shelve the reviving of the Nakuru-Kisumu railway line.
Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said on Wednesday the government had postponed plans to restore the line over extensive damage, which he said would require laying of a new line altogether. He said the government would instead reclaim the line to Malaba at a cost of Sh15 billion.
This has clouded the ongoing efforts to clean up and reclaim the lake in line with a resolve by East African Community heads of state to leverage its potential as a cheaper and efficient bulk haulage corridor.
The plans include cleaning the lake of hyacinth, dredging of its ports and a shipping channel, renovation of the port and assembly of up to 24 ships.
Speaking when the project was launched in January, Opposition leader Raila Odinga and officers from the Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Railways said it was in line with the planned extension of the Standard Gauge Railway to Kisumu. The KR officers said plans to revive the old railway to give impetus to SGR had advanced.
The port moved a measly 13,500 tonnes of cargo last year, as lack of cargo, poor handling equipment and hyacinth sunk it into a disused harbour for rusting old vessels and one or two stranded ferries.
This cannot be compared to the performance of the Nairobi Internal Container Depot, which since the launch of SGR haulage from Mombasa, received 257,972 containers destined for the region, up from 30,459 in 2018.
All this is cargo that would put both the Kisumu old port and the planned Sh13 billion new port to full use, if the railway were to be revived.
So adverse is the expected impact of the decision to abandon the line that the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) now wants clarification from the Transport ministry and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
KNCCI Western Kenya Chairman Israel Agina described the new development as very unfortunate.
“The importance of Kisumu port cannot be gainsaid. As the most central point in the regional trading bloc, Kisumu, with the lake, is truly a vital link to the region,” he said.
“This potential was first seen by the colonialists who put up the port. The government itself is alive to this potential and cannot therefore suddenly backtrack on efforts to materialise commercial hub dreams.”
Although some argued that the lake reclamation was an independent project, economists like Odhiambo Otieno said without the railway, lake reclamation was in vain.
Political leaders from Nyanza steered clear of the topic when reached for comments, possibly out of fear of being seen as criticising the handshake.
Before his visit to China with President Kenyatta, Raila was confident they would secure funding to extend the SGR to Kisumu, with results in an upturn of economic activities for the region.
Meanwhile, counties on the proposed Naivasha-Kisumu SGR route may have to wait longer to benefit from improved trade and tourism opportunities the extension promised.
With railway stations planned in Narok, Bomet, Kericho and Kisumu counties, trade was expected to rise and ‘hidden’ tourist attractions in the regions boosted once the project was completed, according to a Kenya Railways document.
The Sh350 billion Naivasha-Kisumu SGR project (Phase 2B) was in line with the counties’ integrated development plans to enhance access to markets at a lower cost for the agriculture-based economies.
Narok was angling to be one of the biggest beneficiaries, since the SGR is the first railway track to pass through the county.
Narok, a cereal breadbasket, is also home to the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Convenient and cheaper transport from Nairobi and Kisumu to the reserve famous for the wildebeest migration could see more visitors to the park.
Two sub-stations were planned for Narok and Mulot towns, making access to the reserve easier by rail and road.
Bomet County would have better transportation for tea and processed milk products. It would have intermediate stations in Mulot and Kabason townships.
Crossing stations were planned in Bomet West, Sotik and Ikonge in Nyamira County.
“These stations are designed to enhance movement of people and goods linking them to the nearest town, Kisumu, and Nairobi cities,” says the plan document.
The railway was also expected to give tourism sites, including the Konoin caves and Itare and Chepkulo waterfalls, a new lease of life.
The Mau Forest complex, which has a great tourism potential, is also located along the proposed line.
In Kericho, there were to be stations at Kipkelion, Londiani and Fort Tenan. The county is home to tea, wheat and pyrethrum.
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