How modern boats have changed transport on Lake Victoria

A water bus in Lwanda Kotieno, Rarieda. [Isaiah Gwengi, Standard]

Transport on Lake Victoria, an economic goldmine for the lake region counties, is witnessing a surge as demand for reliable and safe transport networks increases.

While the national government has stepped up efforts to revive the region’s small ports, local investors have also intensified their bid to tap into this economic potential by investing in new boats.

To begin with, Kenya Shipyards Ltd (KSL) is fast-tracking plans to introduce 300 new climate-smart artisanal boats to help promote blue economy activities on Lake Victoria.

KSL Managing Director Paul Otieno said this will support inclusive and sustainable economic growth. They are targeting fishermen providing transport services.

“We are going to sell the new boats to fishermen at affordable prices through Saccos,’’ said Otieno.

He said KSL plans to embark on mass production of artisanal and commercial fibre boats. For many years, travelling from Usenge mainland to Mageta Island in Bondo sub-county was not an easy affair.

Locals and traders relied on open wooden canoes with petrol-powered motors to access the islands. These vessels travelled only when they were full and were slow; fresh agricultural produce was vulnerable to spoilage.

However, with the new boats, islanders and people from the mainland can conduct trade in a single day without delays. 

Maurice Odhiambo, a commuter on Lake Victoria, said motorbikes and heavy equipment can now be transported to and from the island. “This is something that was not possible before the introduction of the new vessels,” said Odhiambo.

Lake Express 1 docked along the shores of Lake Victoria in Mbita. [James Omoro, Standard]

Odhiambo, who has been plying the route for more than 20 years, stressed that the vessels have enabled people to access mainland healthcare and other services on time.

Those interviewed by Shipping and Logistics said the lakeside economy is getting a big boost from the new vessels.

For more than five years now, at least four vessels run by private companies have ferried passengers and hauled cargo.

Piers that had previously been neglected have undergone a revamp by the government and are now hosting the vessels.

Mageta-Usenge is the latest route to get a major boost after a private investor - Waterbus Services - resumed its operations in the area.

For more than two years after the first vessel that plied the route capsised, residents had difficulty in using motorboat engines to transport bulk goods from the mainland to the islands due to increased boat accidents.

Another trader, Christine Achieng, said many traders have lost their investments due to accidents resulting from overloading.

Last month, residents of Asembo Bay in Rarieda Sub-county were in a celebratory mood after a new vessel, MV Captain David joined the Asembo Bay to Homa Bay route, through Kunya, Mainuga, and HomaLine.

According to residents, the vessel is a major boost after the Asembo Bay pier collapsed several years ago.

Unlike small boats, the vessel is equipped with safety gear including life jackets and is faster with a capacity to carry more than 80 passengers.

MV Chamaunga. [James Omoro, Standard]

Speaking during the launch of the vessel, Siaya Governor James Orengo and Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo said the revival of the route will help spur the economic growth of the area.

Benard Wanjala, a trader at Magenta Island, said he used to pay Sh200 when using a boat but now he pays Sh180 for the water bus which is convenient and safer.

Learners and civil servants commuting to and from the islands also find the vessels better since they help them get to school and work early and safely.

At Luanda Kotieno Beach, travellers using the vessels explained that they help in cutting costs on road travel through Homa Bay County.

Orengo said his administration is keen on building the blue economy through partnerships with private investors. “The introduction of larger vessels in the lake has improved safety. Several accidents involving small boats have been reported in the past,” said Orengo.

On November 18, 2020, ten people died after a boat capsized near Honge Beach in Bondo sub-county. The 10 were Ugandan traders who were on their way to Honge Beach in Lake Victoria.

KSL head of civil works Simbi Omitto said the prices will be low if they embark on mass production of the boats, targeting fishermen in Migori, Homabay, Kisumu, and Siaya.

He noted that the wooden boats not only negatively impact forests, but are unsafe and ineffective in fish catching.

“The new boats are fitted with cooler boxes, flares, bond liners and GPS gadgets,’’ said Otieno.