After State failure to run ferries, firms takeover lake transport

One of the water buses operating in Lake Victoria. [James Omoro, Standard]

One of the most dangerous routes on Lake Victoria is a 22-kilometre stretch between Mfangano Island and Mbita town in Homa Bay County.

Here, passengers make a short prayer to the gods of their ancestors before boarding a boat; unsure of how the short voyage will turn out.

A number of people have lost their lives while travelling to Mbita. In 2010, 15 people drowned after a rickety boat they were travelling in from Sena trading centre in Mfangano Island to Mbita capsized.

According to Mfangano West Location Chief Kennedy Odari, those were perilous times. “There were strong currents and storms which would tumble the boats. The boats were open and people had no cover at all when it rained and storms upset them,” Mr Odari said.

“We were never sure of reaching our destination whenever we were travelling to the mainland."

It was during those chancy times that the government announced plans to introduce ferries on Lake Victoria.

But 12 years down the line, public ferries are yet to grace the lake. In 2020, Homa Bay County Woman Rep Gladys Wanga petitioned the government to allocate funds for purchasing ferries in the 2021-22 financial year.

Ms Wanga argued that this was the only way to phase out the old, rickety private boats that cause accidents, and introduce safe transport.

Nothing came out of her petition. Now, private companies have moved in to fill the vacuum. Mbita Ferry Services Ltd was the first private company to introduce ferries in 2012. The vessels operate between Mfangano Island and Lwanda Kotieno in Siaya County.

It was followed by Globology Ltd in 2014, which introduced a water bus; it ran between Mbita and Mfangano.

The company introduced a second bus two years later, which runs between Mbita and Lwanda Kotieno.

The private vessels have been welcomed by residents and have completely revolutionised lake transport; ensuring safety and comfort.

"While using the old boats, we would cover our heads with polythene bags to shield from the rain. The new vessels can provide cover. We hardly hear of accidents,” Odari said.

Last year in December, Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) suspended the operations of the two ferries owned by Mbita Ferry Services Ltd, leaving only the water buses in operation. 

Annie Wanjiru, Business Development Manager Globology Ltd, said the two water buses in Mbita carry 132 passengers.

"Our vessels are purely meant for passengers,” Ms Wanjiru said. “The only problem is there are people who place fishing nets on our routes. The nets interfere with the vessels’ gear box.”

James Adika, a resident of Mfangano, said wooden boats can hardly resist waves. “Water buses can stand bad weather and waves,” he said.

Some of the vessels operated by Mbita ferry services. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Locals are however calling for the suspension of ferries to be lifted. Joseph Onyango, a resident of Siaya who works in Homa Bay, said ferries are crucial for transportation of both passengers and cargo.

Mr Onyango said his plan to purchase building materials from Mbita cannot take off, due to the ferry suspension.

“I believe KMA and the ferry company can reach an agreement concerning the issue of ferry safety. We need to transport heavy cargo from the mainland,” said Onyango.

Mfangano Island MCA Okwach Oranga said the inability to transport graders and other construction machines has impeded development in the island.

“There is no road that can be constructed in Mfangano Island without the machines,” said Oranga.  

Some guests who visited the island during Christmas with their vehicles are still stranded due to lack of ferries.

Homa Bay Executive for Transport Akoko Nyaoko said the county government is mooting plans to lure more investors to buy water buses and ferries.

“We always support investors who put their resources in Lake Victoria; the vessels help our people,” said Mr Nyaoke.

“Apart from reducing accidents, the vessels have also led to the growth of the islands.” Despite the introduction of the new vessels, some passengers still use unsafe boats.

“We have some people who cannot afford the water bus charges; they still go for the old boats,” said Hesborn Ouma, a resident in Mbita.  

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