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Planned extension of SGR line will be a major boon for Mombasa Port

 SGR's Mombasa terminus. Mombasa attained position 326 in last year’s edition of the ranking, compared to 296 in 2021. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

According to the latest issue of the Container Port Performance Index, a global World Bank barometer that ranks ports based on their efficiency levels, the Port of Mombasa is under-performing.

Mombasa attained position 326 in last year’s edition of the ranking, compared to 296 in 2021. While the 2022 performance was poor, of special note is that the port trailed its peers in the neighbourhood, with Dar es Salaam, which has been touted as its biggest competitor, appearing on the list at position 312, an improvement from 361 which was its locus in the 2021 edition.

To the North and either emblematic of either Mombasa’s general decline or the fast improvement of some of its competitors, Kenya’s main port was also eclipsed by the much smaller ports of Djibouti and Berbera, which rounded off the region’s performance at 26 and 144, respectively.

The ranking defines efficiency as the “elapsed time between when a ship reaches a port to its departure from the berth, having completed the process of cargo exchange.” This basically translates into the efficiency of on-ground handling services, from the time the ship docks at the port to the time it leaves the berth.

In a commentary accompanying the index, the World Bank opines that port performance is a key driver of economic development. It also states that  performance of ports has improved significantly since 2020 when the marine industry received a major hit from the economic slowdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the volume of cargo handled by the Port of Mombasa fell in 2022 for the first time in five years, with players blaming it on the threat posed by an ascendant Dar es Salaam in the raging trade route competition. Cargo throughput was down to 33.74 metric tonnes against 34.92 metric tonnes in 2021. While this represents a marginal, 2.93 per cent drop year-on-year, it is the lowest level since 2018 when the Mombasa handled 30.92 metric tonnes of freight.

The poor ranking for the port comes at a time when there is an inventory of infrastructure developments – completed and planned – both at the port itself and its hinterland, which will go a long way in improving its overall efficiency. Even then, if there is one thing the ranking proves; good, modern infrastructure, while important, is not enough to underwrite port efficiency. Other factors inevitably come into play.

There’s the new Second Container Terminal, built through Japanese support. Plans by Uganda to build its leg of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Malaba to Kampala, starting August will have two net effects – improving transport efficiency in Mombasa’s hinterland and potentially the volume of goods handled by the port to and from a vast Northern Corridor that includes Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern DRC. Currently, goods destined for Uganda have to be transferred from the SGR to the old and slower Meter Gauge Railway at Naivasha, inviting more bureaucracy and delays. A seamless SGR line from Mombasa to Kampala would cure this.

Reports that Kenya plans to extend the SGR line to Kisumu, Malaba and Isiolo at a cost of Sh2.1 trillion is a potential game-changer for Mombasa. Besides improving transport efficiency in the hinterland, it will expand the port’s catchment area into parts of Ethiopia and South Sudan. This will be achieved through two feeder lines – Isiolo to Moyale on the border with Ethiopia and Isiolo to Nakodok, a border town between Kenya and South Sudan.

Besides transport in the hinterland, port efficiency must be a cooperative effort between the management of the port, private sector players and the State agencies and regulators that operate from the port – Kenya Maritime Authority, Kenya Railways Corporation, Kenya Bureau of Standards, Kenya Revenue Authority and Kenya Trade Network Agency, among others.

A deliberate effort to improve port efficiency must involve all these players.

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