Ugandans take over cross border trade as truck drivers face delays

Trucks drivers at Kocholia in Malaba border wait to be cleared to cross to other countries on September 21, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

A seemingly endless train of articulated trucks signal approach to Malaba town on the Kenya-Uganda border.

On a good day, the trucks stretch for about 20 kilometres from the Malaba customs barrier.

When it is particularly busy, the trucks sometimes treble that distance, as their drivers patiently await their turn at the customs offices to get clearance to proceed to Uganda, Sudan and Rwanda.

For truck drivers, patience is a virtue without which the odds stacked against them would crush their spirits.

Truck driver David Barasa gives us a glimpse into the lives of drivers in the Covid-19 period.

We met him at Kocholya market in Busia County as he whiled away the hours in the high cabin of his truck.

The sweltering sun had forced him to look for a shed, and the cabin was the only one available.

“The distance from here to Malaba is only 11 kilometres. But it will take me two days to cover it if I am lucky. The delay is sometimes caused by operational hiccups at the customs point. On other occasions, we are told it is a network problem since their system is digitised.”

A freight clearing agent, who requested anonymity, said the major cause of delays at the customs clearing point was the lack of parking space leading to gridlock as inbound and outbound trucks run into each other.

Kenya Revenue Authority staff at Malaba were reluctant to give information, stating they needed approval from headquarters to speak to the press.

Nonetheless, it was evident that work flowed without hitches as drivers could be seen walking into and out of offices to get their documents stamped for clearance.

The major cause of delays at the customs clearing point is the lack of parking space. [File, Standard]

“Since Covid-19, our tribulations start the moment we leave Mombasa. We must take Covid-19 tests at Miritini,” said David Mugerwa, a driver.

“The second Covid-19 testing centre is at Mai Mahiu, and that is where delays in conducting the tests compound our miseries. If you get to Mai Mahiu on a Saturday or late Friday, you are most likely to be detained there until Monday because testing kits are always in short supply and the medical staff do not work over the weekend. Trucks are always on the road, and we do not understand why testing cannot be a continuous process.”

According to Mugerwa, it is these unnecessary delays that take a toll on them, especially because they are not issued with enough cash to cover such contingencies.

Long-distance trucks are a critical linkage in facilitating trade within the East African Community trade area.

There is greater dependence on them to transport goods from the port of Mombasa to landlocked countries Uganda, Sudan and Rwanda.

At least 82 per cent of Uganda’s cargo goes through the port of Mombasa and is transported by road. Last year, there were plans to transport all cargo destined to Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan by rail to Naivasha where trucks would pick it up. However, the plan ran into headwinds and appears to have been shelved.

Besides being a regional trade linkage, the presence of trucks in any town along the Mombasa-Malaba Highway is a major boost for small scale businesses.

Hawkers often engage the drivers in banter and make a living selling their wares to them. The wares include bottled water, sugar cane, fruits, Maasai simis, car reflectors, ready-made food and spanners. Roadside inns along routes plied by trucks hardly run short of customers.

At Malaba and Busia borders, there is evidence of booming informal cross border trade (ICBT). This involves smuggling or unregulated trade that does not operate strictly within set rules.

After Covid-19, stringent containment measures made it hard to cross over to Uganda. [File, Standard]

A majority of those actively engaged in this business are women. The railway crossing at the Malaba is unguarded and offers a chance to people to smuggle merchandise to and from Kenya. River Malaba that separates Kenya and Uganda at Malaba does not deter those who wish to bring into Kenya goods by evading the attention of customs officers. Some people easily ferry contraband across at a fee.

“You will be surprised with the number of Ugandans who do business here,” Betty Buluma told The Standard team. “In terms of commodity prices, there isn’t much difference between Uganda and Kenya. There is no need of crossing over to look for anything in Uganda.”

The trader said after Covid-19, stringent containment measures made it hard to cross over to Uganda, adding they get what they need from the Ugandans, who are happy to similarly earn the more valuable Kenya shilling.

Even as Buluma was narrating this, young women carrying loads of bananas, pineapples, oranges, groundnuts and beans from Uganda kept on coming in.

“One banana costs five Kenya shillings in Uganda. The price doubles the moment it crosses into Kenya. Ugandans have taken advantage of this to engage in that business and are slowly edging out Kenyans. And at the end of the day, Uganda benefits as a country. Depending on the exchange rate, a single Kenyan shilling fetches a minimum of 25 Uganda shillings.”

To determine the extent of the takeover of the business by Ugandans, we move from one vendor to another and are surprised to find that a majority of them are indeed Ugandans. They are articulate in Kiswahili, but their accent is markedly different from ours.

The Ugandans seem to have taken advantage of Comesa’s Customs Union and Common Market protocols that came into effect in 2004 and 2010 respectively.

“In the evenings, you will always find Ugandans selling chapatis, cooked beans and deep-fried cassava. They carry their beddings along and spend days and nights here,” Buluma said.

“ICBT has largely empowered women economically. Many are enjoying a level of financial freedom, and this has gone a long way towards alleviating high levels of poverty,” said Ms Selina Nyapela Indoshi, a Kenyan married to a Ugandan.

However, some alluded to sexual harassment by the police and customs officers to be allowed to bring in or take goods out of Kenya.