Ruto's directives will shore up Mombasa Port

KPA's Inland Container Depot Nairobi (ICDN), June 26, 2019. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

President William Ruto’s raft of measures to improve port efficiency will give Mombasa an edge over its biggest competitor, Dar es Salaam, if implemented.

The measures include making the port operate 24 hours; reducing weighbridges on the Malaba–Mombasa road to two for transit cargo and farming out procurement of scanners to private firms.

Latest data suggests Dar is winning the trade route competition with Mombasa. According to the 2022 Container Port Performance Index, a global World Bank calibration that ranks ports based on their efficiency levels, Dar es Salaam showed up at position 312, with Mombasa at 326.

It gets worse for the region. The relatively smaller Horn of Africa ports of Djibouti and Berbera emerged an impressive 26th and 144th, respectively, in a global list of 348 ports whose efficiency was measured by the Bretton Woods institution.  Efficiency is defined as the “elapsed time between when a ship reaches a port to its departure from the berth, having completed the process of cargo exchange.”

Mombasa Port has several things going for it, which can turn the tide in its favour sustainably, especially on efficiency, in the trade route war that shows no sign of abating in the region, between it and Dar.

For instance, when it comes to numbers and volumes, Mombasa brings more heft to the berth, in terms of potential and current status. While Mombasa is the biggest and busiest port in East Africa and handles at least 35 million tons of cargo per year; its Tanzanian counterpart handles 14 million tons.

While Mombasa serves the bigger, Sh120 million-people Northern Corridor that comprises Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern DRC, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Northern Tanzania, Dar es Salaam has as its catchment the relatively smaller Central Corridor populated by 50 million people in Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In actual port infrastructure, there is little to choose between the two competitors. Mombasa Port users are served by 19 berths, including four container berths, two oil terminals or jetties and 12 general cargo berths.

Dar es Salaam parades 16 berths, including four container berths, two oil terminals or jetties, and 10 general cargo berths. The two ports are constrained by similar challenges that include congestion, outdated infrastructure, and competition from other ports in the region.

With the almost vanilla-like similarities, perhaps the only differentiators that Mombasa can capitalise on to better its proposition and beat Dar squarely lie in two realms – infrastructure at the port and its hinterland and efficiency of human capital. A lot is happening on the infrastructure front at the Mombasa Port. There is the construction of the Second Container Terminal. The Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Dongo Kundu, when fully operational, will provide a catchment of manufacturers - customers who will require imports to operationalise their plants and a route to foreign markets for their products.

Proposed investments in hinterland infrastructure by Kenya and Uganda will improve corridor, hence port efficiency. These include extension of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Naivasha to Malaba, through Kisumu and to Isiolo, in a plan estimated will cost over Sh2.1 trillion.

The Kenyan SGR has proved its efficacy in decongesting the port. The SGR moved some 6.2 million tons of cargo last year, but that is expected to reach 7.2 million tons in 2023. Efficiency is also a function of the skills and attitudes of the 20,000 people who work at Mombasa Port, directly and indirectly. A plan to privatise key port functions is key to a strategy that seeks to infuse private sector ethos into the management of the port and its ecosystem.

-The writer is a strategic communication specialist in logistics sector