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Collapse of warehouse sector in Coast threatens 2,000 direct jobs

Workers take a break while off-loading fertilizer at a warehouse in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Benson Onyango, a 52-year-old labourer, pensively waits outside one of the big warehouses near the Port of Mombasa.

His wrinkled face grimly stares at the warehouse managers who enter and leave the stores, constantly hoping some godly grace would touch one of them to offer him a job.

Moments later, a gang of other weary labourers joins Mr Onyango. Unlike Onyango who had been seated outside a lone store, the other workers had been moving around other warehouses hoping to strike luck.

“It is difficult to find a job in these godowns these days. Times have changed in Mombasa, some years ago jobs were plenty,” Onyango says sullenly.

According to Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association (Kifwa), the warehousing sector is collapsing, particularly in Mombasa.

Data from Kifwa shows the warehouses have about 2,000 jobs, which are diminishing by the day.

Ten years ago, jobs were plenty. At its peak, the warehousing sector is estimated to have supported at least 100,000 people.

Kifwa National Chairman Roy Mwanthi told The Standard in an interview that there no member in the organisation’s register from Mombasa.

He blamed the current situation on a change in the mode of packaging cargo, from storing it loose in the godowns to packing in containers. Importers consider containers more secure.

“Many people these days prefer transporting their cargo in containers immediately it reaches the port. No one has time for warehouses,” Mwanthi said.

The port city is now littered with empty general and customs warehouses, and transit godowns.

The facilities are meant to handle rice, sugar, wheat, maize, tea, coffee and fertiliser.

Mechanised grain and fertiliser handling at the port, as well as ferrying bulk cargo on the Standard Gauge Railway, have also dealt a major blow to warehousing.

Mwanthi said that while warehouses remain empty in Mombasa, there has been a noticeable surge in their demand in Nairobi.

This follows a shift to direct transfer of cargo from the port to the hinterland. He also said container freight stations have introduced warehouses at the transit yards, which ate into the loose cargo storage business that would ordinarily feed independent warehouses.

Car Importers Association of Kenya Chairman Peter Otieno said the warehousing sector is on its knees mainly because of a major shift in business trends around the globe.

Mr Otieno, who once worked at one of the collapsed giant warehouses in Mombasa, said the sector used to attract thousands of workers until the introduction of mechanised handling of bulk cargo as well as increased use of containers to transport goods.

“Warehouses used to employ thousands of workers here in Mombasa but now there is no more activity in these facilities. Business has completed changed,” he said.

Mwanthi called for a review of government policies to inject life into warehouses and revive business in Mombasa.

“We are appealing to the government to come to the rescue of the people of Mombasa. Nairobi is already a big economy,” he said.

“Taking cargo directly from the port to the capital city has weakened the economy of  Mombasa.”

He said more than 50 per cent of port business has shifted to Nairobi through direct transfer of cargo.