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Inside Kenya's plan to become central player in ship building

MV Uhuru, which was launched on May 31, 2021. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Kenya is flexing its ship building muscles to compete with two of Africa’s biggest builders - South Africa and Egypt.

Barely a year after the State-owned Kenya Shipyards Ltd (KSL) started operations, the company has already received 11 orders for new vessels from different clients on the continent.

According to KSL, a number of requests to maintain and repair vessels from partners in Uganda and Tanzania have also been filed. KSL runs shipyards in Kisumu and Mombasa.

The firm is primarily domiciled within the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) with the soldiers including marine engineers running operations at the shipyards.

A visit by the Shipping and Logistics team on Tuesday at the shipyard based in Kisumu Port showed the extent the engineers have gone to reconstruct ships at the yard.

A huge infrastructural upgrade has seen new slipways built and fresh vessel building equipment installed.

Engineers from KDF were busy constructing different parts of MV Uhuru II. A few meters away, two cranes were lowering huge parts of the hull to the building dock where an outline of the ship is taking shape.

“We expect construction of the MV Uhuru II to be complete by August. The project was scheduled to take 14 months,” said KSL Deputy Managing Director Peter Muthungu.

The building of MV Uhuru II is estimated to cost Sh2.4 billion, with plans underway to fit it with the latest technology, according to KSL.

According to Mr Muthungu, the Kisumu shipyard targets the East African market and has been positioned to challenge Uganda, which is also constructing two ships at Port Bell.

He said as part of efforts to give Kenya a competitive advantage in shipbuilding and maritime engineering, KSL has adopted the strict use of the Lloyd’s Register, which allows all ships constructed in the country to sail legally on the world’s waters.

“We have received five orders from Tanzania and Uganda for new ships. Locally, we have about six orders,” said Muthungu.

On Tuesday, Government Spokesperson Cyrus Oguna revealed that the global shipbuilding firm, Damen Shipyards Ltd, has been contracted to buttress efforts of local experts at KSL.

Since the construction of MV Uhuru more than 70 years ago, no ship has been built in Kisumu. The first shipyard built in 1901 was left idle after the colonialists left in 1963, and the shipbuilding renaissance being currently witnessed started a year ago.

Col (Rtd) Oguna said the shipyard in Kisumu promises a return to maritime transport and trade, and also signals the emergence of smaller vessels and water buses that will create jobs for residents.

He said plans to construct a new passenger dock at the port have been mooted under the guidance of the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA).

KPA is eyeing the passenger dock to complete the revival of the port, while KSL will be building smaller passenger vessels that will reintroduce lake transport to smaller bays that collapsed in Nyanza in the 1990s.

Oguna further revealed that the government has started training more marine personnel at the Kisumu Marine School.