Back in the 1980s and 1990s, maritime transport was vibrant on Lake Victoria.
Boats, ships, barges, ferries, towboats... bore down in full trim, their axial thrusts propelling them defiantly through the warm waters of the lake all the way to the many islands that dot the lake.
The lakeside economy prospered. Then at the turn of the millennium, maritime transport on Lake Victoria collapsed. The wind was out of the sails.
The lakeside economy struggled. But now, if initiatives that have been mooted by private investors as well as the national and county governments are anything to go by, maritime transport on the lake could be getting a boost.
More vessels run by private companies are joining several routes to ferry passengers and haul cargo.
Small ports that had previously been neglected have undergone a revamp by the government and are now hosting the vessels.
The ports had ‘decayed’ after many years of neglected. Lake transport companies that spoke to Shipping and Logistics said they are banking on their vessels’ safety, convenience, low costs and efficiency in transporting bulk cargo to lure traders from road transport.
On Sunday, residents of Sori Beach in Migori were in a celebratory mood after a new vessel, MV Sigulu, joined the Homa Bay-Sori route.
They almost caused a stampede as they struggled to catch a glimpse of the vessel. It was the first time they had seen such a vessel in more than 25 years.
According to residents, the return of huge vessels is a major boost after several years of relying on small canoes for transport.
Unlike small boats, the vessel is equipped with safety gear including life jackets.
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Seline Adhiambo, from Kiwa Island in Homa Bay County, said getting a safe boat is difficult.
“This new vessel has made work easy,” Ms Adhiambo stressed.
Eunice Achieng’, a trader at Remba Island, said she used to pay Sh400 when using a boat but now she pays Sh500 for the water bus which is convenient and safer.
Learners also find the vessel better as it helps them get to school early and safe.
Travellers using the vessels explained that they help in cutting costs on road travel to Kisumu and Homa Bay counties.
A five-minute ride inside the vessel is a breathtaking experience.
Lucas Mosenda, Migori’s executive for Blue Economy said the county is keen on building the blue economy. “The safety of our people is key. This is an extremely safe vessel compared to smaller boats,” said Mosenda.
Authorities believe the introduction of larger vessels in the lake has improved safety. Several accidents involving small boats have been reported in the past.
For instance, between January and September last year, 14 accidents involving the boats were recorded in Migori County alone.
This year, about 10 people were reported to have drowned in Lake Victoria after their boats capsized.
According to the National Lake Rescue Institute, the death rate on Africa’s largest freshwater lake is estimated to be around 5,000 annually.
It is upon this background that players have now embarked on a journey to reintroduce larger and safer vessels.
Buoyed by the move by the government to dredge parts of the shallow Winam Gulf, transport vessels in the region have now embraced more routes.
At the Kisumu Port, the government is fast-tracking construction of the Sh2.4 billion MV Uhuru II ship at the Kisumu Shipyard. The vessel is expected to set sail by August.
Counties in the region have also have partnered with a private firm - Water Bus Company to provide transport services. The company has been undertaking trials on different routes.
Henry Bor, the operations officer, said the water bus has been doing trials on the Sori-Remba route.
“The company is working towards ensuring that they have vessels in those routes,” Bor said.
The water bus is scheduled to operate on Sundays to and from Remba to Sori.
Bor said that Sunday, which is a market day at Sori town, was selected as it presents a better opportunity for traders to transport their goods from their areas to other places on Remba Island.
“We want to expand maritime transport and aquaculture. Residents have welcomed that,” he saidd.
Apart from the Kenyan ships, Uganda is also hoping to tap into the region’s promising maritime transport trade.
In September last year, a Ugandan-flagged 2000-tonne ship was introduced into the Kisumu route to battle for a share of the promising trade.