Its small size notwithstanding, Malaba town is a hive of activity. The town is busy throughout, day and night.
Shops, bars, hotels, salons, freight company offices, petrol stations, and boarding houses line either side of the single road into the town.
The road is constricted by trailers waiting for clearance at the customs office, a stone throw away from the no-man-land at the Kenya-Uganda border. Malaba is a controlled entry and exit customs point.
Human and vehicular traffic is such that there are high chances of bumping into other pedestrians or being hit by a vehicle or motorcycle.
“You will be surprised at the number of foreigners who live and do business here. It is a mixture of Kenyans, Ugandans, Rwandese, Sudanese, and Somali’s. Everybody seems to get a piece of the cake,” said Obed Okering, a resident of the town.
Indeed, the array of goods on display in makeshift stalls along the road, in shops, and shop windows attest to Okering's observation.
“The outbreak of Covid-19 and attendant restrictions aimed at controlling its spread rocked our world and even led to hostilities between Kenya and Uganda,” a man, who identified himself only as Shaban, told The Standard.
He is among those who recently suffered when truckers went on strike to protest unrealistic demands by Uganda regarding the validity of Covid-19 vaccination certificates.
Malaba town assumes more vibrancy in the evenings when, after a tiring day in the sweltering heat, those given to the bottle choose to wet their throats.
What separates Malaba Kenya and Malaba Uganda is Malaba river that meanders along the common border and that of the no-mans-land. However, commodity prices on either side of the border differ markedly.
“When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni closed the border over Covid-19 concerns, business on the Ugandan side flagged. For Kenyan bar owners, however, it was a godsend because business picked up and their sales rose exponentially,” James Wafula said.
The Standard Team had to get into Uganda to verify the assertion. To do so, we enlisted the help of a local to take us there in case the police on the other side got overly excited. As early as 3pm, the Sports Bar Winkers in Uganda had a fair number of patrons enjoying their beer in the dim interior of the bar. In the background, loud music that discouraged conversation played ceaselessly.
“After Museveni opened up Uganda’s economy recently, we ran into a windfall,” Winkers proprietor Kenneth Kimathi said. “We had gone through a difficult period in which we barely sold five crates of beer a day. However, in the period since Museveni relaxed restrictions, our sales have jumped from five crates to 70 a day during the week, and 80 crates during weekends”.
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At the Winkers Bar in Kenya, sales have dropped by more than three quarters since drinkers prefer to go to Uganda.
“A majority of our customers between noon and midnight on any day are Kenyans. Ugandans normally turn up from midnight,” Kimathi said.
“Why spend Sh200 on a bottle of beer in a Kenyan bar when I can get the same beer at half that price barely a kilometer away?” John Mugerwa said.
There are a variety of beer brands in Uganda, including the cheaper, but fierce local brew known as Uganda Waraji.
“Beer costs between Sh70 and Sh100 in Uganda while in Kenya, popular brands go for Sh200 or more. In fact, since the business started picking, we increased the price of beer to between Sh100 and Sh120 but we still cannot meet demand,” an obviously elated Kimathi said.
High beer prices in Kenya have driven drinkers to Uganda, an occurrence that is immensely benefiting our neighbour in terms of foreign exchange earnings and boosting local trade.
Hotel business in Uganda also benefits since most drinkers love to take ugali with roast goat meat and later book themselves into rooms for the night.
In the early 1990s, the Uganda side of Malaba comprised a few dilapidated shanties and dusty shops. Today, it has undergone phenomenal infrastructural development that eclipses the Kenyan side in every aspect.
A major source of income for many at the border town is informal cross-border trade which, simply put, means smuggling or unregulated trade. Cereals business seems to be doing well at Malaba and they are brought in through illegal inlets.
Beatrice Adong, a small-scale trader at the border said: "Ugandans bring their merchandise to us, which means we don’t make a lot of profit. However, the same commodities are cheaper in Uganda but the border closure restricted our movement.”
While security officers in Kenya stuck to the letter of the law in relation to restrictions on movement, their counterparts in Uganda chose to look the other way and allowed the business to flourish.
In plain sight, young women carry loads of bananas, pineapples, beans oranges, and groundnuts from Uganda along the railway crossing into Kenya.
"I buy one banana at Sh5 in Uganda and sell it at Sh10 in Kenya,” One of the young traders said.
Are Ugandans smarter than Kenyans in terms of grabbing available opportunities to do business at the border? Is our tax regime a blessing to Uganda? Has Kenya failed to encourage its citizens to take advantage of the COMESA Customs Union and Common Market protocols that came into effect in 2004 and 2010?
In part, the objectives of the protocols include setting up cross-border and foreign investments and facilitating the free movement of goods, services, labour, and people. On many occasions, Kenyans have had brushes with law enforcement agencies and customs officials.