Its small size notwithstanding, Malaba town is a hive of activity. The town is busy throughout the 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 made narrow by trailers waiting for clearance at the customs office, a stone’s throw away from the no man’s land at the Kenya-Uganda border. Malaba is a controlled entry and exit customs point.
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Heavy human and vehicular traffic means 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, Rwandans, Sudanese and Somalis. Everybody seems to get a piece of the cake,” said Mr Obed Okering, who lives there.
Malaba has a wide array of goods on display in makeshift stalls along the road and in shop windows.
“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 suffered when truckers recently went on strike to protest unrealistic demands by Uganda regarding the validity of Covid-19 vaccination certificates.
Malaba 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 in Kenya and Malaba in Uganda is the Malaba River, which meanders along the common border and through the no man’s 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 sales rose exponentially,” James Wafula said.
The Standard Team had to get into Uganda to verify this claim. To do so, we enlisted the help of a resident to take us there in case we were stopped by Ugandan police.
When the team got there at 3pm, Winkers, a sports bar already had a fair number of patrons enjoying their beer in the dim interior. 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.”
At the Winkers bar one the Kenyan side, sales have dropped because customers 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,” Mr Kimathi said.
Mr John Mugerwa, a resident, explained it thus; “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?”
There are a variety of beer brands in Uganda, including the cheaper, but strong local brew known as Uganda Waragi.
“Beer costs between Sh70 and Sh100 in Uganda while in Kenya, popular brands go for Sh200 or more,” said Mr Kimathi.
“Since the business started picking up, we increased the price of beer to between Sh100 and Sh120 but we still cannot satisfy demand.”
This price difference has benefitted Uganda in terms of foreign exchange earnings.
Hotel businesses in Uganda also benefits because most drinkers enjoy ugali with roast goat meat and later booking themselves 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 development that eclipses the Kenyan side.
A major source of income for many at the border town is informal cross-border trade which, simply put, means smuggling or unregulated trade. The cereals business seems to be doing well at Malaba, with the grains brought in through illegal routes.
Ms 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 a load 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 for Sh10 in Kenya,” one of the traders said.
The goings on raise the question of whether Ugandans are smarter than Kenyans in terms of grabbing available opportunities to do business at the border.