MOMBASA PORT: A frantic game of catch-up with rivals
By Barney Jopson
Published: June 13 2007 10:41 | Last updated: June 13 2007 10:41
Lined up forlornly in one corner of Mombasa’s sprawling port are four French-built cranes: 25 years old, their blue paint faded, they are exiles from another era.
Today the limbs of Kenya’s pivotal seaport are Chinese. Grabbers attached to four cranes from Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery pluck containers from ships docked in a channel that leads to the Indian Ocean.
Two more of the 60 metre devices are on their way, each one a $7m statement of Mombasa’s intent to haul itself back into the premier league of international ports.
Yet its users, beleaguered by persistent delays and congestion, will testify that hardware alone is not enough.
Known to tourists as the gateway to Kenya’s most popular beach resorts, Mombasa has been a trading centre since at least the 12th century. Today it remains Kenya’s lifeline to the world for everything from exported tea and coffee to imported steel, sugar and paper.
In the early 1990s, however, the government-owned port lost its way. True to the economic turpitude of Daniel arap Moi’s regime, its costs rose, productivity tumbled and Mombasa – in spirit, structure and status – began to crumble. Cutting-edge hub ports such as Jeddah in Saudi Arabia started to race ahead in terms of management sophistication, use of technology, and efficiency.
At the same time, Mombasa’s ambitious smaller rivals to the south – Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Maputo in Mozambique – began to breathe down its neck. Stirred from its torpor in the late 1990s, Mombasa embarked on a series of investments – in cranes, forklifts, terminal tractors, a control tower, and process automation – and so began a frantic game of catch-up that continues today.
Activity on the docks, where stacks of containers make workers look like ants in Legoland, is a useful indicator of economic activity in the port’s hinterland. As Kenyan economic growth has accelerated from a near-standing start five years ago to 6.1 per cent in 2006, so through put at the port has risen. Since 2002, when Mombasa processed the equivalent of 305,427 twenty foot containers (the standard unit of measurement), throughput rose by 57 per cent to 479,355 in 2006, notwithstanding the absence of growth the previous year.
More than just a barometer, the port is a crucial component of the economic system in its own right. If things go wrong, or it is unable to cope with demand, the port itself can act as an economic depressant.
Nicholas Komen, a public relations official from the government-run Kenya Ports Authority, acknowledges its make-or-break role. “If we increase capacity in the time required, the port won’t limit growth, it will encourage it,” he says.
It will not just be Kenya. Mombasa is vital to a number of neighbours, most notably land-locked Uganda, which accounted for 72 per cent of all transit traffic last year.
Transit cargo makes up just 27 per cent of the total, but that proportion is likely to rise if the port keeps pace with the regional economic growth, which has taken off as politics stabilises in Kenya’s more strife-prone neighbours.
Plans for an extra berth, and eventually a whole new terminal, are on the drawing board, and the KPA is looking forward to draining a main channel to attract even bigger ships.
Cargo logjams continue – depriving east African industry of raw materials and delaying its exports – but the authority’s officials have chosen to place the blame elsewhere.
Mr Mwaruwa complained in a staff newsletter in March that importers were using the port as a storage area. The transport links from Mombasa to Nairobi and beyond are a long-running source of despair: the road is dilapidated and too dangerous to drive at night, while the train moves at a crawl and is running short of wagons. Others, however, say the port authorities can do more to address problems on its own patch, starting with corruption. KPA buildings in Mombasa are plastered with posters urging employees to resist graft. One cartoon shows a man in a T-shirt labelled with “food” and “roads” being dragged under water by a mean-looking fish called corruption.
But it is still rampant. Frederick Wahutu of the Kenya Ships Agents Association, says: “I’m glad they’re creating awareness. But the rot has been there for a long time and it takes a long time to remove.”
If, for example, a container is stuck at the bottom of a stack of five, he says a “facilitating payment” to a box-shifter is often the only way to get it out quickly. “So I know it’s wrong,” Capt Wahutu says, “but if I don’t do that I wait and wait and wait.”
Another irritant is paper work and bureaucracy. It stems partly from the fact that there are multiple organisations on the quayside – the KPA (affiliated to the transport ministry), the Kenya Revenue Authority (affiliated to the finance ministry), the Kenya Bureau of Standards, and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services – but there is no top dog.
“There are so many stoppages that by the time a shipment can move it’s been 10 days.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Capt Wahutu. “Why can’t the KPA take control and say: ‘You guys, you are lowering performance’?
To some, the biggest barrier to progress at all east African ports, Mombasa included, has been politics: both in-fighting among ministries and jostling between competing industry groups.
Richard Bridges, a transport consultant at Portman Associates who advised Mombasa on container shipping in the 1980s, says: “When you look around the world, where you see port concessions have come in, there has been a significant improvement in performance.”
Yet Mombasa remains firmly in state hands. “For some reason they’re not convinced,” says Mr Bridges. Cranes from overseas, it seems, are one thing. Managers are a different matter.