Transport services on Lake Victoria islands have been disrupted after two remaining ferries were grounded over safety concerns.
The ferries - the MVs Mbita I and Mbita II - which have been operating on the lake for the past 10 years, were removed from service two weeks ago, triggering a transport crisis.
The vessels are owned by Mbita Ferry Services. The Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) has asked the operator to improve safety on the vessels before they are allowed to return to the waters.
The company operates a fleet of five vessels to and from the islands of Mfangano, Takawiri, Remba, Kiwa, Ngodhe and Kibuogi. The other three vessels – the MVs Lake Express I, II and III - are undergoing maintenance and are out of service.
That means all five vessels have now been grounded.
The islands on the Homa Bay side of Lake Victoria have an estimated population of about 30,000.
In a letter, KMA director of maritime safety Jeremiah Ojowi instructed Mbita Ferry Services not to operate the two vessels from December 21.
“The ships have therefore been detained and (are) not allowed to sail from Mbita Shipway from December 21 until the deficiencies found are rectified and the notification to the effect given,” the letter said.
Until then, KMA directed, only maintenance work will be allowed on the vessels.
Mbita Ferry Services managers said the shortcomings cited by KMA did not warrant the suspension of services.
Manager Shadrack Kipchumba said some of the issues raised could be corrected as ferry services continue.
KMA wants the company to fix the watertight door rubber seal that prevents water from seeping into the vessel in the event of an accident.
“The rubbers are wearing out but still in fairly good condition. The issues can be rectified as we continue with our operations,” Mr Kipchumba said.
KMA also wants the company to hire a captain with a master’s degree.
Mr Kipchumba said the operator charges Sh150 per individual to cross Lake Victoria.
He said the money the company earns is not enough to pay the salary of a captain with a master’s degree.
Get back to business
“The business community and passengers are already feeling the pinch of the suspension.
KMA should be lenient and allow us to operate,” Mr Kipchumba said.
Mbita Ferry Services chief engineer Eliazar Otieno said some of the issues KMA cited were being fixed and he hoped services would resume in two weeks.
“We have bought new life jackets, updated our navigation system and automated the winch to lift the ramp. We are doing final touches on the vessels before we get back to business,” he said.
The suspension of ferry services has hurt passenger and cargo transport. Some of the basic products ferried on the vessels are milk, bread and fuel.
The ferries are popular with people travelling to or from the neighbouring counties of Homa Bay, Kisumu and Siaya.
Mbita Ferry Services has sent on leave 45 of its employees.
Residents of the islands now use rickety boats to cross the lake, putting themselves at the risk of accidents due to overloading of goods and passengers.
Water buses also offer transport services across the lake and are safer compared to the boats.
But the vessels are designed to carry passengers only and have strict timelines, and passengers are often left stranded on the beaches.
Operators of “choppers”, small carbon-fibre boats, have taken advantage of the crisis to make quick profits.
For instance, ferries usually charge Sh150 from Mbita to Lwanda Kotieno and Sh300 from Mbita to Mfangano and nearby islands.
After ferry services were suspended, the charges have risen by more than Sh200 on the two routes, with passengers taking up to three hours to get to their destinations while the ferries usually take an hour.
Ms Dorothy Atieno, who had visited her family in Suba over Christmas, missed the water bus at 9 am on Tuesday.
Before she could travel
She had to wait another two hours for the vessel to return before she could travel to Siaya.
“The ferry and the water bus would alternate as they cruise in the lake. When one vessel is in Siaya, the other is in Homa Bay and it saves time,” she said.
Mr Kipchumba, the Mbita Ferry Services manager, said their services had helped open up the economy of Lake Victoria islands because only ferries can carry large cargo and machinery.
The company introduced the first ferry, Mbita I, nine years ago and it operates between Mbita and Mfangano through Takawiri.
The Mbita II was introduced to operate between Mbita town and Lwanda Kotieno in Siaya County a few years later.
The ferry transported construction materials to Mfangano, making the building of houses and roads easier.
“Right now, the island has a ring road whose construction was successful because we transported machines to the site. Without the vessels we operate, the islands would have been inaccessible,” Mr Kipchumba said.
Without the ferries, which transport fuel to run generators producing electricity on the islands, power supply has been disrupted, leaving residents in the dark.
The 500-tonne Mbita II can carry 20 vehicles. It takes 45 minutes from Mbita town to Lwanda Kotieno and costs Sh900 to transport a car.