Traders rue heavy losses on banned ferry services

Commuters wait for the arrival of the Mfangano-Mbita ferry in Mbita town

Commuters wait for the arrival of the Mfangano-Mbita ferry in Mbita town in 2012.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Traders on Mfangano Island are incurring heavy losses while others have been forced to shut down their businesses following the move by the government to suspend ferry services in Lake Victoria more than 12 months ago.

Mr Charles Odoyo, a dealer in petroleum products, has been forced to close shop after the Kenya Maritime Authority suspended the services of two vessels owned by Mbita Ferry Services, citing safety concerns.

The operator was accused of failing to comply with maritime laws and exposing passengers to risks. The firm was given a list of conditions to fulfil before it could be allowed to resume operations but its management complained that the repairs on the ferries were prohibitive and would push the firm out of business.

Mr Odoyo had been buying diesel and kerosene from the Kenya Pipeline Company deport in Kisumu and transporting them to Mfangano and other islands on the lake using the ferry.

The challenges in the transportation of petrol and other products to the island have pushed up the prices of fuel. A litre of petrol on the island is selling at Sh230 compared to Sh180 on the mainland. The crisis has also made the cost of transport within Mfangano Island go up, affecting livelihoods. 

Ms Phanice Wankio said boda boda operators had increased their charges, making it difficult for residents to go about their normal day-to-day activities.

“It is becoming uneconomical for most people because a journey that used to cost Sh50 is now Sh120. Moving around is turning into a luxury because of the charges,” said Ms Wankio.

Players in the hospitality industry have been hit hard. Hotels and resorts in Mfangano, Remba, Kiwa Kibuogi and Takawiri islands, which were just recovering from the negative economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are recording low bookings and some are implementing various cost-cutting measures, including laying off staff.

At Siambi Resort in Mfangano Island, bookings have been reduced by 80 per cent because of difficulties in movement from the mainland in Mbita Town to the island. Its director, Mr Martin Nyakiamo, said the hotel depends fully on the ferries, which transport goods and people from Mbita to the island.

“The easiest means of transport right now are fishing boats which are fraught with danger. Most tourists do not like using the boats because of safety concerns,” said Mr Nyakiamo.

Mr Nyakiamo said some visitors to Mfangano Island have cancelled their bookings because of a lack of a proper mode of transport.

The crisis has also affected government services. A senior officer at Kenya Power told Nation that it will be difficult to repair faulty power lines in Mfangano Island.

“We use the ferry to transport transformers and poles to the island. Right now, we have two months’ supply of fuel to run the generators for electricity supply. Thereafter the island will be in total darkness,” said the official.

Mr Kasujaa Onyonyi, a member of the Mfangano Business Forum, said the state should provide a ferry for use by residents.

Development projects

“A ferry is like a bridge. Without it, how will people who live on the island cross the lake to the mainland? We are taxpayers and deserve to benefit from government services,” he said.

Members of Parliament have petitioned the government to set aside funds to buy a ferry to ease transport on the lake. 

Homa Bay Governor Gladys Wanga said the government should provide a ferry to improve transport services.

Development projects such as the construction of junior secondary school classrooms have stalled because construction materials cannot be transported across the lake.

President William Ruto in his recent tour of Nyanza promised to rehabilitate dilapidated piers on Lake Victoria to revive water transport.

He is expected to visit Kisumu in May to officially flag off the operations of MV Uhuru, which is being assembled at the Kenya Shipyards Ltd.