In February, the Kenyan and Ugandan governments launched a border crossing in Busia, revamped at the cost of Sh1.3 billion.
This was meant to ease the movement of people and goods across the border by eliminating the double queues.
But there is an area called no-man’s land, a buffer zone measuring about 70 metres which ideally belongs to neither Uganda nor Kenya.
Ideally, it is supposed to be an open land, allowing authorities from both sides to assess threats or manage movement, especially of big trucks.
It turns out rules don’t apply here. Traders have descended on the land, taking advantage of the ‘’free, lawless land’’ by opening temporary eateries, drinking joints and nyama choma zones.
In this wet season, the spirit of traders here never gets dampened, perhaps aware that they can make money even as it rains.
Cereals dealers, charcoal traders, and fruit vendors selling pineapples, oranges and watermelons are doing brisk business.
The place has turned into one of the most sought-after open-air markets owing to its location near the country’s main entry point.
The buffer zone is surrounded by Uganda’s Sofia slums on the western side and Busia Town’s central business district on the eastern side. Top County Hotel, Itoya overlooks the strip.
Eliza Wesonga, a fruit vendor, is among the more than 500 traders who have turned the strip into a business zone.
Ms Wesonga, a Kenyan who lives in Burumba estate, like many locals in border towns, switches languages like a songbird.
She has mastered the native Luganda widely spoken in Uganda. She switches between English, Swahili, Luganda, and Samia (another common native Luhya dialect at the border) with ease, thus enabling her to interact with of clients from both sides of the border.
She told the Nation that she has been operating at the market for the last three years selling oranges, banana, and mangoes among other fruits.
Traders also merchandise charcoal, a booming business occupying at least 80 per cent of the available land in the buffer zone.
But who taxes these people, or where do they pay their levies?
Despite belonging to neither Kenya nor Uganda, Ms Wesonga revealed that unscrupulous individuals have been collecting and charging them fees to allow them operate at the zone.
“We always pay market fees to ‘municipal council’ officers. On market days –Mondays and Thursdays – we are charged Sh40 and Sh20 on the other days. Those who have tried to protest the move have lost all their stock to the officers,” said Mrs Wesonga, a mother of three.
Ironically, one can pay in either Kenyan or Uganda shillings.
Her sentiments were shared by another trader, Grace Auma, who sells maize which she imports from a cereal market Uganda, about seven kilometres away.
“We are charged Sh64 per bag. They usually have a truck ready if you fail to remit the cash. We have families to take care of and thus we have no other option but to abide since this market is a thriving one,” she adds.
While the small scale traders have to come to terms with the exorbitant charges, their charcoal counterparts bear the brunt of illegal fees levied by unscrupulous individuals who have taken full advantage of no man’s land.
Charcoal business is a lucrative venture here with truckloads being brought in from the Uganda side. In Kenya, authorities recently banned logging, which has seen the price of charcoal rise sharply.
The government’s three-month ban on tree logging has increasingly led to a booming business as the fuel mostly used by low income households continue to get scarce across the country.
First, as Peter Omondi revealed, they are charged Sh1,000 as renting fee for spaces available to stock charcoal.
“No man’s land is free but there are cartels who have cropped up claiming they are in charge and we must pay for space to be allowed to store charcoal awaiting transportation. Once you have placed your order they pop up and demand for money. We can’t fight back because most of our stock comes from Uganda.
“We pay for space and the number days a trader’s consignment will be ‘stored’ until it is loaded for transit to Kenya. We also pay additional fees for security services and Sh20 per bag to the loaders. This place is always money, money and more money,” Mr Omondi said.
Apart from the fees the traders have to up with, other challenges include poor waste management and lack of toilets.
Ms Wesonga said most of her colleagues close business as early as 5:30pm due to security challenges that come with nightfall.
“Our colleagues have been raped while crossing this zone late in the evening. No one wants to fall victim [and that is] the reason why we retreat to our homes early.”
A few months ago, a Ugandan police officer was shot in the leg by thugs who were on the run. They took his AK-47 gun which was later found dumped in a nearby thicket.
Churches have also cropped up at the no man’s land. A Pentecostal church runs its Wednesday and Sunday prayers at the strip.
This lawlessness in the buffer zone has prompted Busia County Commissioner Michael ole Tialal to warn all those who have erected permanent structures there.
He wants the Ugandan nationals occupying Kenya’s no man’s land moved out immediately.
He said the Ugandans had defied an evacuation order after illegally occupying the no man’s land in Uganda and Kenya.
“It is unfortunate that Ugandans have created markets in Kenya’s no-man’s land where they have put up structures. They use the same for human trafficking and illegal cross-border trade. Kenyans moved out of the security buffer zone and no man’s lands after the affected families were compensated,” he said.
Human traffickers have also been forging entry stamps to secure passage of illegal immigrants along the porous border.
He added that his office is in talks with Busia Uganda Resident District Commissioner Hussein Matanda to address the issue amicably.