Fishermen, tourism operators and other users of Lake Victoria have a reason to smile after countries in the region launched a massive operation to rid the lake of the stubborn water hyacinth.
After many years of neglect, the three East African countries sharing the lake have come together to eliminate the invasive weed.
Fishermen, in particular, have borne the brunt of the weed which has been hampering navigation at the fresh water lake.
Disinterest from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania has previously meant efforts to reclaim the lake have been isolated and half-hearted.
This is set to change after the three countries launched a major rehabilitation programme last week. It starts at the Kisumu port — which serves as a strategic gateway to Uganda and Tanzania — and involves dredging the lake and removing the weed which had choked the port over the years.
Officials from the three countries are cagey with the details of the cost and who is funding the project.
This is not the first attempt at removing the stubborn weed. The last dredging was done 29 years ago.
At the commissioning of the project last week, a 4,000-tonne dredging vessel was brought in from Uganda.
African Union High Special Representative for Infrastructure Raila Odinga expressed optimism that the initiative will provide a long-term solution to the challenges in maritime transport.
“This will improve interconnectivity as well as enable giant ships to easily dock and allow transportation of cargo and passengers to the neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda in a more cost effective manner,” he said.
The desilting process is meant to excavate a build-up of mud, sand and rock as a way of keeping the waterways and ports navigable.
Kenya Ports Authority head of Inland Waterways Javan Wanga says the pile-up of sediments has contributed to the port being shallow, with some areas having a level of between 1.5 and three metres deep.
“We are aiming to drill the lake by at least six metres deep to allow berthing of heavily loaded ships,” he said.
The project is being implemented through the partnership of Uganda’s Mangoe Tree Limited and the Lake Region Economic Bloc, whose flagship projects include exploitation of Lake Victoria’s blue economy.
Mangoe Tree administrator Frank Menard, however, says the removal of the invasive weed will start after three months as they await two hyacinth harvesting machines to be shipped from China.
In the meantime, they will recruit and train locals who will be involved in cleaning the lake. “We will need to remove the hyacinth weed before starting the dredging exercise,” Mr Menard explained.
As a way of ensuring the weed does not re-emerge, Mr Wanga said there are plans to put a barricade at Winam Gulf as a way of blocking the area from further invasion.
“We plan to contract the hyacinth harvesting machines for 10 years for proper maintenance of the weed which needs close observation for them to be fully eradicated,” he said.
The gigantic Mangoe Tree dredger has been used to clear Uganda’s Port Bell and Bukasa ports as the country embarks on opening up the landing sites in a bid to boost trade and tourism.
Ugandan Minister for Transport and Works Aggrey Henry Bagiire, who was present during the launch, noted that dredging and removal of water hyacinth will open up opportunities for all the countries sharing the lake.
He said the initiative by Uganda to continue opening up new ports will not serve its purpose if the dreaded hyacinth continues to block the Kisumu pier and other beaches.
"The locals should, however, avoid pollution of the lake as it leads to increased germination and growth of the weed,” he said.
Capt Mike Mukula — the vice chairman of Uganda's ruling National Resistance Movement, Eastern, and chairman of the Pan-African Movement — said his country will introduce four ships to transport fuel from the Kisumu jetty, which is yet to be commissioned.
“We also intend to build a 70-million-litre capacity fuel reserve to supply oil products to Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, South Kivu and North Kivu which are landlocked,” he said.
Kenya’s attempt to clear the weed comes as a Sh81 million equipment bought by the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme II continues to lie idle at the Kisumu pier due to mechanical problems.
Mr Odinga, however, said the government has ordered Italian engineers, who supplied the hyacinth harvester that stalled over three years ago, to come and renovate it.
“They promised to come this week and we hope that it will be worked on to enable us to use it as soon as possible,” he said.
The fight against the weed has cost the government billions of shillings. Researchers have provided several management options, including physical, biological, mechanical and chemical.
In the early 1990s, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute implemented a biological control programme to deal with the weed. They unleashed insects which had been found to feed on the weed.
But after releasing over 4.2 million Neochetina weevils imported from Australia, Uganda and South Africa in Lake Victoria, the beetles stopped eating the weed and instead invaded nearby farms and started destroying crops.
The control method was stopped after a year following protests from locals.
Later on, residents were left to their devices and shirtless men could be seen pulling out the weed manually.
However, this was ineffective as the weed grows at an alarming rate. In fact, with the aid of wind, it can cover the size of 20 football pitches in a matter of hours!