They are masters of the terrain. From the unofficial panya routes on the Kenyan border with Tanzania, to the inlets of channels at Indian Ocean, local smugglers have mastered all the tricks in the book to sustain their trade.
Everything from clothing, drinks to household goods are ferried back and forth along clandestine routes, both on land and sea.
Crossing into Tanzania is easy. At the one-stop border post in Lunga Lunga, Kwale County, the Nation crossed without documentation and returned through the same route.
Most people walked across the border without being questioned by security or immigration officers.
Across the border in Horohoro town, is a smugglers’ paradise.
The buzz of activity — matatus picking passengers to Tanga, packed trucks and open-air markets selling everything — belies the secret that the town owes its growth and economy to smuggling of goods into the Kenyan market.
As part of the investigation, Nation reporters posed as traders who wanted to ferry goods across to test how easy it is to dodge border checks.
At a restaurant, where the reporters picked a conversation with a chatty owner, the owner said: “Just bring the goods here and we will store them. Later at night, we will move them for you at a small fee of up to Sh2,000. But we have to see the goods before we negotiate.”
He was ready to carry the goods on a motorbike or bicycle depending on the quantity.
“If the goods are many, I will just mobilise people and we will pretend like we are moving houses and carry everything in one trip. We know some of the unmanned routes where there are no police officers,” he said.
Welcome to Kwale’s smuggling haven!
Here, deals are cut, and with the right network, household goods headed for retail stores in most parts of the Coast region, have a through pass, enriching a long network along the way.
This is as the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) officials chase shadows. The porous transit points are aided by clueless and lax police officers
Once across, the goods are dropped at Jua Kali Town, which is a few metres away from the border point on the Kenyan side. When asked if it was not too risky to have the goods dropped “under the Kenyan official’s watch,” the trader said: “Kenyans have no problem. They will only care if it is sugar.”
Interviews with dozens of smugglers revealed what makes smuggling thrive at border towns. They said officials are often either on the take themselves or turn a blind eye.
The state of the border allows citizens of the neighbour states to cross with ease, thus derailing efforts to tame the vice.
“When you find a local, the better for you. The goods come here and we store them at the hotel. They stay there until we are able to transport them at night. Flour, washing soap, rice and everything. People carry them on a daily basis,” said a smuggler who went by the name Ali.
A huge per cent of the town’s wealth and people’s livelihoods comes from the illegal trade
“Most people in this town depend on smuggling. I’ve taken a lot of things across every evening. Were it not for that, we would be jobless. We know how to do it because it’s something we’ve done for years,” Ali said.
Enterprising locals sell contraband in bulk and arrange the logistics, procure guides, assist with bribing officials where needed and organising storage.
An encounter between our ‘trader’ and a kingpin in charge of a large-scale smuggling operation inside his shop in the town was uncomplicated. He would pass for an ordinary shopkeeper.
A source said police officers know about the whole racket, but they would only halt the smuggling if they are not well paid for the deal. Often, they supervise the illegal trade and ensure safe delivery of sugar to its destination.
We were given room to negotiate the transport price which ranged between Sh1, 000 to Sh, 1,500 for the goods to be ferried on boda bodas.
“It depends with the time of day. If they are too bulky for the boda boda we will pack them in a smaller car that way it is hard to be detected,” said the smuggler.
Goods in bulk are sometimes ferried using his small trucks by night through the porous border.
“We sell at a wholesale price. I ferry everything across the border duty free. If anything gets lost on the way you come and ask the owner of the shop. The owner of the shop is the one who looks for the one to ferry the goods. We have more than four people who can transport the goods for us. You will just pay for the boda boda and wait for your goods at Jua Cali town or Lunga Lunga,” he said.
“Those goods include items like cloths and foods. The boda boda operators use the panya routes to sneak those goods,” said a police officer operating at the border.
Already, the Kenya Bureau of Standard (Kebs) have flagged the use of these motorcyles as official said the motorcycles are used to ferry in goods through the Coast region border points.
He said the larger coast line has become porous to the importation of both substandard and counterfeit products.
“From Mombasa to Lamu we have the problem of importation of goods through illegal routes at our border points. There are gaps in Lunga Lunga and Namanga borders where people pass through with the boda boda bringing in goods which are not up to standard,” said the official in an interview at his office in Mombasa.
Some of the goods have been reported to be fakes, according to Anti-Counterfeit Authority (ACA).
A source who is familiar with the operation said several wholesale shops in Ukunda, Msambweni and Mombasa sell the products smuggled in.
The cargo is mostly unloaded, sorted then repackaged, some to be transported further to Mombasa and the rest retained to be sold in the town.
“The goods get to a village in Ukunda in containers. They are repackaged and the sacks burnt. Some businessmen have been doing this for years, “said the source who did not want to be named.
The trade isn’t just thriving on the illegal routes. At the Indian Ocean shores smugglers are also using boats to bring contraband from Pemba in Tanzania. Some of the channels/creeks where cartels hide smuggled sugar in Shirazi landing site in Msambweni before it is loaded into lorries include Mwanapongwe, Wandoni, Munje, and Mliani.
The vessels used to smuggle sugar from Pemba would each be loaded with at least 1,800 50kgs bags.
The vessels would dock at Shirazi landing site during high tides and offloading was done at night by hired youths from 9pm to 4am depending on the workload.
It is almost one year now that the smuggling goods mainly sugar at Shirazi and Bodo landing sites ceased after government crackdown on contraband goods was effected.
Youth from neighbouring villages have been starved of their earnings from the venture.
Two suspects a lady and a gentleman engaging in illegal importation of contraband goods at the two fish landing sites of Shirazi and Bodo were arrested last year in Msambweni.
During the raid a consignment of at 400 bags of sugar loaded in two lorries were impounded at Shirazi.
"We have sealed the notorious unmanned entry points of Shirazi and Bodo fish landing sites in Msambweni" said the officer who is not authorised to speak to media.
The officer said the most frequently smuggled goods include sugar and rice mostly coming from Pemba.
The cartels dealing in the illegal business usually have a sample of goods imported through the right channel in the entry points.
The officer noted that the cartels usually do so to cover up their dirty game and to stay afloat in their business without much interferences from the government.
"Shimoni is now secure because have a multi-agency security team operating there but our focus is in Kibuyuni to the shoreline of Vanga," said the officer