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Tanzania port project a big threat to Kenya’s economy

Saturday June 1 2013


The Chinese say that someone sleeping in a comfortable bed is rarely aroused by another person’s snoring.

For many years, Kenya has been the one in the comfortable bed, happily ignoring the loud grunts of its sleepy neighbours.

But the neighbours are beginning to rouse themselves – and Kenya can’t afford to continue resting easy.

Two weeks ago, the Chinese president arrived in Dar es Salaam and announced a number of projects his government would jointly handle with the Tanzanians.

The most eye-catching was the construction of a $11 billion port in Bagamoyo, one of the sleepiest little towns I have ever visited (Okay, I have tortured the sleep metaphor enough and will stop now).

Anyway, to put things in perspective, the new port will in effect be 33 times bigger than the one in Mombasa.


The installed capacity of the Mombasa port is 600,000 while the Bagamoyo port will have the capacity to handle 20 million containers in a year.

I have seen comments online, mainly from Kenyans, criticising the Dar port project for all manner of reasons.

More perceptive observers (and hopefully there are some in the new UhuRuto government which, to use Miguna Miguna’s favourite word, appears increasingly clueless with every passing day) will realise the threat the Tanzania port project and the growing focus on Djibouti by the likes of South Sudan and Ethiopia, poses to Kenya’s economic standing in the region.

Kenya is Africa’s biggest non-mineral economy. The country has a higher GDP than many other countries that are blessed with infinitely more natural resources such as Tanzania, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others for two main reasons.

It has a hardworking, well trained and entrepreneurial population and it has an outlet to the sea which is relied upon by many of its landlocked neighbours.
Yet the likes of Rwanda and Uganda and the Eastern DRC rely on Mombasa for want of better alternatives.

The Mombasa port is exceedingly inefficient. The World Bank’s Wolfgang Fengler who writes often about these issues points out that Mombasa handles in a year the same volume of goods as the ports in Shanghai and Singapore handle in one week.

It takes about 19 days by sea to import a container from Singapore to Mombasa (a distance of 7,500 kilometres). But to take it the couple of hundred kilometres to Kigali one needs 24 days because of all the inefficiencies on the Mombasa-Malaba corridor.

Now, the Ugandans and Rwandese are fed up. They are constructing a railway to connect their countries to Dar es Salaam following the lead of businessmen such as Geoffrey Nkusi who told The EastAfrican last week that he had dropped Mombasa for Dar because it takes him three days to take cargo from there to Kigali in contrast to the seven days it does through Kenya.

Policymakers must take this challenge seriously. In many ways, Kenya is not much different from Singapore. That country has very little arable land and almost no minerals.

But the government of Lee Kuan Yew decided to invest massively in education and in their port. Today, their population enjoys higher living standards than many in the West.

It is true that there are efforts under way to expand the capacity of the Mombasa port.

But Kenya should take note of the changing environment in the region.

Just coasting along as it has all these years is not good enough. President Kenyatta should place reforming the port systems, overhauling the railway network and curbing the endless appetite for big bribes among top officials, which keeps investors away and delays projects such as airport expansion, at the very top of his agenda.

Murithi Mutiga is the special projects editor, Sunday Nation [email protected]