Ferry failures impact travel and trade in Lake Victoria basin

All the talk in the Eastern African region about megaprojects like standard gauge railways, conveniently avoids to talk of the presently available infrastructure, and how much of it has decayed over the decades due to neglect, mismanagement, and often outright corruption.

It is in particular the lake transport across Lake Victoria, where rail and other ferries connect the two ports of Mwanza in Tanzania and Port Bell in Uganda, but also other ports around the lake as the only direct route between the ports unless using road transport at four times the cost to circumnavigate the lake.

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Reports are coming in that once again at least two of the ferry ships, the MV Serengeti and the MV Victoria, are out of service, the latter according to information received from Tanzania as a result of being grounded by ministerial directive over safety concerns. This has led to immediate shortages of essential items along some of the lake-side cities which relied on food stuffs for instance being loaded in Bukoba and destined for Mwanza, while at the same time the cost of items available has shot up. Road transport is cumbersome and takes long, and while the cost of fuel in the region has very slowly adjusted downwards, it has not yet made a big impact on the cost of transporting goods by truck. Many travelers and traders using the ferries and boats are now left to ponder the omissions of their respective governments to have not only enough ferries in use but to also regularly maintain them to keep the certificate of seaworthiness in place, and with it the insurance without which no boat should ever leave port, not that all have in the past observed such mandatory requirements.

Auric Air is presently the only airline from Mwanza which offers direct flights to Bukoba and then, three times a week, on to Entebbe while Precision Air also flies from Mwanza to Bukoba but not beyond.

“I did not know that there is a small airline flying from Entebbe to Mwanza, but is it not expensive? The ships have very affordable fares, and because I travel with goods, this makes air travel impossible. Sometimes I just have to go and come back; for such a case it is ok, but normally I carry things to sell or bring new goods back with me,” said a trader known to this correspondent, who then added that the grounding of the ships costs him big money in lost revenues. “The usual lake boats are too small really and not really safe enough. If they run into a storm, we can lose our cargo and our lives, and for that risk they charge high fares even,” he ended, highlighting the challenges the downtime of the ferries and boats brings with it.

Unbeknown to many, individuals wishing to visit the Serengeti can go by rail ferry with their cars from Entebbe to Mwanza and then, in less than two hours, reach the nearest gate to the famous national park when entering the Grumeti Sector of the park. Those using the ferry but without their own car, easily find safari operators specialized in tours to the Serengeti by either air or road, depending on budget.

But mostly it is the regional trade in food stuffs and other consumer goods which depends on regular and affordable connections and for whom the big projects like the standard gauge railway remains a distant fiction, only wanting to see their governments bring more lake ferries and boats into service to connect the key centers around the lake.