According to Scottish investor Malcolm Ormiston, Lake Victoria deserves a safe, affordable and convenient mode of transport.
Mr Ormiston, who runs the Kisumu-based Globology Limited Company, has already set a target of building 15 ferries in the next three years to ply Lake Victoria routes.
The firm designs, builds and operates water transport vessels called catamarans. Catamarans are ferries with two hulls, a design known for fuel efficiency and safety.
Two of Mr Ormiston’s ferries; MV Captain Dan and MV Ringiti, are already operating on the lake under the Water Bus trade name.
The small vessels provide transport service to isolated islands, providing residents an alternative to unsafe canoes and dhows.
Mr Ormiston, a former journalist, said he worked for several years on developing an inexpensive boat that uses low operating technology.
He wanted to enable developing countries to access modern, affordable boats as opposed to the current types used for resource protection, patrols, and transport which are expensive with high operating cost.
And when he settled on the catamaran, Mr Ormiston discovered that it had commercial potential and viability on Lake Victoria.
“After working on it for a number of years using my small inheritance, I brought the wood based composite technology for testing on Lake Victoria in 2005 to find out its commercial potential. We found it viable and decided to undertake passenger transport,” he told the Business Daily.
His firm started the project in Kenya, making boats at a Kisumu workshop, with the help of a private fund. Its first vessel, MV Dan launched in 2010, plies the Mageta Island to Usenge route in Siaya County.
The second vessel, MV Ringiti, plies the Mfangano Island to Mbita route in Homa Bay County.
“The catamaran has a wide beam which gives it more stability than conventional mono-hull vessels,” said Mr Ormiston, adding that it has two engines for safer operation. The boats are an alternative to the poorly-maintained passenger canoes built of hardwood with no safety equipment; they have no lifejackets and do not shelter passengers from the vagaries of weather.
“If such a vessel were to be imported, it would cost at least Sh200 million. If we were to sell one (that we make locally) it would be more than Sh50 million. But we are not looking to sell because our core business is operating ferries. Building is just part of the necessary process,” said Mr Ormiston.
The company attracted new investment from a Netherlands private equity fund which will enable it to make 15 boast over the next five years.
Two boats are currently under construction at the company’s Kisumu workshop, each with a capacity of 120 passengers.
Four others are set to be build in 2017 and four in 2018. The company plans to cover all viable routes on the lake by 2019.
After 2019, Mr Ormiston said, the firm plans to expand operations to coastal islands and other East African navigable water bodies such as Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania .
“Kisumu used to be the centre of the marine sector (in East Africa) but the industry’s demise came long before the Kibaki era. The downward spiral of the sector was a precursor to looting, not an effect of the latter. The industry has since shifted base to Mwanza in Tanzania,” he said.
Globology employs 43 people. The company works closely with local agencies and other transport service providers in ticketing and boat operations. In the meantime, commuters on routes not covered by Globology are forced to dig deeper into their pockets to get to their destinations safely as low investment in Lake Victoria’s transport industry consigns a majority to using dilapidated boats.
Mr Jeremiah Onyango, the Western Kenya Regional Maritime Inspector, said that overloading of old, un-serviced and uncertified vessels — which still dominate Lake Victoria transport — is a major cause of accidents and deaths. “The nine musicians who died in June 2016 had boarded an old fishing boat which was sipping in water. ‘‘The weather was not bad, the boat submerged because of being overloaded with their luggage, crates of soda, beer and musical equipment,” he said.
He accused the lake patrol police of failing to arrest sailors who use unseaworthy boats, overload their vessels and travel without life jackets which results in 5,000 deaths on the lake annually.
Last December at least 30 people, including footballers and their supporters, drowned after their overloaded boat capsized on Lake Albert in Uganda.
The boat, which was carrying about 45 people, became unbalanced when too many passengers moved to one side and capsized, according to reports.