Mombasa’s status as the gateway to East Africa has risen a rung higher with Wednesday’s opening of a new berth that allows the world’s largest ships to dock at the port.
President Uhuru Kenyatta officially commissioned the new facility – the deepest on the eastern coast of Africa – and which expands the port’s capacity to handle an additional 250,000 20 foot-equivalent container units (TEUs) annually.
Berth number 19, which is built on land that has been reclaimed from the sea, is 13 and half metres deep meaning it can handle the 250 metres long Panamax vessels – the world’s largest ships.
The Sh5.6 billion facility is expected to boost operations at East Africa’s busiest port that has over the years been plagued by heavy cargo congestion as growing container traffic outgripped existing infrastructure.
“This port is critical to our region’s development and commissioning of Berth 19 represents the pragmatic aspects of my government’s commitment to that goal,” said Mr Kenyatta at the commissioning ceremony in Mombasa on Wednesday.
“It is my government’s intention to turn the port of Mombasa into the largest, busiest and most business-friendly sea-port on the East African coast,” he said at the event attended by Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
Increasing the capacity of Mombasa port should help reduce the impact that the pile up of cargo at the port and subsequent spill over into private container terminals has on the cost of goods in East Africa.
A study by the World Bank estimates that such delays costs shippers between $10,000 and $12,000 per day in demurrage fees, increasing the cost of doing business which is ultimately passed on to consumers.
Although the port of Mombasa was designed to handle 250,000 TEUs per year, cargo volumes have grown exponentially to reach 903,463 TEUs as at the end of last year.
This means that the current installed capacity of 500,000 TEUs will still not match the growing demand for cargo handling that rises in line with the tempo of economic activity in Kenya and neighbouring countries that depend on it for exports and imports.
The strain on the port of Mombasa has significantly raised the cost of imports and exports, as investors are forced to spend more in demurrage costs and leasing space for excess cargo at privately owned cargo freight stations.
The new berth is Kenya’s deepest docking facility and can handle up to three Panamax vessels of 250 metres at a go, helping lower turnaround time for ships currently at 3.4 days.
The Shippers Council of Eastern Africa expects the new berth to lower the cost of doing business for traders and keep the port of Mombasa ahead of its regional rivals Dar-es-Salaam and Djibouti.
It will help shorten ship waiting times and cut demurrage costs to achieve shorter turnaround times which make it cheaper to do business through the Mombasa port,” said Mr Gilbert Langat, the chief executive of the cargo owners lobby.
Berth number 19 is billed to be the only port facility along the Eastern African coastline to be constructed on reclaimed sea space, with a container stacking yard of 15 acres.
China Roads and Bridge Corporation began work on the berth in July 2011 and was financed by the State.
“There is a growing trend to larger container and bulk ships which increases the need for concentration at bigger and more specialised terminals,” said Gichiri Ndua, managing director of Kenya Ports Authority.
“We constructed this new berth to provide a longer quay to handle such vessels.”
Traders have, however, pointed out that the sorry state of Kenya’s railway system remains a great challenge in evacuating cargo from the Mombasa port to other parts of Kenya and across the border to Uganda and Rwanda.
Rail operator Rift Valley Railways lifted 1.6 million tonnes of cargo last year, which is 7.4 per cent of the port’s total volume.