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Mombasa Port on course to becoming Africa’s trade hub

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A Container Terminal within the Port of Mombasa. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

As frontier markets in Africa develop, ports are increasingly playing a pivotal role. Industries and e-commerce platforms all depend on ports. They are the beginning and the end of the supply chains.

However, in an era of mega-trends ranging from climate change and the pandemic, are ports in Africa prepared to serve the growing markets?

“The pandemic has accelerated mega-trends in the maritime sector like digitisation and de-globalisation. Ports are now a focus for regional integration and industrialisation, and can help promote the resilience of regional markets due to the geographical proximity,” said Andre Ciseau, the Secretary-General of Port Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa (PMAESA), during the Intermodal Africa Conference hosted by the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) in Mombasa last week.

Discussions at the conference, attended by among others port managers and innovators, focused on maximising port efficiencies through infrastructural developments.

As the Mombasa Port seeks to cement its position as a regional gateway, there couldn’t be a better time for KPA to be intentional on expanding infrastructure at the facility.

Some of the perennial challenges at Mombasa port have been congestion and high ship turnaround time, low cargo handling productivity, especially at berths designated for bulk cargo, and inadequate water depth (draft) to berth high tonnage vessels.

Numerous taxes and levies are also still a major hurdle for port users, resulting in delays running into billions of shillings.

Gilbert Langat, CEO of Shippers Council of Eastern Africa, wondered why shippers require 28 documents to export tea, for example.

But massive government investments at the port between 2017 and 2021 have seen significant improvements as well.

During this period, the port harbour channel was widened to accommodate larger vessels, the standard gauge railway (SGR) was linked to the port for timely cargo evacuation and construction of a second container terminal was completed.

The modern Kipevu oil terminal is now ready for use as is the greenfield Port of Lamu, which is meant to service the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor.

“We have been deliberate on connectivity at the port of Mombasa to stay ahead of demand. We have adopted an integrated maritime strategy through Mombasa Port Community Charter to guarantee timely services and performance along the port’s transport corridor,” said KPA’s Acting managing director, John Mwangemi.

Indeed, the investments are behind the tremendous growth recorded at Mombasa Port. Cargo throughput has maintained a positive trend of annual growth of 3.3 percent reaching 34.55 million metric tons (MT) compared to 30.55 million MT in 2017.

In terms of container traffic, the port has seen growth, handling 1.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot containers) mark in 2021 compared to 1.1 million TEUs in 2017. With the inauguration of the second container terminal, Mombasa Port will have the capacity to handle 2.1 million TEUs.

But it still trails, by a wide margin, Tanger Med in Morocco, which is ranked as Africa’s top port with a capacity to handle nine million containers. Despite being less than two decades old, Tanger Med has been averaging a volume growth of over 20 percent.

The trick could be Tanger Med’s special economic zones (SEZs) that have transformed it into an export hub. The booming auto manufacturing industry is a testament to the attractive business rates at the SEZ.

Unfortunately, Mombasa Port is designed as a gateway for imports, which account for 90 percent of the total cargo. The planned Dongo Kundu SEZ is meant to enhance export volumes at the port through value addition but the project has been slow.

Shipping trends

Besides, emerging trends in shipping may benefit Mombasa Port as a regional trade hub if it is properly aligned for the new opportunities.

The Africa Free Continental Trade Area (AfCFTA) is gaining traction and there will be a significant increase in traffic flows on all transport modes: rail, road, maritime and air.

Thus, with all the expansion plans at the Mombasa Port, it can readily market itself as a critical maritime node for the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

Notably, a wealth of business opportunities exist in connecting East to West Africa, a role the Mombasa Port can favourably play.

Sourcing goods regionally will also build the global climate ambitions to reduce carbon footprint.

“Does Kenya source its oil and gas from the hydrocarbons-rich West Africa? We must shift the African economy from the colonial model of providing raw materials to Europe and USA,” said Nigerian Ports Authority general manager and legal adviser Innocent Gamboro Umar.

With DR Congo now a member of the East African Community (EAC) and served by the Northern Corridor, it is the easiest link to connect the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

In fact, under the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority (NCTTCA) infrastructure development blueprint, the ultimate goal is to connect the Mombasa Port to the Atlantic port of Banana in DR Congo.

Kinyua is a maritime media practitioner