Ideas & Debate
Lamu port: Game-changer for East Africa’s prosperityTuesday June 22 2021
In the 121 years since intrepid pioneers laid down the tracks of the ‘Lunatic Express’ from the Mombasa port to the hinterlands of the then ‘Port Florence’ in Kisumu, infrastructure has always opened up territories for trade and commerce that transcend borders.
Such infrastructure arteries link diverse people and nations through the production and distribution of myriad goods and services.
Commerce and industry, however, are not ends in themselves. They are meant to improve the quality of life of citizens and create opportunities for economic growth.
It also goes without saying that wherever infrastructure has created new opportunities, peace and prosperity typically follow… pretty much a rule of thumb. It is this vision that inspired the conceptualisation of the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor development, which is a flagship programme of our Kenya Vision 2030 national development blueprint.
The President commissioned the new Port of Lamu on May 20 this year.
Ever since the colonial era, Kenya has been dependent on one major Port (Mombasa) and transport corridor (the Mombasa–Kisumu-Busia highway and railway, also referred to as the Northern Corridor). Indeed, Kenya’s population settled roughly along this corridor, about 100 miles North and South of it.
Both have withstood many challenges over time. The most pressing one from a geo-political point of view has been the capacity of the Port of Mombasa and the Northern Corridor to satisfy the shipping, maritime and transport needs of Greater East Africa.
With the growth of trade ties with neighbouring land-linked countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan and others in the region, and growth in population here in Kenya and beyond, the Northern Corridor has been stretched to its limits, negatively impacting Kenya’s competitiveness to serve itself, East Africa and our neighbours in the region. It is this realisation that necessitated new thinking around the possibility and viability of a new transport corridor that would once again cement Kenya’s position as the entry point into Greater Eastern Africa.
For decades, northern Kenya has lagged the rest of the country in all development matrices. While there may be many explanations for this, one clear contributory factor was inaccessibility.
A lack of connectivity led to economic marginalisation because development traditionally follows transport corridors the world over. Considering the size of the geographic area of northern Kenya, from Turkana in the West to Mandera in the East, it is not only critical, but vital to fully integrate northern Kenya.
The first significant step in this direction was the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road, the 504km highway, which was completed in the year 2017. One only needs to talk for a minute with anyone who hails from anywhere north of Isiolo to understand the beneficial human, social and economic impact that this road has had on people’s lives.
Continuing with this strategy, the Lamu-Isiolo-Juba highway — a 1,800km Trunk Road — is another key artery that will open up large parts of Kenya. The thinking behind the construction of this road was informed by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), part of whose agenda it is to link up countries within Africa to facilitate trade and free movement of people.
This road is one of 51 key projects being built across the continent in diverse sectors such as energy, ICT and transport. Kenya’s efforts, therefore, dovetail into a bigger vision to open Africa to intra-continental movement, growth and prosperity. Such projects will, ultimately, create a common market for goods produced in Africa and by Africans, and in the long term improve the continent’s trade outcomes vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
The County Government of Lamu has been gifted a golden opportunity to leverage the Port of Lamu to change lives for the better, for good. With the planned Lamu Resort City, road and rail connectivity, Special Economic Zone among other infrastructure programmes, the sky is literally the limit and Lamu is an investor’s heaven.
The people of Lamu also face a significant mental challenge; overcoming the traditional way of life exemplified by tourism and fishing, to embracing port-related activities at all levels, both blue and white collar, and the training required to perform in such roles. This reset is as important to the people of Lamu as the port itself.
The national government is cognisant of the need to fully integrate Lamu into Kenya’s mainstream economy and is doing much on training and provision of employment opportunities.
Bold thinking and courageous execution are required to make the Port of Lamu stand on its own two feet sooner rather than later. Indeed, it is arguable that the most important factor to the success of the port is the People of Lamu, not just and simply the physical infrastructure.
In the meantime, I am happy to encourage as many of you who have not been to Lamu to get there by plane, boat or automobile, or even on foot, if necessary, to see the opportunities that lie waiting on the sands of Lamu for intreprid entrepreneurs and travellers.