The Coronavirus disease pandemic has not only disrupted supply and logistics chains across borders and battered world economies, it is also threatening to wipe out trucking business.
Truckers have borne the brunt of the disease which has posed serious challenges to their trade.
Seated behind the wheel of his Mercedes Benz truck on the 45km queue towards the Malaba border post, John Mutie, a Kenyan truck driver, paints a grim picture of the business.
He fears if the current situation continues, the next three months will see most of them out of the Northern Corridor route.
“We are worried that East Africa region might not have a single driver to deliver goods to neighbouring countries either because they will have fallen sick or will be too scared to take on the journey,” Mr Mutie said in a video call.
His assessment is based on the casual manner in which agencies charged with the responsibility of enforcing measures to contain the virus in the region have been handling truck drivers along the corridor especially at the border crossing points.
A trip that usually takes about four days has seen him spend over three weeks, risking his life and those of his colleagues. Since he left Kenya on May 4, he was still stuck at the border on the Ugandan side last Monday. It took him two days to have a sample taken at Miritini some 40km from Mombasa port. The Northern Corridor links land-locked countries in the region with the Mombasa port and serious delays along the route have adverse effects on delivery and cost of goods in the region.
From Mr Mutie’s account, there is lack of coordination between authorities in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda in the manner in which truck drivers are handled at the borders, making them a weak link in the spread of the pandemic.
At Malaba border, there are few washrooms and toilets, despite the huge number of truck drivers stuck there. There are also a few points for washing hands with no social distancing. Since they are not allowed to stop anywhere between the border points, the drivers have to carry food to last them for the entire trip yet they cannot predict how long it will take to deliver the goods.
They also cook at the roadsides since they cannot venture into shopping centres as they used to before the pandemic.
“Designated parking areas lack basic amenities. For instance we rely on the little water we buy from vendors. In Uganda there is a lot of stigmatisation since there is perception that all drivers from Kenya are infected. On the road we cannot stop because we fear that items such as the cooking gas or truck battery might be stolen,” Mr Mutie said. Drivers are also spending more on the road yet their incomes have reduced. “I haven’t gone home for a month now. I have been stuck on the road and had to spend more money to cater for my food and other needs,” said Hassan Mboga, another truck driver.
Mr Dirisa Kitimbo, a Ugandan driver who has been stuck at Malaba for five days is concerned that when he finally reaches Kampala, he will not be allowed to join his family. He has teamed up with 10 other drivers and written a petition they intend to submit to both the Kenya and Uganda authorities concerning their predicament.
In the petition, they complain that the Ugandan authorities don’t recognise tests done in Kenya and cite time wasted before tests are conducted, poor handling when being tested and unlawful detention. “In Uganda we go without food not because of lack of money but due to hostility from citizens who cannot allow one to buy even items such as tomatoes or vegetables,” said Mr Kitimbo. The drivers have protested mistreatment and over the past two days have been blocking the roads in an attempt to force the authorities to act. Byron Kinene, chairman of the Uganda based Regional Lorry Drivers and Transporters Association, said it takes up to four days for a driver to get his Covid-19 test results. In the meantime, they mingle with other drivers and members of the public, exposing them and others to the virus.
“In this kind of scenario what do you expect? Most drivers will be infected by this virus and we fear that things might get out of hand. At the Malaba border point the rapid test kits that give results in 45 minutes are few and cannot serve many people. There is a lot of confusion in the whole exercise,” Mr Kinene wrote in a Whatsapp communication with Shipping & Logistics.
The situation is even worse in South Sudan, which has over the years been cited as highly insecure. Here, truck drivers cannot stop or slow down as they fear being stoned by angry mobs. After Rwanda shut down its border with Burundi, truck drivers have to endure a longer route to cross to Burundi by detouring from Kampala to Tanzania, before crossing to Burundi which increases the distance by about 200Kkm.
“We are spending an extra $150 on fuel and allowances to drivers due to the increased distance and since we operate on thin margins, the cost has become too high. We cannot also increase the rates because there is stiff competition,” Eric Ntangaro, the secretary of the Burundi International Transporters Association (BITA) said in a phone interview.
As the borders get congested with little cargo crossing, the ripple effects are being felt at the tail end of the logistics chain – the Mombasa port – where congestion of cargo is already being witnessedt. The Kenya Transporters Association (KTA) said the issues should be addressed as a matter of urgency. “The Ugandan government should assure drivers that they will be protected and that they will not be stigmatised,” said Mercy Ireri, KTA chief operating officer.
In Mombasa, transporters said they would suspend evacuation of cargo from the port until their grievances were addressed. The traffic gridlock at the Malaba border had increased the cost of transport, they said. “We want the governments of Kenya and Uganda to immediately resolve the situation at border where there is a traffic jam of more than 50km. The drivers have genuine concerns and we support their action,” Dennis Ombok, KTA chief executive officer told journalists in Mombasa.
Mr Ombok said the current situation at the borders was unacceptable and long traffic jam where fuel tankers queue was dangerous in case of an explosion.
“The drivers are facing very tough conditions while they deliver essential goods and services as they are exposed to contracting the virus,” Mr Ombok said.