The Port of Mombasa is facing a pile-up of goods as majority of truck drivers are yet to been tested and issued with Covid-19-free certificates, a move that risks derailing movement of goods to the hinterland and neighbouring countries.
Less than 5,000 of the more than 25,000 truck operators plying the Northern Corridor route have been tested, meaning that they cannot transport cargo due to restrictions of movement in both Mombasa and Nairobi to contain the spread of the virus.
This has paralysed cargo transport and some landlocked East African States could find themselves facing shortages of fuel and other key imports.
Mombasa port, which was built in 1895, is the main trade gateway to Eastern Africa, serving Kenya and seven neighbouring countries including Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Burundi.
Lack of adequate testing kits has delayed the issuance of the Covid-19-free certificates, with State authorities unable to meet demand.
Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association (Kifwa) chairman Roy Mwanthi said the government was only testing 100 drivers per day at the Miritini Health Centre in Mombasa, triggering the cargo pile-up.
“More than 400 trucks pick cargo at the Port of Mombasa on a daily basis but at the moment very few drivers have acquired the Covid-19-free certificates and fewer than 150 trucks are accessing the port,” said Mr Mwanthi.
“We expected to have at least three testing centres so that more drivers are tested. The current congestion being experienced at the port is a result of lack of enough drivers to pick the cargo.”
Port stakeholders have termed the requirement that all cargo crew be tested and issued with a certificate before being allowed into ports and through border points as premature although the number of infected drivers at border points has been a real threat to efforts to slow down the spread of Coronavirus.
The tests, which were announced last Wednesday by Transport Secretary James Macharia, have seen the clearance and transportation of essential goods delayed further.
Exports make up just 15 percent of the cargo that goes through Mombasa every year, as Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, takes up the lion’s share. Popular imports include clinker for cement manufacturing, steel, fertiliser and grain.
Transporters have questioned the capacity of government hospitals to carry out the tests efficiently, considering that the Health ministry is conducting an average of 1,500 tests per day countrywide.
“We are thankful the process has begun, but we want more centres to be set up to avoid congestion at the port and ensure minimal cargo transport delays,” said Mercy Ireri, the chief operating officer at the Kenya Transporters Association (KTA).
CS Macharia had directed that drivers loading cargo at the Mombasa port and the Inland Container Deport (ICD) in Nairobi would have to be tested for Covid-19 and issued with a certificate 48 hours before driving into the loading points. They will then be retested every 14 days to confirm they have not been infected with the deadly virus.
The few trucks that are leaving the port are taking an average of 10 days between Mombasa and Kampala, a journey that previously took about 3.7 days.
This has increased the cost of cargo shipments and slowed down the movement of critical cargo into the hinterland and neighbouring countries.
Said Ms Ireri: “The situation will get worse if the Ministry of Health will not come in to expedite the process. We need more personnel for this requirement to be effective since there are more than 1,000 trucks that leave with the transit cargo daily.”
The cost of the tests will be borne by the importers, who are expected to transfer the same to the consumers, adding to the cost of doing business.
East Africa’s truck drivers have emerged as a weak link in the region’s efforts to fight the spread of the disease. This has been especially the case for Uganda, where over seven Kenyan drivers have tested positive with zero community infections.
A number of them have also been held in isolation in foreign countries after testing positive, making experienced drivers shy away from the work.
Some transport companies are also beginning to shun the transit goods business, preferring local transport instead.
The requirement for a Covid-19 free certificate seems to be gaining popularity across different sectors across the world as countries seek to resume business after weeks of inactivity. Kenyan companies exporting consumer goods also welcome the tests in the hope that this will speed up clearance of the goods at border points.