Port Bell set for major revamp in 108 years

Friday August 26 2016

Different scenes from the Port Bell pier.
Different scenes from the Port Bell pier. Photos by Frederick Musisi

If you happen to be looking for scrapyard around town, do not look further than Port Bell in Luzira, Kampala.

The pier located at the tip of the peninsular jutting into Lake Victoria, about 12kms southeast of the central business district, had once upon a time carved a niche for handling both passenger and cargo traffic destined for and from nearby ports, Kisumu in Kenya, Musoma and Mwanza in Tanzania, currently passes not only as dead ferries’ dockyard but also a ghost territory—with everything seemingly deserted—save for the small private vessels that slosh around.

Leading to Port Bell’s current status, was the May 8, 2005 disaster when two of the three Ugandan Railways Corporation (URC)-operated wagon ferries—MV Kabalega and MV Kaawa-collided about 50 miles from the port. Kabalega sunk while Kaawa, which did not have insurance cover, was grounded.

The vessels, each with capacity to carry 44 20-foot containers mounted on 22 40-foot railway wagons, was bought by the Milton Obote II government in 1983, from the now defunct Belgian Shipyard Consortium.

Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Works and Transport decided to ground the remaining two ferries—MV Kaawa and MV Pamba, pending their upgrade to international standards.

The pier has since then been choking on heavy siltation, the ever present hyacinth weed and the neglect of marine and rail transport services.


Until 2004, the freight handled at Port Bell by the URC ferry wagons was estimated at 435,617 tonnes for both import and export via the ports in Kenya and Tanzania.

However, following the accident, the cargo handled at the port drastically dropped from an average of 126,000 in 2005 to 8,100 tonnes in 2014.

In 2006, the government leased both the railway and water transport systems to Rift Valley Railways (RVR) for a 25-year deal, but the consortium has since failed to breathe life into the networks.

According to a technical report for the proposed makeover of Port Bell, the decline in cargo is mainly attributed to the ferry accident, grounding of the remaining vessels and abandoning of existing port facilities.

“All these made inland water transport less competitive compared to road transport,” the report of Environmental and Social Impact (ESIA) reads in part. That marked the demise of the facility that could earn the country millions of dollars in freight levies.

Old plan, new need
The status quo, however, might change after the European Union (EU) and World Bank offered the government a helping hand to revamp the pier.

The refurbishment estimated to cost $120 million (about Shs400b) will also include revamping the existing derelict railway network at the port and expansion of the (9km) Luzira-Nakawa access road—but only a section to the proposed Kampala Southern Bypass, an 18 km stretch that will start at Butabika, and connect to the proposed Kampala-Jinja Express Highway.

Senior officials from EU in Brussels were in the country in May and held consultations with technocrats in the works ministry, including a tour of Port Bell to review its status.
Feasibility studies funded by the World Bank are ongoing for the improvement of railway line from the port to the Namanve business park.

Redevelopment is expected to start in early 2017 after it was pushed from November pending satisfaction and approval of various aspects in the conceptual designs.

The plan also includes remodeling the entire port, including design for capacity augmentation of the existing berths; dredging; reclamation of lagoons, and massive expansion on the eastern side.
The expansion is posited to have challenges due to the massive redevelopment of nearby land by people with connections in government.

Port Bell was constructed and opened by the British colonial administration in 1908 and was used by the Imperial Airways to fly in passenger boats and mail services.

The port was well rated in the regional framework, and provided a shorter and cheaper export route for traders through Lake Victoria.
Its abandonment by government forced traders to turn haulage of cargo via road from either Dar-es-Salaam or Mombasa.

The neglect of Port Bell also meant disregarding the of the Jinja pier, which was also developed by the colonial administration, but is similarly under proposal for refurbishment.

The ports’ project is part of the wider Lake Victoria Transport Programme, which technocrats in the Ministry of Works, say encompasses development of other small in-land ports; several of which have been identified after recently conducting hydrographical surveys. The entire project is donor funded.

The redevelopment, according to a draft technical report, will include reclaiming the moving island/marsh on the eastern side measuring about 46,700 square meters into land; construction of new berths each measuring about 240 meters; improvement of the container/parking yard by 15 meters for up to 330 containers and a parking sport for 175 trailers, and creation of one roll-on/roll-off (RORO) berth for multipurpose vessels— designed to carry wheeled cargo, such as trucks, trailers, and railroad cars, that are driven on and off the ship on their own wheels or using a platform vehicle, such as a self-propelled modular transporter.

The port will also be equipped with warehouses space measuring up to 2,910 square meters.

Review of the design plan, officials familiar with the redevelopment, was said to be ongoing and would be complete in three weeks. A Danish maritime consultancy, OSK-ShipTech A/S, is working on the designs, including that of the Jinja pier.

The port will also have to undergo dredging/desiliting of 15,000 cubic metres so it can accommodate bigger vessels. Ports like Musoma, which accommodate larger vessels have berths with deep water capacity of up to six metres.

According to Cyprian Okello, a senior planner in the Ministry of Works, the government as part of the redevelopment had engaged consultants for the designs to upgrade the parked ferry wagons, Mv Mwanga and MV Pamba. He also said they have the designs ready for the replacement of MV Kabalega, which, after sinking was not salvaged from the bottom of the lake.

“One, the designs and every other related aspect is ready and it will be the government’s responsibility to bring on board a contractor,” Okello noted, adding that redevelopment was supposed to commence in June but was extended to November and eventually pushed to next year.

Gateway to Northern, Southern Corridor
edevelopment will take two years when it starts. The new Port Bell, officials say, is primarily for cargo handling, however, the private sector is welcome to tap into the aspect of passenger haulage.

The port is expected to boost the capacity of cargo since a conventional container and multi-purpose port was suggested by governments of Uganda and Tanzania as one of the means to curb the land-locked barriers and also help facilitate movement of transit traffic (estimated at 1.5 – 2 million cargo tonnes) to neighbouring South Sudan and Rwanda.

Officials, however, describe the Bukasa port as a “futuristic” project whose development will commence
in the near future and move slowly. “The focus right now is on redeveloping what we already have but is going to waste,” Okello said.

The details

The prospect of Tanga route was re-energised recently with the signing of oil export pipeline deal from Hoima District to the port at the Indian Ocean.

In terms of distance on the ground, Tanga and Mombasa is more or less the same distance to Kampala. It is 945km from Tanga to Musoma on Lake Victoria and 161 nautical miles (about 300km) across the lake from Musoma to Port Bell or Jinja. That translates into a total of 1,245km from Tanga to Port Bell, Kampala.

In Kenya, the old railway built in 1901 by the colonial British administration from Nakuru to the Kisumu port has also since been abandoned, and it even got worse after the breakdown of the wagons in Uganda meaning no more cargo to Port Bell. One of the Kenyan vessels, the 1,800-tonne MV Uhuru that used to ply the Port Bell route, also stopped operations in 2006.

The Uganda-Tanzania deal also included construction of a new Mwambani port, expand the Musoma dock and the Ugandan side develop the Bukasa port.

“Rail-Marine operations, if developed efficiently, are a very cheap mode of transport,” Okello added.
Currently, there is no wagon ferry plying any of the routes across the three countries. At the ministry of Works, officials pile the blame on RVR which they say has failed to breathe life in the network.

Meanwhile, the ministry of Works is similarly in progress with conceptual designs for the development of the Bukasa inland port. Earlier the government indicated about Shs486b ($180 million) was to be borrowed from China’s Exim Bank to develop the port. However, in April some reports indicated that government had borrowed Shs160b ($48m) from two German banks—AKA Bank and Commerzbank AG.

The port will sit on close to 500 acres of land stretching into some wetland area under the National Environment Management Authority, a forest reserve under National Forest Authority and on some privately owned land—although procurement of the land yet the start, the land surrounding is reeking of scandal.