Moses Okello, a special hire driver, has been plying the Mbale-Budadiri Road for the last 10 years. Most of the good deals he gets in this business is driving tourists to Mt Elgon National Park.
While there is potential to make money in shuttle business, his dreams won’t come to life given the deteriorating state of the road.
“My car broke down in Sironko District when I was driving tourists to Mt Elgon National Park. I hours on the road trying to negotiate potholes. The cost of repairing vehicles is also high. Most roads that lead to tourism sites in eastern Uganda are in a sorry state,” says Okello.
He says the roads are dusty during the dry season and when it rains, they become impassable. At some sections of the roads, youths are seen sealing the potholes with soil and bricks.
Julius Gimei, a tour operator, who sold his cattle to buy a tour van had expectations of reaping big from this business. Over the years, he was inspired by tour operators, who owned shuttles that were were seemingly making abnormal profits. To his surprise, it did not make business sense like he had anticipated.
“We repair vehicles each time we drive tourists. When a tourist pays their money, they don’t expect excuses. Should a vehicle break down while intransit, the client expects you to send for another car and driver, while you count your losses,” says Gimei.
According to tour operators, vehicles that ply these rugged mountainous terrains of Mt Elgon usually make it back with broken springs.
“Many of us got loans to procure vehicles to transport tourists but along these roads most of our vehicles have broken down and we are not making profits,” he said.
The road network in the Elgon region is pathetic and cripples businesses due to delays in transportation. Although Eastern Uganda has many tourist attractions, roads should be fixed in order to attract more tourists in the region.
Some of the affected roads are Mbale-Bufumbo road, which tourists use to access Wanale ridge, Wanale –Nkokonjeru terrace, Nalugugu-Mutufu-Budadiri Road that connects to Mt Elgon National Park, Manafwa-Bududa road, Kapchorwa-Suam Road and Muyembe-Namalu Road, among others.
The mountaineous region is home to several bird species and primates.
Besides Mt Elgon National Park, other tourist sites in eastern Uganda include Sipi Falls, Piane-upe, Wanale ridge, Semei kakungulu and coffee tours. Bull fighting, culture tour and Bamasaba cultural Imbalu are some of the activities that tourists look out while in the East.
Government should take action
Saleh Namenya, the chief executive officer of Casa Uganda Safaris and lodges appeals to government to improve infrastructures in order to boost tourism in the region.
“We cannot generate the projected revenue from tourist sites in the Elgon region if we have poor roads and hotels. We have not fully exploited the opportunities in tourism because of dilapidated roads and government needs to swing into action,” says Namenya.
Denis Mukungu, a tour guide, said poor roads have made it difficult for tour operators to sell tourism products to specific destinations such as Kidepo National Park and Pain-Upe.
“One is most likely to spend an entire day on the road. Tourists want to spend time at the attractions and not on the road. This reduces visitor numbers, which impacts negatively on the social and economic development in the region,” says Mukungu.
Proper infrastructure makes it easy for people to set up lodges, restaurants, petrol stations and entertainment centres. Mount Elgon National Park is found in Mbale on the border of Uganda and Kenya.
Its peak is called Wagagai. It is 4,321 metres high and it is the 17th highest in Africa and the 4th highest in Uganda. It has caves including Ngwarisha, Makingeny, Chepnyalil and kitum.
Another tourist destination in the Elgon region is Sipi falls. It has three waterfalls in Kapchorwa District, northeast of Sironko and Mbale lying on the edge of Mt Elgon National Park.
Hiking around the falls offers magnificent view of the Karamoja plains, Lake Kyoga and the slopes of Mt Elgon.
There are a number of activities, lodges and backpackers in the area offering accommodation to the tourists who visit the falls. The conservation manager of Mt Elgon Elgon National park, Fredrick Kiiza, says although the progress is slow, government has embarked on a programme to repair these roads.
“Currently, government is tarmacking Mbale- Manafwa-Lwakhakha road and its one of the tourist roads in the region.Works on Nalugugu-Budadiri road in Sironko District also commenced after government conducted a study on tourism roads in the area,” he says.
The Namisindwa District chairperson, George William Wopuwa, said the deplorable state of roads is making driving a nightmare.
“We expect the relevant authorities to repair the road. The road is going to open up markets from Kenya to Uganda. People have started building tourist hotels in the area. The new road is expected to boost trade between Uganda and Kenya,” he says.
The 44.5km Mbale- Lwakhakha road linking Uganda to Kenya will improve trade between the two countries. The road will also ease of movement and investment between Uganda and Kenya.
The road which is a Shs140.7 billion project is funded by the African Development bank (ADB) stretches in Manafwa District and Lwakhakha in Namisindwa District. Mount Elgon national Park lies on the border of Uganda and Kenya in the Eastern region of Uganda. Mt National Elgon Park consists of a towering volcanic mountain crowned with a vast caldera as well as other streams, valleys.
Number of visitors
According to data from UWA, they received 3009 visitors with 719 foreigner tourists, 691 students, East Africa residents were 1079 and local community 520 last year.
Mr George Ssonko, Mbale Uganda national Road Authority (UNRA) Station manager, said all the roads are motorable.
“We are working on all these roads and soon we shall have good roads in the region and all these roads are included in the budget.
Tourists should not fear to visit our region because all the roads are motorabale,”Mr Ssonko said.
According to UWA, Uganda hosts about 50 percent of the global population of mountain gorillas.
Some of the activities at Sipi falls including Sipi coffee tour, Sabiny cultural walk, abseiling and rock climbing among others.
Uganda ranks first in road fatalities
According to a report titled Effects of Inadequate Road Infrastructure in Uganda published on www.borgenproject.org, unpaved roads are dangerous because cars can fall into potholes or get hit by debris.
In 2016, 20 accidents happened on the Mbale-Nkokonjeru road in Uganda because of dangerous conditions. Moreover, one in 10 deaths in Uganda occurred because of road accidents in 2018.
Uganda ranks first in road fatalities in East Africa. Additionally, road accidents in Uganda increased by 74% from 2006 to 2016. The Uganda National Road Authority (UNRA) has been in charge of most road renovations in Uganda.
In Mbale Municipality, the UNRA has attempted to get private companies to place tarmac on the roads. However, the companies have abandoned the projects. The residents of Mbale Municipality continue to be outraged by terrible road infrastructure in Uganda and have protested several times about poor roads.
Tourists rely on roads to go to different villages and experience Uganda, a land-locked country. Unpaved roads create problems for travelers trying to get to different locations.
For example, the Queen Elizabeth National Park Road usually takes more than two hours to travel 72 kilometers, but it can take more than four hours if the weather conditions change because it is not a finished road.
If mudslides or severe weather conditions occur, the roads are unnavigable. However, tourism accounted for $1.6 billion or 7.7% of Uganda’s GDP in 2019. In addition, the tourism sector created 667,600 jobs for Ugandan residents in 2019.
Despite the government’s attempts to increase tourism, the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities has not focused on road construction.
Farmers rely on roads to transport agricultural products. The agricultural sector is one of the largest industries in Uganda, making up 70 per cent of available jobs.
The Ministry of Works and Transport estimated that 95 per cent of cargo is moved through roads, while only 16 per cent of roads are finished in Uganda. The inadequate road infrastructure in Uganda elevates the cost of transportation.
Hazardous road conditions may require farmers to use more gasoline, thus raising the price of transportation. Along with this, users may need to repair their vehicles more often because of unpaved roads being unsuitable for the two rainy seasons in Uganda. Farmers unable to travel to sell produce lack a steady income.
Sipi falls offer breath-taking scenery and it is believed that they were named after a local plant that grows on the banks of the River known as Sep. The falls pick water as it flows from the slopes of the Elgon Mountain.
Sipi Falls are divided into three waterfalls and the first one is the longest with a drop of 100 meters, the second one has a drop of 85 meters with an upper cascade before plunging and the last of the waterfalls has a drop of 75 metres.
Pian Upe wildlife reserve is home to a collection of large mammals, birds and reptiles. Visitors to the reserve should expect to see zebras, elands, gazelles and oribi.
Other animals include spotted hyenas, civets, jackals, serval cats, cheetahs, leopards, topi, wildcats, buffaloes, roan antelopes, reebucks, Duikers, Dik-dik, the Ugandan Kob, waterbucks, hares, porcupines, the rock hyrax, aardvark and hedgehogs.
The primates include Olive baboons, patas monkey and Vervet monkeys. Pian Upe game reserve is also home to reptiles such as rock pythons and puff adders.