Kenya's new Lamu Port flounders

By Zachary Ochieng March 25, 2022
Kenya's President Kenyatta (3rd left) at the inauguration of the port’s first berth on May 20, 2021. Kenya's President Kenyatta (3rd left) at the inauguration of the port’s first berth on May 20, 2021.

Ten months after opening, Kenya’s new Lamu container port remains worryingly underused. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

Only nine ships have docked at Kenya’s new Chinese-built Lamu Port since starting operations in May last year, leading critics to describe the much-hyped $4 billion project as a potential ‘white elephant’ in the making.  

It was hoped the seaport close to the Somali border would boost Kenya’s status as a global transport and logistics hub.

However, the less-than-successful launch has raised concerns that the port could struggle to meet its target of handling 23.9 million tons of freight by 2030 unless drastic action is taken.

The port handled just nine vessels and 1,619 containers in 2021. 

With a depth of 17.5 metres, compared to Mombasa’s 15 metres, the huge deep-water Lamu harbour is able to handle larger container ships than its southern Kenyan rival.    

Construction of the second and third berths of the planned 32 berth-harbour were completed in December, marking the conclusion of the first phase of the project, which cost $367 million and took five years. 

Covering 1,000 acres, the mega project incorporates an international airport, an oil refinery, a resort city, and a highway and standard-gauge railway connection to land-locked South Sudan and Ethiopia.   

Part of an ambitious $23 billion transport corridor between Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia, known as Lapsset, the port is strategically located at the convergence of key shipping routes.  

Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding with South Sudan that will see the creation of an oil pipeline from Juba in South Sudan to Lamu.

Currently, oil from South Sudan is refined in Khartoum and exported through Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Lamu offers South Sudan its shortest link to the sea and an alternative exit point for the country’s extensive crude oil and mineral deposits.  

Conceived to help reduce the economic dependency on Kenya’s Mombasa Port, which has come under increased strain in recent years due to rising demand, Lamu was expected to be the go-to seaport in the East Africa-Horn of Africa region, luring new business and diverse multi-million-dollar investment opportunities for both local and foreign investors.    

To encourage greater use of the new port, the Kenyan government has announced a raft of incentives, including a one-year promotional tariff, in which shipping lines will be charged 50 percent of the gross tonnage-based dues.   

The Kenya Ports Authority is also offering a 40 per cent discount for wharfage and shore handling services, in addition to a 30-day free storage period.   

Among the companies to have set up operations at Lamu Port is the global shipping giant Maersk, which has promised further investment at the facility going forward.

The French shipping line CMA CGM has also signed a memorandum of partnership with the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and Bandari Maritime Academy, and will increase its fleet to serve Mombasa and Lamu Port and also offer sea time training to the academy.  

The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), and Comarco, a marine transportation and engineering company, have also set up operations in Lamu.  

Meanwhile, the construction of the project has led to the development of new hotels, restaurants, logistics companies and cargo-handling facilities nearby.  

Further afield, the opening of a port in Lamu has been welcomed by communities in Kenya’s under-developed northern regions, whose pastoralist communities hope to benefit from the export of livestock to the Middle East.   

Hussein Abdi, a livestock trader based in the northern Kenyan town of Garissa, couldn’t hide his excitement over the new port.

‘Transportation of livestock to Lamu Port for export will result in higher profits due to the short distance between Garissa and Lamu,’ he told NewsAfrica.   

Equally excited is Cornel Murimi, a hardware dealer who has hitherto been using the Mombasa port to deliver goods to the northern Kenyan town of Isiolo, some 700km away.  

He said: ‘By using the Lamu port, I will now save in both time and cost and earn higher profits given that Lamu is only 470km from Isiolo.’

But critics fear the fledging project will degrade the pristine marine environments essential to local fisherman and the tourist industry.

Another key concern for potential users is security.

In January, Lamu was placed under a 30-day dawn-to-dusk curfew following a series of al-Shabaab terror attacks that left 13 dead, including four police officers.