RISKY, LUCRATIVE

Science of transporting large cargo across the ocean in Lamu archipelago

Shippers make as much as Sh100,000 for a single trip; the archipelago has 64 islands.

In Summary
  • The water transport industry in Lamu has revolutionised into a money-making venture, especially for the few shippers of 'risk cargo'.
  • Shippers split all losses with owners, many regulations required to ship large cargo like vehicles, cranes and heavy equipment. 
An ambulance is transported on a boat at Lamu island.
RISK CARGO: An ambulance is transported on a boat at Lamu island.
Image: CHETI PRAXIDES

Across Kenya, vehicles, equipment and other large cargo are easily transported by road on heavy trucks and trailers designed for massie cargo.  

In Lamu island and across the larger archipelago of 65 islands, shippers are making a killing by transporting vehicles atop large, flat-bottomed wooden boat 'buses.' The business is daring, dangerous and highly profitable.

A few years back, transporting vehicles or motorbikes to Lamu island or other far-flung islands was quite a hassle as there was no standard method.

Many times, the cargo ended up at the bottom of the ocean, leaving the owners and shippers counting losses.

Today, however, the water transport industry in Lamu has been revolutionised into a money-minting venture for shippers, especially for the few who transport ‘risk cargo’.

This cargo includes vehicles, tractors, building equipment. water bowsers, cranes, lorries, ambulances and motorbikes, among others.

It is referred to as risk cargo because of the technicalities involved in the loading, transportation and offloading once it arrives at its destination.

In the past, vehicles in Lamu islands were unheard of but currently the 35 larger islands each has at least one vehicle.

Renowned Lamu islands include Lamu, Manda, Siyu, Pate, Faza, Kizingitini, Ndau, Mkokoni, Kiwayu and Kiunga ,among others.

Calls for dredging channels

Shippers have called for dredging the 500-metre-long channel from Lamu island to Manda channel, and the channel from Mkanda to Kililana which is 1.5km, to make them deeper and wider

The introduction of devolution in 2013 meant that many remote areas would need vehicles for government institutions, including hospitals, schools and other offices.

Hundreds of vehicles were dispatched from government ministries and agencies to all counties across Kenya.

While it was easy to transport vehicles to most counties, it was a challenge to transport vehicles to the Lamu archipelago.

Large ships would have been much better but in the archipelago many channels are too shallow for them.

Shippers have called for dredging the 500-metre-long channel from Lamu island to Manda channel, and the channel from Mkanda to Kililana which is 1.5km, to make them deeper and wider.

Because of run-off and other problems, the seabed has 'risen' over the years, meaning these two channels cannot be navigated by larger vessels at low tide.

The problem gave rise to the risk cargo transport industry. It is now easy and safe to transport vehicles and other heavy cargo, such as oil drilling equipment, across the archipelago.

 

An ambulance is transported in Lamu island.
TRICKY RANSPORT: An ambulance is transported in Lamu island.
Image: CHETI PRAXIDES

Shipper Abdulazi Hersi says the major rule in the business is to ensure the cargo is well strapped down and strategically positioned to ensure the boat is balanced.

The strapping is done with heavy-duty ropes and chains, cords and larger timber holders tO ensure the cargo doesn't tilt, slip or move in any way during transport.

“Effective strapping will ensure the boat doesn’t waver, sink or capsize, whatever conditions you encounter at sea,”Hersi said.

Renowned shipper Mohamed Bini says their biggest clients are Lamu county and the national government that sometimes sometimes replaces old vehicles.

Large boats, commonly known as water buses, are the preferred mode of transport. Owners invest millions to ensure the safety of their cargo.

These boats are made of tough mangrove wood both in the interior and exterior. Their large size and lack of overloading make capsizing far less likely than for smaller boats.

The boats have a large, flat bottom that provides stability in heavy seas.

Former lamu risk cargo shipper Abdallah Faraj says this venture is lucrative as it is less used and many shippers cannot meet the standards and requirements.

While a normal passenger boat trip from Lamu island to the another island costs about Sh10,000 for a single trip, a single risk cargo trip can fetch Sh50,000 and or Sh200,000, depending on the type of cargo, its size and the distance covered.

“That is 10 times more than what normal cargo transport will fetch. It's lucrative and those of us who are daring enjoy the monopoly," Faraj said.

“We just risk it. Whatever comes happens. We don’t have the millions needed to pay for insurance and so we do without
Former risk cargo shipper Abdallah Faraj

Those seeking to transport their cargo across the ocean have no other option and  liability is shared on a fifty-fifty basis between the owner and the boat owner.

“This means  in case of a loss, say the cargo plunges into the sea, the cost to retrieve it and cover the loss is shared half and half. 

That's where the risk cargo reality sets in. It's risky in every way but it's good business when all goes well," Faraj said.

The low number of heavy cargo shippers in Lamu can also be attributed to the fact that most have no insurance for their vessels. that means the cargo is not covered in case things go wrong.

Faraj says the high cost of insurance has kept many shippers away.

Abdallah Faraj is a renowned large cargo shipper in Lamu.
RISK CARGO SHIPPER: Abdallah Faraj is a renowned large cargo shipper in Lamu.
Image: CHETI PRAXIDES

“We just risk it. Whatever comes happens. We don’t have the millions needed to pay for insurance and so we do without,” he added.

According to statistics at the Lamu Boat operators’ office, of more than 6,000 boats in the entire archipelago, only about 20 are into the risk cargo business.

Mohamed Fuad,64, was once in the business but had to quit after an accident forced him to sell his boat to pay for the loss of a car that plunged into the ocean.

“That was in 2016. I had to deliver the carm to Mtangawanda in Lamu East from Mokowe jetty.

"We encountered rough tides at Mkanda channel and the car fell into the ocean. I sold the boat to pay it off and quit after 15 years.

He now does ordinary boat transport using a speed boat he bought from the remaining proceeds of the large boat sale.

Apart from this case and despite the risks involved in this kind of cargo transportation, Lamu has yet to record any serious incident involving risk cargo transport boats.

(Edited by V. Graham)