Kenyans swim to Uganda for supplies after border closure

Presidents closed border after both countries recorded coronavirus cases

In Summary

• Retailers hire boda boda riders to cross and buy vegetables, fruits and cassava. 

• Situation compounded by Busia governor's order to close all open-air markets. 

River Malaba which Kenyans cross to Uganda for fruits and vegetables
RISKY UNDERTAKING: River Malaba which Kenyans cross to Uganda for fruits and vegetables

Last week’s closure of the Kenya-Uganda border has not deterred Kenyans from crossing into the neighbouring country.

This time, however, they cross by swimming across River Malaba after the Malaba border point was closed. 

The majority of those crossing go there to buy food, particularly vegetables and fruits which are now scarce on the Kenya side after the border closure.


Fruit and vegetable retailers hire boda boda riders to cross and buy vegetables, fruits and cassava.

Informal traders who spoke to the Star said currently, local supplies of fruits and vegetables could not meet the demands of consumers.

“We give them money and their job is to cross into Uganda to buy, ferry and we pay them after transport,” Josephine Omuse said in Amagoro town. Amagoro is six kilometres from the Malaba One-Stop Border Post. 

She says their suppliers wake up as early as 5am to start the day.

“They receive money in the evening on M-Pesa to make it easy for them to move early in the morning." 

Omuse, however, said the job was risky since the river is flooded after heavy rains in Mount Elgon where the river originates. 

Polycarp Emee, 22, said life was slowly becoming harder after the closure of the border. 


“Life was easy before because we went to Uganda any time, buy our goods and come back to Kenya,” he said.

He said he did not cross into the country but facilitated the movement of fruits with the help of a neighbour who is in Uganda.

His neighbour, he said, swims across the river, buys the food items from farmers and swims back into Kenya from where Emee ferries the luggage on his motorbike to markets. He then sells to retailers. 

About 50 per cent of the fruits including sold in Busia markets come from Mbale, Tororo, Soroti, Bugiri, Kumi and Bukedea in Eastern Uganda.

Vegetable and fruit sellers said there has been irregular supply against an increased demand since children are home after schools were also closed. 

“Everyone is at home and family population has increased. It is like we are on holidays,” Emee said. 

Kenya and Uganda officially shut border operations in Busia, Malaba and Lwakhakha on Sunday, banning pedestrian and private car movement across the two countries. 

This followed the confirmation of coronavirus in both countries. Cases in the two neighbours by Monday stood at 72.

Boda boda rider Abel Omusolo said with limited basic food supplies locally, Kenyans have no option but to source for food in Uganda. 

“What do we do? Do you remain in the house and starve and die when there is food across the border?” he asked.

Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni, when they announced the border closure, said the only people allowed to cross into the two countries are long-distance truck drivers and their turn-boys.

But residents argue that the trucks do not supply the food items they need.

The situation worsened on Wednesday when Busia Governor Sospeter Ojaamong ordered the closure of all open-air markets which were the next main source of vegetable and fruit supplies. 

“Market days have been suspended but small markets will continue on condition that they observe social distance, noting that a congregation of many people will not be allowed,” Ojaamong said after attending a meeting he co-chaired with county commissioner Joseph Kanyiri.

Malaba Port Health Manager Evelyn Walela last week said the Ministry of Health was closely working with security agencies to ensure all porous borders are sealed to bar Kenyans from crossing into Uganda.

Edited by R.Wamochie 

Some of the scarce food items include cassava, vegetables and fruits.
FIGHTING TO SURVIVE: Some of the scarce food items include cassava, vegetables and fruits.