East Africa

No crossing the border; Kenyan and Ugandan traders resort to mobile money and smuggling.

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By Pius Sawa, Kakamega- Kenya

For many years Ugandans and Kenyans have relied on each other for cross border business at Busia point. Not until COVID 19 pandemic, traders from Kenya would freely cross to the Ugandan side for common merchandise especially textile (vitenge), cereals and fish. On the other hand, Ugandans crossed to Kenya for sugar, detergents, blue band, rice, cigarettes and more.

But since the two countries locked their borders as measures to restrict movement to reduce the transmission of the Corona virus disease, the business community has suffered a great deal. Roselyn Wanjala from Kitale, about 400 kilometers North of Busia town was trading in table clothes, hand bags and textile for the last 5 years. She was receiving orders from neighbors and church members and made good profits to invest in farming.

“I applied for a loan from a microfinance institution to start the business. I used to make like three trips to Busia to get the supplies for my clients, and the profits were good.” However, the situation changed when the pandemic was announced that saw Uganda closing its border with Kenya.

Smuggling is now the only option that traders like Roslyn can apply if they want to stay in business. They have to liaise with the Ugandan suppliers, or hire somebody who will cross the border, get the items and maneuver through panya routes to deliver them to the buyer on the Kenyan side.

“It is very dangerous because I hear one has to cross through water, and swim to the other side, risking being arrested by the police on either side,” said Topista Obinde a trader from Mumias town. She makes detergents and gets her supplies from Busia town.

Fish is a commodity that relies on the Ugandan fisherman. Most of the fish supplied in western Kenya markets come from Uganda. With only 6 percent of Lake Victoria in Kenya, Uganda’s 42 percent has become a major seller to Kenya, but at a cost. “Uganda closed the border so no more fish comes to Kenya, or if it comes it has to be through hardship and getting it is a challenge,” says Florence Makokha a fish seller in Kakamega.

Yvonne Khayeshia has been selling fried fish in Kakamega with a big number of clients at her kiosk in Amalembe estate. She used to get her supplies from Busia on a daily basis until Corona virus came in, making it difficult for Yvonne to run the business.

“I used to get fish from Kisumu but it is no more, I think it is due to climate change and over fishing that has led to fish in the lake to disappear. I get from Busia Uganda and it is a challenge. You have to fight for the fish. You must catch the earliest vehicle to Busia and reach the market before the Uganda sellers bring the fish at the border market. At times you miss and come back without.”

At Kambi Somali fish market, Florence Makokha Onyango, who is the chair person of the fish sellers at the market, says since Corona started, they are forced to buy fish from China which is cheap but not delicious.

“The Kenyan and Ugandan fish are on very high demand, though very expensive. But the fish from China has been boosting our business, because they make us maintain the supply to our clients. It is easier to get the Chinese fish, as you just send the money to the factory and the fish is delivered by a track.”

The high cost of transport, increased fish prices and other underlying needs for a fish seller like Yvonne, the only way is to increase the price of fish, which causes another conflict with her clients. “Everything from transport, cooking oil and the fish price is high. So you are forced to make a profit but many of the clients will not understand. So the business has slowed down.”

Most of the women have so far stopped selling fish and opted for other business like selling vegetables. However it is hard for them to start new business. “If you feel like closing the fish business, and you have responsibilities and dependants, it becomes a problem. But if you had a way out, you could abandon it given that the profit is little as compared to years back when we used to get plenty of supplies from the lake,” says Yvonne.

It is now six months since the two countries locked their borders, which has seen Ugandan fish mongers create a new way of doing business. With the use of mobile money transfer system, Yvonne now does not have to travel to the border to get the fish. She uses her phone to place an order with the Ugandan seller, who packs the fish and puts in a public vehicle that will deliver the fish.

“We were making losses, travelling to Busia and fighting for the fish, which you either get or miss. So the Mpesa service has saved us from that. You just send the money and they will pack your order and it will be delivered,” says Yvonne.

Much as the cost of transportation is higher, the traders are assured of getting their supplies. They don’t have to go through brokers who will exaggerate the prices or hoard the fish for a profit.

“At least am sure that if I don’t get the fish today, tomorrow I will be the first one on the list to get.”

With this, traders have reduced the risk of contracting the corona virus as they don’t travel in public vehicles and they don’t as well flood the fish market.




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