When Wilson Kamoti acquired a new omnibus, he put it along Mbale-Bududa-Lwakhakha roads in Bududa and Manafwa districts with the expectation of repaying the loan later as he watched the vehicle make profits to grow the business. Unfortunately, things have not quite worked out the way he wanted.
Like Kamoti, many a businessman have had to pay millions of shillings for repair and remodelling of their vehicles to suit the poor road network riddled with potholes, something they did not anticipate.
According to Edward Wasukira, a driver of an omnibus, they carry out repairs each time their vehicles make a trip to from Mbale to Sironko, Bulambuli, Manafwa, Bududa and rural Mbale districts routes, with the worst routes being in the hilly areas of Masira, Buginyanya, Bumbo, Buwabwala, Bushika, Bulucheke, Bukonde and Bufumbo sub-counties, and even Mbale municipality.
"At times we get stuck on the way. We fail to make it to our destinations, so we sleep there with the passengers. This will be a day wasted, we can't recover anything. The vehicle has broken down and at times, passengers run away without paying us, cursing your vehicle," said Mr Wasukira.
Six out of every 10 vehicles that shoot through these rugged mountainous terrains of Mt Elgon, many without even rudimentary access, usually make it back with broken springs and bodies as the vehicles dance along the potholed roads, almost reduced to village paths.
Pockets of the population elsewhere, particularly along the rural remote sub-counties of Bumasifwa, Bumasobo, Zesui, Bubulo, Bushika, Buwabwala, Bumbo, Bubutu, Tsekululu, Bufumbo and Buwalasi can only be reached using motorcycles or bicycles.
Roads, where they exist, are poorly maintained and provide unreliable, infrequent, high-cost road transport services. Even major highways, once well maintained and offering modern, efficient and competitive services, now experience closure in wet weather and frequent vehicle breakdowns.
"We got loans and purchased vehicles to enter the transport business but along these roads our vehicles have broken down and others have been written off before the loans are even paid back. It is worse during the wet seasons when the ground is slippery. Our tyres get won out, so we have to replace them almost every month especially on the rough roads in the hills around Mt Elgon area," said Mr Andrew Maludye, another driver whose bus plies Mbale-Sironko roads.
Mr Patrick Wakoko who deals in perishable products from the rural markets says he has lost goods worth Shs6m on four occasions when the vehicles he was using broke down because of the bad roads.
"One time I was transporting tomatoes, cabbage and bogoya to Karamoja and when the vehicle broke down at Atari in Bulambuli district, I got stuck for about three days and my goods got rotten. Another time I was just coming from the market in Kamu. The vehicle got spoilt and most of the goods were either stolen or got rotten on the way. I wish government would think about us in these rural areas," he said.
President Museveni listed in his manifesto, 21 national roads which measure up to 3,253km that he promised his government would upgrade to tarmac or reconstruct during his five-year term of office.
He also promised to upgrade about 5,000km of district roads to national road status and construct over 30 bridges, just a year later after Uganda National Roads Authority had been given the mandate of developing and revamping some 20,000km of the national road network and 10,000Km of district roads but this is yet to take off.
District engineers in Kween, Bukwo, Bududa, Bulambuli, Sironko, Bududa, Mbale, Manafwa and Butaleja districts have maintained that the money being released to the districts from central government is very little and inadequate to help maintain the roads in the rural districts.
The Minister of State for Works, Eng. John Byabagambi, mid last year said the government has little money for maintenance of the roads and asked districts to adopt labour based technology to start construction of roads. This was while he was commissioning an eight kilometre rural road constructed by Mt Elgon Labour Based Technology Centre using the local people along the road network that connects Busamaga-Bungokho, Mutoto - Lwaso and Bufumbo sub-counties.
What is labour-based technology?
Mt Elgon Labour Based Training Centre (MELTC) based at Uganda Technical College Elgon trains district local government engineers to train the locals improve their own road network.
Labour-based technology relies on locally available resources enabling the country to save foreign exchange that would have been spent on heavy equipment, fuel, oil and other lubricants in construction and maintenance of roads.
Although government's response to Labour based technology in road construction remains slow, experiences in Sironko and Mbale have shown that it is the cheapest and easiest way to construct, rehabilitate and maintain rural roads.
According to the principal of the MELTC, Eng. Samuel Kisira, the engineers contracted to make a road are trained on how to use the local man power living along the road for construction and maintenance of the rural roads.
The centre was established by the Uganda government in 1995 with the help of Nordic development fund and according to Eng. Simon Otemo, when Nordic funding ran out in 1999, Danida took over.
The government borrowed the idea from Kenya and the initial engineers who included Otemo were trained at the institute in Kiisi, Kenya and the method has been successfully demonstrated in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Ghana.
Kisira says that since most rural roads' level of traffic is low with less than 20 vehicles in a day, road construction results are achieved by using human labour and light machinery and that at MELTC they also train contractors in maintenance of district roads using gravel.
How it works
According to Otemo, MELTC helps districts in selection of contractors, district engineers and foremen who must have at least a diploma in civil engineering and a certificate for the foremen.
The trained district engineers explain the project to the communities through their local leaders while the local labourers get on-job-training. Whereas the labourers use simple hoes, slashers, pangas and spades, Kisira says compaction, hauling, watering and rolling of gravel are done by light machines.
"Because it relies on locally available resources enabling the country to save foreign exchange that would have been spent on heavy equipment, fuel, oil and other lubricants, labour-based technology has great advantage over the equipment intensive method," says Kisira.
Geoffrey Kiige a technical person who has been working along the eight km Busamaga-Bungokho Mutoto - Lwaso and Bufumbo new model road says through the district leadership, they identified the road as one of the community access roads that needed rehabilitation.
Kiige says MELTC then embarked on sensitisation of the community, and requested for labour and land along the rural access route. After getting the land the work started in 2010. Besides the road, they also construct the bridges along the access road.
He revealed that the eight km road has taken about two years to complete and that it takes about one month to complete a 1.5km stretch of a road using the cheap labour based technology.
The first step is to set horizontal alignment of the road, clear the bush, grass and tree stumps or boulders and then set the vertical alignment of the road and make levelled and side drains made.
"Camba formation to raise the middle of the road and culvert installations to shift water from one side of the road to another is then done using hands, spades and the traditional hoe while quarrying works, gravelling and compacting the gravel is where light machines are used to complete the cheap process road construction," says Kiige.
Ms Esther Kagusuma, a sociologist at the centre says HIV/Aids sensitisation for the labourers and the community along the road is a full package of lessons given to the worker before and during the road construction to equip them with the knowledge of guarding themselves.
"At MELTC we know that once there is a road being constructed, people working will get attracted naturally because they have money so we basically sensitise our people on HIV/Aids as more people come in and relationships are established. We empower people to manage the relationships as they work," says Ms Kagusuma. She adds that MELTC ensures that 30 per cent of the labour force comprises women.