Unprecedented operational hitches at the Nairobi inland container depot have been blamed for the pileup of cargo along the transportation chain, threatening Kenya's position as a regional transportation hub.
The chaos at the port of Mombasa has culminated in the reorganisation of the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) top management, with the managing director Catherine Mturi-Wairi being sent on compulsory leave. But she got a reprieve after the High Court revoked her suspension.
Shippers, logistics firms and clearing agents say improving operations at the port will not succeed if the issues at the ICD are not sorted out.
While in the past Mombasa was the only focal point of inefficiencies in cargo handling, the ICD has now become a congestion hub as the government pushes cargo owners to use the standard gauge railway for cargo destined upcountry.
The government issued a directive that 40 per cent of cargo arriving at the port of Mombasa be transported by the SGR to the ICD has turned the once quiet Nairobi-based facility into a den of bureaucratic ineptness and disorder.
Such is the disorder that the KPA has been forced to put up notices in Kenyan newspapers telling importers to clear cargo at the facility to decongest it.
On Thursday, the KPA, in a paid advertisement, said there were 2,000 cleared containers at the depot that have not been collected despite exhausting their free storage period.
It warned that uncollected cargo will be transferred to nominated warehouses outside the ICD for storage at the cost of the respective importers.
The pileup at the facility has put KPA on the spot over slow evacuation of cargo and the rising number of empty containers, which are affecting operations at the port of Mombasa.
This comes at a time when hinterland shippers are increasingly turning to the port in the face of infrastructure improvements and acquisition of new equipment, which are expected to facilitate even more trade within the region, in terms of cargo throughput and port efficiency.
Mombasa's container terminal boasts 13 ship-to-shore gantry cranes, 50 rubber-tyred gantry cranes and 78 tractors.
At a stakeholders meeting in Kampala on June 5, Uganda's Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works and Transport Bageya Waiswa said traders have realised increased business growth following initiatives implemented by KPA, including the Single Customs Territory, which has reduced time taken by cargo from Mombasa to Kampala.
Mr Waiswa noted that due to the port expansion, KPA now handles ships of up to 6,000 twenty-foot container equivalent capacity, which has significantly increased economies of scale and consequently lowered the cost of doing business in the region.
In 2017, some 6.59 million tonnes of cargo were imported into Uganda via Mombasa, and KPA officials say that the new improvements at the port and Uganda's quest to improve infrastructural bottlenecks are timely trade catalysts.
Mombasa port remains the most connected in the region, with at least 33 shipping lines calling and providing direct connectivity to more than 80 ports.
With this magnitude of cargo, the government is concerned about the port's efficiency and has effected personnel changes to fix the problem.
In March, 14 senior managers were reshuffled amid accusations of sabotaging the SGR's operations.
A senior KPA manager who requested anonymity traces the chaos to the government's run-in with container freight station (CFS) operators, who previously used to provide storage facilities to help ease congestion at the port, a development that has made it impossible to smoothen operations both in Mombasa and at the Nairobi ICD.
Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia has said that the government will not allow any cargo destined for Nairobi to be stored in CFSs in Mombasa.
KPA is loading all cargo designed for upcountry and export onto the SGR without verification, something that importers say has seen the ICD become a dumping ground for cargo.
"CFSs used to ease the pressure at the port by providing storage facilities. The government wants them out of the way by insisting that cargo should be transported to the ICD and so there is a huge crisis," said the manager.
He added that in an ironic turn of events and in desperate measures to ease the congestion at the port, KPA is now nominating all undocumented import containers to some CFSs in Mombasa.
Apart from the ICD, there are only two privately owned holding depots in Nairobi, one of which is owned by logistics company Bollore. The two are also said to be full to capacity.
"The ICD in Embakasi is a mess and instead of government agencies trying to improve services, they have resorted to engaging in an unproductive blame game," William Ojonyo, Kenya International Warehousing Association chairman said.
"There is need to shorten the turnaround time at the ICD to reduce congestion," said Wanja Getambu-Kiragu, Transport operations director at the East African Online Transport Agency.
The mounting problems at the ICD have resulted in accusations and counter-accusations among the various stakeholders, with KPA and Kenya Revenue Authority bearing most of the blame for failure to put up seamless processes at the facility and co-ordinate effectively the evacuation of cargo.
Clearing agents have also come under criticism over allegations that some are deliberately slowing cargo clearance after they were forced to open offices in Nairobi. Previously, the majority of the agents operated from Mombasa.
Additional reporting by Julius Barigaba