Friday, August 1, 2008

Mombasa Port: Gateway or Barrier

Cargo movement at the Port of Mombasa is currently strangled to near paralysis and is damaging commercial activity in the East and Central Africa region for which the Port is purported to be the gateway.
A bungled implementation of an electronic port management system has increased the cargo clearance period from an impressive 2 days to 14. About 10 vessels are now reported to be awaiting discharge of their cargoes. This slack is compounded by the non-performing Rift Valley Railways whose uptake of containers is said to be down to 2% from 20% when the Kenya Railways handed over.

The Kenya Ports Authority management is strangely unruffled by these regressive events and says they are only ‘teething problems’ which are being sorted out and expect them to be fully addressed in the next three months. It seems to me that some of the fellows running key operations at that port are unbelievably incompetent and are unlikely to be turned around in the next three decades, let alone months. How they hope to make Mombasa Port “the premier port of choice in the region and hub of maritime activity by 2015“is perhaps a matter of Kaya magic.

The so-called teething problems are such basic issues that would make an IT student weep. That many of the port clients have not been issued with passwords to log into the new system, that a number of the clients do have the passwords and are still unable to log in, that many of the clients have yet to be inducted into the system, that many of the port’s own staff are unable to operate the system and therefore cannot serve or guide their clients and that the system is compatible with only one internet browser. An IT manager that cannot foresee and forestall such “teething problems” leading to a complete breakdown of operations is clearly unfit for the job. And it should have been obvious to such a manager’s superior that implementing an IT solution of such a scale was never going to be easy and that a successful implementation of the project would require strong and innovative leadership.

The Kilindini Waterfront Operating System (KWATOS) that is at the centre of the current mess has been in the pipeline for more than a year now. It is amazing that a system of this magnitude with far reaching consequences can be implemented without a pilot project during which potential hitches would have been identified and remedied. It also seems to ordinary folk like me that installation should have been phased to run parallel with the previous ‘manual’ one until all end users and stakeholders are roped in; a seamless user migration that would have inspired enthusiasm and enhanced operations rather than this bizarre absence of strategy that has sparked resistance and massive loss of business.

Who will professionalize the management of Mombasa Port to help it meet national and regional goals? Certainly not Transport Minister Chirau Mwakwere whose constant refrain to pertinent issues is “that is not my responsibility”. And the port’s Board of Directors is largely composed of individuals whose input in guiding the running of such a complex organization in the maritime industry is suspect. Obviously, the port’s strategies are crafted elsewhere and the ‘council of elders’ only serve to sign on the dotted line which the MD points at.

It is a mystery how MD Abdullah Mwaruwa and his team expect to meet their vision “To be rated amongst the top 20 ports in the world in terms of reputation and performance by the year 2010”. That is two years away and by 2003, the 20th port in the world was handling 3 million TEU’s per year. The Mombasa Port expects to handle 1 million TEU’s by 2015, if KWATOS grows its teeth in time and the container terminal expansion plan succeeds.

As far as visions go, the Port of Mombasa is dreaming badly.

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