Transport Solutions in Mombasa: What do they mean for Likoni Settlement?


**Cross-posted from Living the City blog**

By Baraka Mwau and Dennis Mwaniki

January 2013, another painful month for the residents of Likoni, South Coast Mombasa.  Forget the infamous financial pinch that most Kenyans have to sail through in the month of January; think of the “untimely death” of the sole bread winner, a family member, parent, or even a friend!  Most of us imagine dying someday, but just like in my case, the thought most likely lasts only for a few seconds, and is mostly triggered by the death of someone close. Well, in as much as this is not the point for this posting, it was saddening to read about the Likoni ferry accident of January 26, 2013 in which at least 10 people died and many others were injured when a truck crushed people boarding the ferry (Likoni mourns 10 people). What a cruel way to die! Fact, this is not the first time an accident has been reported in the Likoni channel (and the Mtongwe ferry tragedy in which 272 people died is still fresh in some of our minds).

As we join the families in mourning their loved ones, we cannot ignore the underlying problem – the fragility of the ferry issue in our coast! Every single day, the 500 meter crossing is an uncertain trip for the over 200,000 people and 5,000 motorists using it. The risks here are not just from a ferry stalled in the middle of the channel, but also from being stumbled on, losing personal belongings from pick pockets, and as of recent, being run over by a truck! And the options for these people? Either travel by road for a distance of over 30kms and pay more or brave a few minutes of a free ride in the ferry. Yes, I would also choose the latter. A ‘cloud of hope’ however seems to hanging in the horizon – but to go by the Kenya government’s prophecy.  The ‘standard antidote’- a by-pass highway – has been prescribed as a way of dealing with the ferry shortcomings. In as much as we would love to jump into the options, choices and implications of this antidote to the ferry problem, it would be an injustice to interrogate what seems to be the planners’ palatable prescription without taking pride in the history of what is perhaps the cradle of urbanization in Eastern Africa.

Mombasa is perhaps the most famous Kenyan (if not East African) coastal city, and also one of the oldest cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, owing to its being  in existence for over thirty centuries, as per ancient Phoenician, Egyptian and Chinese knowledge repositories. Just like many other coastal cities across the world, the history of Mombasa displays the role of intercultural interaction and regional trade in development of both ancient and modern culture, architecture, governance structures, religion and way of life. Previously named Mvita (meaning a ‘place of war’), Mombasa has had its share of governance conflicts throughout history – ranging from inter-city rivalry to rotating governance systems resembling kingship. The city, just like many other East African Coastal cities (Malindi, Lamu, Watamu, Mombasa, Pemba, and Zanzibar) has experienced its fair share of Omani (Arab), Portuguese and British rulers – all with varied impacts in the language, city design/scape, structure and governance systems. The resultant urban form, land ownership structures, governance systems, culture and religion remain attractions to the coastal city to date; and some aspects of architecture (such as Fort Jesus, Gedi ruins etc) complement the lovely beaches and marine parks which flock with local and foreign tourists. Today, it is hard to dissociate the rich Swahili culture, religion and food from the city’s distinctive urban design and architecture.


Fort Jesus: Canons  strategically positioned to launch attack to likely threat  from the sea. The fort is one of the major attractions to Mombasa © Baraka, 2012

Over time however, the mix of governance and growth trends, coupled with the cosmopolitan nature of the city have resulted in a complex urbanization process, mostly benefitting a few and leaving the majority of the indigenous communities in poverty. Although the city’s population is still relatively low (estimated at slightly above 1 million), the numbers are on the increase and the regional economic significance of the city is obviously unrivalled. With the current national and global focus on urban centres as the locus of growth, Mombasa, supposedly Kenya’s second largest city, has been steadily growing (both spatially and density-wise), a trend that is expected to continue in the next few to many decades. The question is to which side this growth is biased.

Previously (and perhaps into the long future – God forbid!), the lack of proper urban development strategies for the city of Mombasa and “urbanization capitalism”, coupled with inequitable land governance systems have resulted in a city and region-wide squatter society. In this city, and its larger peri-urban area, most people are squatters, some even in their own ancestral land. If only to go by the latest land dispute, most of the Likoni area, where the majority of low and middle income residents live is private land, implying that everyone living therein is a squatter!

Although rarely talked about, urban informality in Mombasa greatly defines the crux of the city’s vibrancy. Well …… the truth is that contrary to modernist planning presuppositions, referring to Mombasa’s urban functioning as informal provokes a whole new debate on the definition of urban informality – yet it is indeed true! The difficulty in defining what is formal and what is informal is rooted in the fact that the urban character of Mombasa has been historically assembled by a rich Swahili culture, which dictated, and continues to dictate the city’s urban form and functioning.  Street markets are a good example of the Swahili emblem of appropriation of space for commercial practice that doubles as a public space (in most other cases these are informal activities). In the new settlement areas (such as Likoni and many other parts of the city, almost only excluding the old town), modern informal settlements are hugely evident.

Likoni is an informal settlement that lies adjacent to the shoreline, and is famously the “gateway” to the South Coast.  It is the largest informal settlement in Mombasa and has over the years exhibited characteristics of an ‘arrival city’, where migrants attempt to make a start to life in the city. Just like many other informal settlements in the country, the preference of Likoni can be explained by its closeness to work areas in the Island, low costs of housing and the usual advantages associated with economies of agglomeration. Ferry services link Likoni/South Coast and the Island, and even though the cost of “matatu” transport is relatively lower in Mombasa (compared to Nairobi), many people still walk from the ferry crossing to the Mombasa core city.  It is fundamental to accentuate that the Likoni ferry is perhaps the pivot that bridges income opportunities and households of the informal settlement of Likoni. As the city of Mombasa grows and expands to the South Coast, the traffic volumes at this channel are consistently overwhelming. Not surprisingly, Mombasa has now been engulfed in a Nairobi-like dilemma: traffic congestion, disorderliness, mass street vending, collapsing of solid waste management and even the once disciplined public transport operators (matatus) have become notorious for half-way trips.


Traffic Congestion has increasingly become a part of  Mombasa © Dennis M, 2012

But there is some ‘relief’. The national government has earmarked two major transport infrastructure projects at the coastal region: the great Lamu port and the Dongo Kundu by-pass highway.

Lamu port is the single largest infrastructure project in Africa at the moment and the Dongo Kundu highway rivals the recently concluded Thika Super Highway in tax payer spending. In fact, it is more expensive than the Thika highway despite its only being 17.5km against Thika highway’s 45km. Reason? Engineering technicalities!  This engineering complicated highway is estimated to cost the tax payer a whooping Kshs. 29 billion; money which is loaned to them by the Japanese government. The Thika highway cost the Kenyan tax payers Kshs. 28 billion and its accrued benefits to the masses (the urban poor) are still debatable. The bicycle lanes are completely underutilized, while efforts to educate the public on its usage seem to have been neglected (this is certainly a topic for another day!). For now, we rest the comparison at that and focus on the Likoni Channel; its challenges and the proposed cure: the Dongo Kundu bypass.

The safety risks at the Likoni crossing are written all over the faces of commuters every single time they use the largely ‘fateful’ ferries. I would comfortably say that visitors to the coast, one of whose main attractions was to cross between the Island and the mainland using the ferry no longer fancy this trip. Being part of this growing constituency of skeptics, I recently watched from a distance as the commuters boarded MV Nyayo. Apparently, I refused to obey my adventurous spirit on this free round trip – not after all the frequent accidents and technical mishaps that have become an almost daily occurrence here, even after the acquiry of new vessels by the Kenya Ferry Services (and yes, I am a lousy swimmer as well!). According to the government of Kenya, the long-term solution is the construction of the Dongo Kundu bypass, which would in theory decongest the Likoni channel, and create a safer link between the Island and the Mainland to the South. The by-pass is in line with the expansion of the Mombasa Port and undoubtedly, the relocation of freight handling and container depots at Miritini is long overdue.


Dongo Kundu by-pass

With all due respect for the government commitment, we have to ask: how will the masses in Likoni and its adjacent mainland benefit from the Dongo Kundu bypass; will the bypass cater for the walking masses; and will the limit on the traffic flow render pedestrians safe as they board the ferries? Currently, only 5,000 vehicles use this channel daily yet there is no planning strategy to respond effectively to the modal split, integrate current transportation modes at the terminus and most importantly, exploit the informal economic nodes the two docking points have created.  The matatu terminus on both sides of the crossing, and the Mama Ngina Drive on the Island side are both economic nucleus that have created hundreds of jobs for Likoni residents. How will they be affected by the bypass?

Developing a by-pass will most likely not cure the boarding accidents at the channel, since there will still be vehicles using the ferries. What is the by-pass is likely to do, other than limiting vehicular traffic volume in the ferries? In addition, other than tourists and a small number of further south coast residents who own cars, the majority of commuters are the Likoni area residents who will continually need to use the ferry service. Technical options are available, but even after the 1994 Mtongwe disaster and the recurrent mishaps in Likoni, the government is yet to consider alternative engineering options to the ferry.  The concern is that the real problem is being avoided in the name of a by-pass, which will keep tourists less worried, yet the thousands of South Coast residents will continue to face danger every moment they make the half kilometre crossing.

To date, thousands of households in Likoni live in squalor conditions and there are no indications of any concrete programme to upgrade the settlement. Is the government and the Municipal Council of Mombasa getting its priorities right? We are not in the least doubtful that the realities of Dongo Kundu by-pass will relieve Mombasa Island of its escalating traffic suffocation and relief motorists the erratic ferry failures at Likoni. The question we ask is how much change it will bring to the rapidly suburbanizing city, if no proper accompanying growth frameworks are put in place. Are we likely to see similar land price explosion and linear growth as has been the case with Thika Road, and what are the likely implications to the already dire land problem in the coastal city? For now, while the Dongo Kundu by-pass has received its share of objection from the locals-mostly attributed to interference with the kayas, there seems to be little objection based on its prioritization as an infrastructure project in Mombasa. This is certainly a good thing, to which related socio-spatial and economic aspects can be added.

Similar to the Thika highway, this by-pass is linked to the realization of Vision 2030. In this case, the fantasy is to promote Mombasa as the African Dubai, with the South Coast becoming a leading tourist destination. For us, it is tempting to opinionate that the urban planning and infrastructure developments in Mombasa are responding to international interests, rather than local needs and aspirations. Isn’t this a way of promoting the classical “trickle down” approach to development, which has traditionally crippled the growth of Mombasa in the first place? For how long will the urban poor in Mombasa take to benefitting from the trickle down effects of these projects? and is this what our second largest city really needs? You be the judge.

We do not by any means undermine or detest infrastructure investments in the country. We are merely of the opinion that if the government channels similar efforts and resources (even if just commitment in policy formulation & implementation, promoting private sector partnerships & giving incentives etc) to informal settlements upgrading and the promotion of Small and Micro Enterprises (SMEs), the majority of Kenyans, and particularly the urbanites, will live more decently as opposed to having hundreds of kilometres of tar which are designed for the few upper-class populace and tourists. And there is definitely a need to understand underlying issues in all projects, objectively rather than politically.