One of the roads to Uganda’s future, travels through its past

One of the windows into Uganda’s future, is in its past. The lakeside city of Entebbe, established by Sir Gerald Portal in 1893 as a military post and principal port on Lake Victoria, was the capital and has retained much of its colonial history.

It is no longer known as Port Alice, named after Gerald Portal’s wife Lady Alice Bertie, but many of the quiet town’s streets still pay homage to its colonial past.

Entebbe ceased to be the capital at independence in October 1962, when that status was bestowed on Kampala. But it hosts the country’s main international airport, and from it, you can drive to Kampala through two routes; the old 30-kilometre Entebbe-Kampala or the newer 51-kilometre Entebbe Expressway.

The main State House, where President Yoweri Museveni lives and works is in Entebbe, although his office is in Kampala.

Streets still bear names such as Lugard after Frederick Lugard, military administrator of Uganda between 1890 and 1892, Gowers named after Ugandan protectorate governor William Frederick Gowers, and Combe, after geologist Arthur Delmar Combe.

The end of the intersection between Combe and Gowers roads is the venue of our interview with the Entebbe Tourism Association chairman, Andrew Otage. As we move from Gowers to Combe road, the grey tarmac gives way to patches that dot the red murram road snaking between a quiet neighbourhood.

My guide for the day is David Kangye. I had met the Entebbe-based writer and curator of earlier for breakfast at the sprawling, yet nearly empty Imperial Mall. He has offered to take me on a walk through Entebbe and show me the town’s famous landmarks.

Among the vestiges of its past association with power that the town has scarcely shed is the conspicuous presence of the military — a soldier walking down the street, two riding a bike, several others in characteristic Special Forces camouflage uniform riding behind a patrol truck. Their presence denotes the importance of this historical peninsula town that is expecting to be elevated to city status in 2022.

The Special Forces Command’s sprawling headquarters stands right next to the Entebbe Golf Course, established in 1901 and the oldest golf course in East Africa.

The offices of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces marines overlook another important landmark — the 40-acre Entebbe Botanical Gardens. They are the largest of their kind in the region and, according to Kangye, the filming site of Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan films in the 1940s.

Across the Kampala-Entebbe road is State House. It is abutted by Muzinga Square Park, a historical recreational site that has been closed to the public because of security concerns.

Interesting as it is to see all these fascinating buildings and establishments, and realise how important Entebbe is to Uganda’s past and present, I have to remind myself that I am here for a different reason altogether, a reason to do with the town’s significance to the country’s, even the region’s, future.

A hub for the Lake Victoria Blue Economy?
In May 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged most of the world, entry points along the borders of East African countries were choking with traffic. At Malaba on the Uganda-Kenya border, there were traffic jams sometimes stretching nearly 90 kilometres.

The most affected by the delays were truck drivers, who claimed they were being harassed by the authorities and protested at the lack of common Covid-19 testing protocols between Uganda and Kenya.

The crisis exposed Uganda’s disproportionate reliance on roads for its cargo movement and reignited debate on the need to explore other means of transport, especially its waterways.

According to the Cowi Consulting Group, up to 95 percent of Uganda’s cargo is transported by road, and less than one per centon its waterways, despite its many ports on Lake Victoria.

“Road-based transport corridors in the region have very high levels of carbon emissions and are expensive to maintain. The solution is to revive railways and waterways as the primary long-haul network, and only use roads for last mile connectivity,” said Abhishek Sharma, senior director of Transport at Trademark East Africa during the Nation Media Group’s 2020 Kusi Ideas Festival in Kenya’s lakeside city of Kisumu.

The message seems to have struck a chord. In June 2021, Kenya unveiled the newly refurbished Kisumu port as part of its multi-modal transport system to serve the East African region.

Two years earlier, the country had completed the 95 metre-long Kisumu Oil Jetty that was designed to improve the movement of oil products across Lake Victoria.

By July this year, The EastAfrican reported, Kenya’s MV Uhuru had made 26 trips to Ugandan ports and delivered 50 million litres of fuel. “Nairobi has been pushing for the actualisation of its multi-modal Lake Victoria transport system… but this has been dragged down by Kampala’s delay in completing its oil jetty and refurbishing its ports,” said the report.

I am in Entebbe, Kisumu’s lakeside sister city, to test the truth of this statement, to find out exactly what Uganda is doing to revamp its ports on Lake Victoria as it strives to turn around its regional fortunes.

I want to see how this peninsula town, is positioning itself to be a key link between Uganda and the rest of the region.

A few years ago, a trip to Entebbe, especially during the weekend, would be a nerve-racking experience as you navigated the monstrous traffic jams on the old Entebbe-Kampala road.

From hawkers selling their wares along — and sometimes in the middle of the road — to taxis reckless overtaking other vehicles on the wrong side of the highway, to the occasional traffic police officer trying to shake you down, you were lucky if it took you two hours to travel the slightly more than 30 kilometres.

But all that has changed. The 51-kilometre expressway connecting Entebbe to Kampala, commissioned in 2018, has reduced travel time between the two cities from two to three hours to under one hour.

“This is part of the government’s efforts to reduce congestion within the greater Kampala metropolitan area and improve traffic flow on the Northern Multi-Nodal Corridor that connects Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, and Eastern DR Congo,” says Ahmed Ayub, a senior media relations officer at the Uganda National Roads Authority.

According to Ayub, several expressways are planned to enhance Uganda’s position as a transport hub for the region. These will include the 21-kilometre Mpigi-Busega Expressway, which will join the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway at Busega, 10 kilometres to the west of the Ugandan capital. Work started in May 2020 and is expected to be completed by 2023. The road is expected to reduce congestion on the Kampala-Mpigi-Masaka road, which goes up to Uganda’s borders with Tanzania, Rwanda, and DR Congo.

Transport on the Lake
Located 16 kilometres from the Entebbe peninsula, the 250 metre-long Entebbe jetty at Bugiri-Bukasa, on the northeastern shores of Lake Victoria will have four oil tanker barges, each with a capacity of 4.4 million litres (about 150 road trucks). The $270 million project is being implemented by Mahathi Infra Uganda Ltd, a consortium of companies from India, Kenya, and Uganda. According to Mike Mukula, one of the investors in the consortium, the project will “create synergies” with the Kenyan oil pipeline and reduce fuel transport costs by about 50 per cent when the jetty is commissioned this year.

“If we can have as many boats on Lake Victoria as the vehicles we have on our roads, we can drive the local economy,” said Andrew Otage, who is also the chairman of the Entebbe Municipal Development Forum.

A long time resident of Entebbe, Otage believes the town can tap its history as a “town of many famous beginnings”— the entry point for Catholic missionaries into Uganda, the first seat of government, and Uganda’s first port town — and its connection to Kisumu to drive East Africa’s blue economy on Lake Victoria, which is estimated to be worth $50 billion.

Like him, many residents of Entebbe are banking on the recent heavy investments in key infrastructure such as the oil jetty and the $200 million expansion of Entebbe International Airport by the China Communication Construction Company, expected to be completed in 2023, to drive the town’s growth as a regional multi-modal transport and tourism hub.

The refurbishment of the airport, for example, will see the construction of a new cargo centre capable of handling 100,000 metric tonnes of cargo annually, a new passenger terminal building, strengthening of the airport runways and their associated taxiways, as well as rehabilitation of three aircraft parking aprons.

“The challenge we have is that 60 percent of the tourism traffic that uses the airport does not stop in Entebbe,” said Otage, who attributes this to low levels of investment in the town’s physical and tourism infrastructure.

“We have one government-owned ferry and three private vessels, which are expensive. Imagine if every tour operator could own a boat to use for cruises.”

He believes that, with the support of the government, the private sector can fill the gaps.

“Our conversation with the government has been, ‘can there be a duty waiver on importation of marine vessels?’ We now have fairly good roads but we also need to have more piers in Entebbe and Kalangala,” he said.

Emmanuel Bananukye is the manager of the 80-room Victoria Forest Resort, one of the new hotels on Bugala island, home to Kalangala district and one of the 84 islands that make up the Ssese archipelago.

Previously, hotel guests used Entebbe’s Nakiwogo pier, travelling aboard the public MV Kalangala ferry, which plies the three-hour Entebbe-Kalangala route twice a day — setting off from Kalangala at 8am and leaving Entebbe at 2pm.

“Kalangala remains one of the beautiful tourism destinations within the Tourism Development Area One which includes Kampala, Jinja, and Wakiso,” said Otage.

However, since 2019, it now takes only an hour on MV Vanessa and MV Natalie, which are owned by the Nyanza Evergreen Waterways Company.

Bananukye said this has helped to increase the number of hotel guests. “Just before last year’s lockdown the island was receiving 500 to 600 weekend tourists at its 14-15 resorts,” he said, and attributed this to improved efficiency in lake transport, which has in turn driven investment in tourism infrastructure in the island district.

One such investment is by Brovad Sands Lodge, a 44-room luxury hotel on Bugala island whose modern 70-seater purpose-fitted MV Brovad started plying the Entebbe-Kalangala route in July.

“We needed to connect more people to the island,” said the hotel’s proprietor, Rashid Kiyimba.

“The government has done its part investing in the public ferry [MV Kalangala], but tourists need convenient access to the islands,” he says.

MV Brovad offers weekend charter trips between Entebbe and Kalangala and in the near future plans to take visitors to Ngamba island, popular for its chimpanzee sanctuary.

Like Otage, both Kiyimba and Bananukye — whose hotels are the biggest in Kalangala — believe the private sector in the Lake Victoria basin countries could achieve even better results if their investments were matched by government efforts to improve interconnection between the different port cities.

They believe that passenger ferry services between the Lake Victoria ports of Kisumu, Entebbe, and Mwanza could be revived by the new MV Nodl, owned by Nation Oil Distributors. The vessel is currently docked at Port Bell in Luzira awaiting clearance to begin plying the routes.

“Kalangala is the number one local tourist destination in Uganda,” said Kiyimba, whose Brovad Sands Lodge receives on average 85 per cent of its clientele from Uganda. The rest, he said, are mainly European and American interns and researchers working in Uganda.

“We also have a few Kenyan and Rwandan honeymooners.”

He attributed the low number of East African visitors to insufficient marketing of the island in the region.

“The prevailing Covid-19 situation has opened our eyes… we have been looking at tourist traffic from overseas but there is a fairly strong middle class from the region which we had not tapped into,” said Otage, whose Entebbe Tourism Association counts Kenyan and South African business owners among its members.

To remedy this, the association organised several meetings with representatives from the Uganda Tourism Board and the Ministry of Tourism.

A planned working breakfast meeting with the new Entebbe mayor and other city leaders was scuttled by a lockdown Uganda announced on June 18.

Collaboration with the town’s leadership has in the past yielded good results. In 2018, the United Nations office announced that it was downsizing its regional logistics base in Entebbe in favour of Nairobi.

“One of the issues they were raising was lack of facilities here,” said Otage.

The Entebbe Tourism Association petitioned both the government of Uganda and the UN to halt the decision.

“Our argument was; we can have a phased development of these hotel facilities.”

The decision was reversed after a diplomatic offensive that included Uganda writing a protest letter to the United Nations. Otage said this is one of the many achievements that the private sector, working with the public sector, can achieve.

With 3,500 hotel rooms in 2020, Entebbe is exploring a joint venture with a private investor to develop a 7,000 capacity convention centre, the largest in Uganda. “That will feed into this tourism value chain… it will be the largest real estate development in Entebbe,” says Otage.

As we wind up our tour of the lakeside town, my guide points to a new glass structure coming up at the UPDF Marine base across from the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. Rays from the setting sun are reflected on the glass on the building and the waters of the low evening tide. In many ways they sum up the story of Entebbe — a tide capable of raising many East African boats, if harnessed well.