Mpulungu – Zambia’s Only Port
THREE battered cargo vessels are anchored at the edge of Lake Tanganyika in Mpulungu. One of the vessels at the port is being loaded with cargo by an army of stevedores or dockworker, s who carry bags of sugar on their shoulders, treading carefully across a makeshift pier.
In the distance, a fold of mountains and shimmering water form a picturesque backdrop, but the port itself is unremarkable, save for a monstrous 300 tonne crane whose long arm looms imposingly above the port.
This drab picture of Zambia’s only port is, however, bound to change in the next few months as Government implements an ambitious project to modernise it.
About US$ 1.4 million has already been committed by Government for the planning stage for the modern port, and engineering designs have been done, just awaiting approval.
The project will cost about US$ 10 million and will be funded through a loan from the African Development Bank ( AfDB).
Mpulungu Harbour Corporation is the company responsible for running the port, and no- one here sounds as upbeat about the prospects of the port as the corporation’s manager, Davies Kaluba.
“ Mpulungu Port, in the next nine months, will start being developed into a world- class port,” he says.
Mr Kaluba says the plan is to extend the quay or platform at the port to 120 metres from the current 20 metres, in order to accommodate more vessels at one go. The new port will also have a passenger bay.
Once a fortnight, a 1913 vessel called MV Liemba docks here, carrying passengers and cargo from Tanzania. It is the most recognisable vessel on these waters and brings life to the port town.
The 71- metre vessel, which belonged to the Germans, has a romantic history. It was once sunk during the First World War, but was raised and rehabilitated. It has been sailing these waters since 1927.
The boat is owned by a Tanzanian company.
In fact, all vessels that dock here are foreign- owned, and only come on- call, whenever there is cargo to be ferried across. The boat being loaded with sugar, for instance, is flying a Burundian flag.
“ We make calls for vessels to come and pick cargo here and yet we are the exporters,” says Mr Kaluba.
According to Mr Kaluba, Government is now planning to buy some cargo and passenger vessels.
“ The government has already planned for the purchase of a passenger vessel, which will be our own national asset,” says Mr Kaluba.
“ We are good to go for development, we are good to go for increased activity here,” he says.
At the moment, the port handles an average of 50,000 tonnes annually of cargo, mostly sugar and cement.
Every month, the port handles between 4,000 and 5,000 tonnes of cargo, although in June, the cargo, especially for cement, doubled.
Why? “ What has made that possible is the coming on board of Dangote Cement, because our prices are now affordable and we are able to export competitively to the Great Lakes Region,” explains Mr Kaluba.
Before Dangote Cement came on the market, the price of cement had almost reached K100, but prices have now fallen to about half of that.
Cement exports fell in 2013 owing to the huge demand on the local market, driven by the road projects that Government embarked on during that period.
He said before 2013, Mpulungu port handled about 8,000 tonnes of cement exports.
Mr Kaluba believes exports for cement can now average 10,000 tonnes due to increased production, especially with the coming of Dangote.
And Mr Kaluba says there is now a huge market for the export of clinker, a raw material used in the production of Portland cement, to Bujumbura, where a cement factory is based.
Integration For Minister of Finance Alexander Chikwanda, who toured the port recently, a vibrant port is vital for regional integration.
Mr Chikwanda says Zambia should take advantage of the size of Burundi and Rwanda by increasing such exports as sugar which cannot be grown on a large scale there.
Lake Tanganyika, which covers 32,900km/ sq, making it the second largest freshwater body in the world, is shared by four countries – Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC), Tanzania and Zambia.
Tanzania and the DRC have the largest share of the lake, with about 86 percent of the lake shared almost equally between them, while Zambia has one sixth of the water body.
Mr Chikwanda could not talk about the project without a mention of one of its strongest proponents, Dr Freddie Kwesiga, who served as AfDB country representative, but never lived to see his dream – he died in 2015.
Dr Kwesiga believed that Lake Tanganyika is a very strategic project because of its entry into the East African markets.
Tourism The northern tourism circuit is usually talked about only in terms of its potential, and Mr Kaluba adds his idea of how to tap into that potential.
“ If we have a liner here that gives us capacity to do cruise tourism,” he says, “ the sky is the limit.” The ultimate goal is to achieve inter- model transport, taking advantage of the now civilian Samora Machel airport in nearby Mbala.
There is an indication this little port town is headed for a huge turnaround, with more employment opportunities for the locals, who are mostly engaged in various forms of trade and fish mongering.
Mpulungu Harbour Corporation currently employs 86 dockworkers, and Mr Kaluba says the modernisation and mechanisation of the port will not result in job losses because of the anticipated increase in the volume of cargo.
“ With a world- class port that we will have in a year’s time, we should be talking about tripling the amount of cargo handled at Mpulungu port,” says Mr Kaluba.
And with more passenger vessels, this small hilly town is bound to witness more foreign nationals stepping on its shores, resulting in more economic activity.
The town itself has undergone some transformation, with a small network of tarred roads over a ragged terrain and a new lodge at the edge of the lake offering some decent accommodation to wayfarers.