Modernizing Mombasa

by Emily Wilson
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A new U.S.$26-million grain handling facility at the Port of Mombasa, Kenya, which started operations in February, is already easing congestion and improving efficiencies at the largest port in East Africa on the Indian Ocean.

The facility, owned by Grain Bulk Handlers Ltd., is the first modern grain handling operation at Mombasa built specifically to handle large quantities of bulk commodities and fertilizers destined for East African countries. It is the only facility of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, giving the port its competitive edge.

Mombasa is usually considered the gateway to Kenya and the neighboring countries of Uganda, Rwanda, southern Sudan, Ethiopia and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We are confident that if put to proper use, the facility will serve as a strategic food store to countries of the Horn and the Great Lakes region of Africa," said Mohammed Jaffer, Grain Bulk Handlers' executive chairman.

The project was jointly financed by the International Finance Corporation, the Commonwealth Development Corporation of Britain and PROPARCO of France. Other partners include Massey Docks and Harbour Company of Liverpool, which has a U.S.$2 million preferential redeemable shareholding. Kenyan investors hold U.S.$6 million equity in ordinary shares.

Kenya is one of the few countries in East Africa to promote the development of facilities to handle large quantities of grain and fertilizers. Only a few ports in the region have constructed grain silos, some of which have become antiquated and fallen into disrepair. The result has been a lack of sophisticated facilities dedicated to the discharge of bulk grains and other cargo between Suez and the Cape of Good Hope.

Over the past five years, tonnage of bulk or bagged cargo handled at Mombasa has increased by 11.4% annually. The Port of Mombasa has 16 deep water berths, with total quay length of 3,044 meters and a maximum dredged depth of 11 meters. But outdated facilities frequently caused congestion at general cargo berths and at the port, where long truck queues waited for grain cargoes. The 25,000-dwt vessels arriving at Mombasa often would wait for four days to berth and up to 12 days to unload using mechanical grabs and manual bagging systems.

In the early 1980s the port installed mobile high-speed bagging equipment, but environmental problems were created from the dust from the bulk discharge of grain. On rainy days, port quays became a quagmire of wet grain dust and wet commodities spilling from grabs and bagging hoppers, and the odor of rotting grain frequently prevailed. Mombasa had grain losses as high as 3%, according to reports.

Since the completion of the new grain handling facility, unloading capacity at Mombasa has increased to 10,000 tonnes per day. Analysts say the project has helped ease congestion at the port and reduced transportation and handling costs by more than U.S.$8 per tonne.

In its first year, the new port terminal is expected to handle 50% of the region's grain imports. The facility also was designed to handle exports, if and when required.

General cargo berth availability at Mombasa has improved significantly since the new facility opened. Commodities are not only handled faster from the berth but can be kept in storage where they can be easily accessed on demand, according to Mr. Jaffer.

He said the new facility also has helped to create jobs but, more importantly, has reduced the cost of grains and fertilizers for the regional economies. It already is serving as a strategic grain store for the landlocked countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan.

The new grain handling facility is situated on a plot leased to Jaffer and Jaffer Ltd., a privately owned and well-established Kenyan group of companies, by East Africa Harbour in 1976.

According to Mr. Jaffer, the company recognized the changing trends in shipping, and in 1983 began evaluating commercial requirements and those of the Port of Mombasa to meet future needs. He said the company forecast the substantial steady rise in throughput of cargoes arriving in bulk (excluding humanitarian aid cargoes) or which would be shipped in bulk if proper handling facilities were available. The lease was subsequently extended to run until 2076.

The National Cereals and Produce Board, a Kenyan government agency charged with maintaining the country's strategic food reserves, famine relief distribution and market intervention efforts, initially carried out vigorous studies for the project. The board eventually withdrew from its involvement due to changes in government policy, opening the door for Grain Bulk Handlers, which was established in June 1995.

By mid-1996, a comprehensive and updated project feasibility study was completed and construction was, in all respects, ready to commence. Work finally began on December 14, 1998.

DESIGNED TO CONTROL DUST. The new grain handling facility at Mombasa was designed to be environmentally friendly, with dust control in mind. Thanks to a special design, there is no spillage during discharge and no dust at any stage as the conveyor system is enclosed entirely from the vessel to the storage area. This also eliminated the possibility of cross-contamination at the point of discharge.

With certain types of vessels, it is possible to load or discharge even in bad weather. Suitable wash down facilities have been fitted at Mombasa, where required. A 60-tonne weighbridge establishes the exact tonnage being discharged, both for operational and customs requirements.

Kenya Ports Authority agreed to let Grain Bulk Handlers use berth No. 3 to discharge bulk grain cargoes. Ships are discharged with two Buhler Portalino mobile ship unloaders, each with a capacity of 300 tonnes per hour. The diesel-powered unloaders are self-propelled and, being completely mobile, are moved under their own power from the storage area to the maneuvering position alongside the vessel. The off-quay area at the north end of berth No. 2 was designated as the storage area for the ship unloading equipment when not in use.

The first vessel to use the new facility, the MV Kanaris, docked at the port in March with 19,800 tonnes of wheat.

The discharge system was designed to reduce a vessel's turnaround time in Mombasa by as much as 75% or more, Mr. Jaffer said. Not only does this lower ocean freight costs, he added, but it also alleviates congestion at the port, particularly during the seasonal rains and at times of increased throughput such as the recent regional emergencies which required that some cargo be diverted to the Tanzanian Port of Dar-es-Salaam.

One particularly important design aspect was to reduce humidity in the holds of vessels carrying bulk fertilizers. Because humidity in Mombasa is high (up to 80%), ships' holds need only be opened partially to allow enough access for the discharging elevator, thus reducing exposure to the remaining cargo. The natural tendency for the bulk to solidify once the hold is opened has been greatly reduced, Mr. Jaffer said, and with good free-flowing product, bag weights and usable quality has been greatly enhanced.

To overcome the problem of solidifying commodities, three 6-cubic-meter cargo grabs were installed to feed three 40-cubic-meter hoppers fitted with lump crushers.

Grain is discharged into dual, fully enclosed conveyor systems, sited on the quayside, each with a capacity of 600 tonnes per hour. The conveyor belts are completely segregated, so that one belt can be dedicated for grain shipments and the second for fertilizers and non-food commodities.

After it is weighed, grain is transported by elevated twin conveyors to a storage and handling facility located next to the port. This facility was equipped with the most modern equipment available to receive, store and maintain commodities in order to minimize the risk of infestation and subsequent degradation.

The initial storage and holding capacity was designed for 67,200 tonnes of grain in 24 concrete silos. Plans call for another 12 grain silos, totaling 33,600 tonnes capacity, to be constructed for a total bulk grain storage capacity of nearly 100,000 tonnes. All silos are equipped with temperature monitoring systems to control humidity.

The storage area is divided and completely segregated into food and non-food areas, as are warehouses for bagging.

On reaching the handling complex, commodities can be loaded in bulk direct to rail car or truck, or stored in a controlled environment from which it can be bagged.

Bagging equipment is designed to simultaneously handle up to 4,000 tonnes of grain and 4,000 tonnes of fertilizer per day. Long grain rice, beans, lentils and similar delicate commodities can be handled with little breakage.

The facility also includes an 18,000-tonne capacity warehouse for fertilizers, with an option for up to 5,000 tonnes bulk storage; a 7-floor office and administration block; a control room, including a laboratory for sampling and analysis of commodities for quality control; automatic pest control and fumigation facilities; workshops for mechanical repairs and planned maintenance; and a power station with a 2x600 KVA generator.

The on-site laboratory is used to carry out full surveillance of every commodity both on arrival and while in storage, with particular attention to humidity, infestation and pest control.

Mr. Jaffer said the terminal is unique in that it has crucial water, road and rail transport options. Two rail spurs adjacent to the main Mombasa-Nairobi line are used to load block trains. When used with the existing road infrastructure, substantial dispatches can be maintained, Mr. Jaffer said.

Buong' Arunda is a free-lance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.