A New Fast-Ferry System For Lake Victoria, Pioneered By African Diaspora

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
By ugandansabroad

By Rebecca Harshbarger

NEW YORK (Ugandans Abroad)– Despite the vital commercial activities connecting Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, no ferry services currently tap into the potential of Lake Victoria for business and travel.  However, one man in the African diaspora is excited to shake up the status quo with a fast-ferry transportation system that will launch this month.

Lake Victoria will finally have a fast-ferry system again, connecting Uganda with Kenya and Tanzania.

53-year-old Robert Smith originally grew up in Northern Rhodesia, which would become today’s Zambia, and he also lived in South Africa.  Today, he lives in Everett, Washington, near Seattle, and works in accounting, manufacturing, and contracting in the U.S. and South Africa.

The father of four founded Agathos Foundation International, a Seattle-based nonprofit that cares for orphans and widows in Southern Africa, and Earthwise Ventures, which focuses on investment back home. Even though Smith has been living in the U.S. since 1977, as part of the African diaspora, the continent is always close to his heart.

Smith took an interest in Uganda when he traveled there in 2006 for his involvement with Pilgrim Africa, a Christian nonprofit based in Seattle that has offices in Soroti and Kampala. During a development-focused conference, someone suggested that he looked at a restoration of Lake Victoria’s ferry system as a for-profit venture.

“That began the journey,” he told Ugandans Abroad.

Robert Smith won a grant through the African Diaspora Marketplace, and will use it to launch a ferry this month on Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria once had a healthy ferry service that connected Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, boosting the region’s economy. In Uganda alone, 30 percent of its economy at one point was dependent on the ferry system.

Management of the ferry, Smith says, was fairly robust from the postcolonial period through Idi Amin’s regime, but it was ultimately de-capitalized and mismanaged through “naivete and corruption.”

The last year the system operated at all was 1996. In the absence of a ferry system connecting East African countries, as well as a badly-managed rail system, consumers and businesses are forced to rely on trucks moving as quickly as possible on badly-maintained roads.

The heavy road traffic actually deteriorates the roads even more quickly. At least 1,600 people travel everyday from Kampala to Mwanza in Tanzania, a costly journey that lasts between 18 and 36 hours, depending on traffic at border crossings and road conditions.

“Buses go at break-neck speeds, which is how they make their money,” said Smith. “You have buses going as fast as they can on very bad roads.”

All of this will soon change. Smith won a $100,000 grant from the African Diaspora Marketplace, which his company, Earthwise Ventures, will add to the $2million he has raised to launch a passenger and freight ferry system on Lake Victoria, based in Port Bell.

A model of the ferry. Earthwise Ventures.

The African Diaspora Marketplace is a program created by USAID,Western Union, and other partners to award grants that support diaspora-driven development back home.

Ferrying Development

A viable ferry system in Uganda could have large implications for the regional economy. At only $30-$40 per ticket from Port Bell to Mwanza, the ferry will travel to Kisumu in five to six hours, and about six to Bukoba. It will only take about seven to eight hours to reach Mwanza from Port Bell, at most one-third of the travel time it would normally take. Passengers will pay between $35 and $85, depending on the trip, which will also include a meal.

The ferry to Bukoba will be a particular boon to those working with mission groups that travel there, from local businesses that benefit from volunteer tourism to the missionaries themselves. “You can fly to Entebbe, then take the ferry from Port Bell,” Smith said.

Calvin Echodu, Smith's business partner in Uganda, is helping to launch an international ferry system on Lake Victoria.

Smith is currently working with his business partner, Calvin Echodu, the founder and executive director of Pilgrim in Uganda, which has also done research on the development of biodiesel fuel and sustainable rural technologies.

The ferry is expected to drive down the costs of goods in Uganda. A major factor in prices is the transportation costs involved in transporting goods on poor roads in a land-locked country.

The African diaspora in the Pacific-Northwest is particularly proud of Smith, especially the African Chamber of Commerce.

“One thing that thrills the local diaspora here is an African pulling something off,” he said. “They’re so proud of what we’re doing. The Seattle diaspora has taken a lot of pride.”

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in New York.  She used to report in Uganda.  You can follow her on twitter here.

Learn More:

-Visit the website for the African Diaspora Marketplace

-Become a fan of Earthwise Ferries on facebook, and visit their main website here.

-Learn more about the Agathos Foundation, and Pilgrim Africa.

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2 Responses to “A New Fast-Ferry System For Lake Victoria, Pioneered By African Diaspora”

  1. Arao

    Great story…good job.

  2. Thanks so much Arao! Your comments make my day.


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