Traders rush back to Gatuna as Rwanda prepares to reopen border
Monday January 31 2022
Rwandans will be allowed to cross the Gatuna/Katuna border with Uganda starting Monday, for the first time in three years, after the two countries moved to end an impasse at the centre of its February 2019 closure.
A day after Rwanda announced the reopening of the border effective January 31, business operators, including clearing agents, customs, immigration staff and logistics sector players, rushed back to the border area to book space and prepare for the resumption of operations.
The businesses, like workers in services and activities that depended on the border traffic such as money changers, vendors, taxi operators and others, closed shop and traders left soon after the border was closed in February 2019.
Kigali, which accused Kampala of mistreating Rwanda and supporting groups working against Rwanda, recently announced the border reopening following meetings between officials, and a commitment to address contentious issues.
While the Rwandan government indicated that authorities of the two countries would work together to put in place necessary measures to facilitate movement in the context of Covid-19, the residents told The EastAfrican that details were yet to communicated.
“We are yet to get any communication with regard to travel requirements and whether we need to brace for any restrictions. Our concerns are that if Covid-19 tests are going to be a condition for travelling, it is going to bar many. You cannot pay Rwf5,000 for testing to cross to buy maize flour of the same amount or below. The situation will not be different from what it was during closure,” said Viviane Uwimpuhwe, a resident of Gatuna.
Ms Uwimpuhwe owned a clothes business in Uganda, which she abandoned and left with her family after they were expelled.
While she has no plan to return to Uganda, she is excited to go shopping in Ugandan markets credited for relatively cheaper goods, while many in the area hope to revive lost livelihood sources in informal cross border trade.
Rwanda government deputy spokesperson, Alain Mukuralinda, said that they will implement Covid measures even as the border reopens.
“The same Covid-19 protocols being observed at others borders, namely Kagitumba, Rusumo, Cyanika and others, will be applicable at the Gatuna border tomorrow (Monday),” he said on Sunday on Rwanda’s public broadcaster.
Existing Covid-19 protocols prioritise movement of cargo while in other instances only passport holders are allowed to cross, and have to undergo routine Covid-19 tests at their own cost.
The Health ministry says a team of medical staff and equipment was deployed to Gatuna to facilitate Covid-19 testing, but it did not elaborate on the protocols.
Now upgraded to a One-Stop Border Post with state of the art immigration and customs complex as well as a mega cargo scanner, Gatuna was, until its closure, the busiest import and export corridor preferred by cargo transporters in both countries and those transiting beyond the borders to DR Congo and Burundi.
It is a relatively cheaper and shorter distance to and from the Mombasa Port.
The toll on trade is devastating with official data indicating, for instance, that the value of Rwanda’s imports from Uganda, which stood at $59.6 million in the third quarter of 2018, declined dramatically to as low as $10,000 last year.
The border reopening is a reprieve for border communities and firms whose key revenue and business source was cross-border traffic, including bus companies and informal cross border traders.
Blessed Dairies Ltd, a dairy processor with 10,000-litre daily capacity serving major livestock areas of the Gicumbi border District in Rwanda, has been counting losses after the border closure. This led to a decline in sales and higher expenses importing raw materials such as ingredients and packaging materials using other border points.
Its production manager, Evariste Mariyamungu, told The EastAfrican that costs shoot significantly as imports come through Rusumo or Kagitumba to Kigali and then to the plant at Gatuna.
“It is double work when you consider fuel consumption, time and delays. Transport costs increased to between 15 to 20 per cent, and that definitely affects the production cost. We hope that reopening [the border] can return transport to initial rates,” he said.
Hope for income
Godfrey Bashabe and Jackson Habumugisha, both residents of Rubaya Sector in Gicumbi, are banking on the latest development to regain sources of income lost during the prolonged closure.
While Mr Bashabe belonged to a border vendors’ cooperative that since slid into losses, Mr Habumugisha worked as a conductor for Trinity Express, one of the cross-border bus companies that suspended operations on the Kigali-Kampala and Kigali-Nairobi via Kampala routes, respectively.
Its managing director, Twahirwa Dodod told The EastAfrican that the company later laid off staff and parked its fleet when Covid-19 affected trips on all other borders.
While he said they would resume operations when borders reopen, he expressed doubt as to whether they would recover from the losses they made, especially in view of bank loans which have since accumulated.