Bus companies in E. Africa paying the price of COVID-19
Mash East Africa bus on the road

Mash East Africa bus on the road

More East Africans are traveling within the region now than previously. This is partly because no passport is required to drive from one country to another. Improved roads and business opportunities also help increase the appetite among people to visit the region's more popular destinations.

However, the means of doing so are challenging. For many East Africa citizens, flights cost too much. Rail travel isn't fully developed. The only public or mass travel option remaining is bus travel.

In this part of the continent, long-distance bus travel across thousands of miles is the rule rather than the exception. To meet demand, many companies have introduced buses that are fairly priced, comfortable, and reliable to a significant number of budget travelers visiting the region.

One such bus company is Mash East Africa which plies Mombasa, Nairobi, Uganda, and Rwanda routes.

It is one of the transport companies that has been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. For a bus company that moves beyond Kenyan borders 24 hours a day, Mash East has seen its fortunes dwindle with border closures, lock-downs, and curfews. Its fleet of 40 buses is now operating at less than 25 percent.

General Manager Lennox Shallo hopes that his buses can soon get back on the road and that business returns to normal.

"We would like the borders to be re-opened so that our buses can travel to Uganda. We also have buses in Uganda, they travel from Kampala to Rwanda's capital, Kigali, but they are now in the parking yard. Our office in Rwanda is now closed, we do not even know when the Rwanda-Uganda border will be re-opened."

The dusk to dawn curfew that was put in place by the Kenyan government in May this year cut the time buses can be on the road by half. Less time on the road means companies can't operate longer routes.

Shallo while talking to CGTN's Halligan Agade, says the curfews also make travel more taxing for long-distance passengers because curfews increase travel time, particularly for inter-county and country trips.

"Accordingly, people prefer traveling at night as compared to daytime. So, in the day, we have a few vehicles. This cannot meet our costs of operations as a company, including salaries, maintenance, and so forth. This has affected us negatively," Mr. Shallo said.

Those challenges have further been compounded by physical distancing regulations which now require a 42-seater bus to carry only 21 passengers.

"Sometimes, we have been forced to refund passengers' bus fare because of the inability to get 21 people to travel. A bus carrying 42 people now only required to transport half the capacity cannot travel from Mombasa to Kenya's capital Nairobi with only seven passengers. It would be hard even to fuel it."

Not surprisingly, the curfew and the ensuing reduction in revenue has a negative impact on jobs and the company's potential to even remain on the road. 

Shallo is now forced to work with a much smaller crew in the office. Employees fortunate enough to keep their jobs now work one a "one month on-one month off schedule".

Mr. Shallo says, all these employees need to be remunerated whether they are working shorter hours or not but yet the business is no-longer making profits like it used to.

The business, which was established in 2003, now faces a bleak future. The Rwanda and Uganda offices are now closed. Only Kenya based offices remain open.

"The authorities should allow us to travel at night as long as we are religiously following the laid down procedures by the health authorities. We would easily increase our buses on the routes, that would then translate into improved revenue, but as it is, we are in a tight spot."

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta while addressing the nation in last month maintained that the 9.00 pm to 5.00 am curfew is still in force until October 6. 

Uganda is yet to open its border with Kenya, and Rwanda after months' closure in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.