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Why medicine smuggling racket thrives at Uganda-Kenya border

By Musa Radoli
Thursday, February 4th, 2021
Drugs. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

Illegal trade on the Kenya-Uganda border has a long history as is evidenced by the smuggling of coffee beans from Uganda to Kenya which concentrated around Chepkube Market in Bungoma County in the mid-1970s.

Though the smuggling racket of coffee across the same border negatively impacted the economy, the new breed of racketeers have gone to where it hurts most – people’s health.

Drugs intended for Kenyan hospitals and chemists are increasingly stolen, smuggled over the border and sold to Ugandan health facilities and chemists, with some of the smugglers visualising a return of “Chepkube Coffee Boom” era.

Though now operating mainly from Busia and Malaba towns, the smugglers are taking millions to the bank at the expense of ordinary people who are  told to look for drugs elsewhere as public hospitals lack the same.

A smuggler who spoke to Business Hub described their activities as good business as they are not only saving lives (on the Ugandan side) but also feeding a hungry market with genuine products from manufacturers in Kenya. 

“In Kenya we take it for granted to buy a painkiller from our shops and kiosks, in Uganda that is not the case so we have to fill the void,” Gilbert Wanyama (not his real name) said.

He claimed that it is a matter both Ugandan and Kenyan security officials are aware of, and co-operate to “make things easy for the larger public interest at a small fee” that does not erode their profits all year round.

“We get our supplies from as far as Kisumu, Eldoret, Kakamega and Bungoma. Even wholesalers and manufacturers based in Nairobi to feed a hungry market in Uganda.

When there is a business opportunity it is fair that as a businessman you make good use of it to survive,” Wanyama said.

Smugglers secure their cargo by purchasing at wholesale prices from wholesale drug stores not only in Busia and Malaba towns at the border, but also as far away as Kakamega, Bungoma, Eldoret, Kisumu and even Nairobi.

Once in Uganda the many different types of medical drugs are sold at twice their retail cross-counter prices compared to the Kenyan- based chemists.

The Ugandan buyers either own chemists which are poorly stocked or brokers who transit them to interior towns like Jinja, the capital Kampala, Mbale, Tororo, even as far as Gulu in the north among other places.

Once at the common border Pobox/Succeed saloon cars and boda boda operators are the most popular means of transport to ferry the contraband cargo across the Kenya – Uganda border to reception points in Uganda’s Busia and Malaba towns’ sides both day and night.

The purchases are usually done by Ugandan dealers in Kenya currency, popularly known at the border as “KC” which is also accepted on both sides of the border because of its higher value.

Investigations by Business Hub established that even medical drugs supplies to government hospitals in Busia County have not been spared in the lucrative illicit trade. 

Ugandan dealers

Some employees in the government hospitals’ pharmacies conspire to steal drugs supplies from their stores, have them repackaged and sneaked out of the country for sale to their Ugandan dealers as they pocket the proceeds – to the patients the story is “there are no drugs.”

The most popular drugs are the wide range of painkiller brands, antibiotics, malaria, brands and prescription drugs among others both in liquid and tablets including capsules forms that are scarce on the Ugandan market.

What is emerging is the fact that across the border in Uganda there are extremely limited governments’ or private medical facilities or commercial chemists compared to Kenya which has them up to sub-county even locational levels that get medical drugs supplies from the government, mostly from the embattled Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa).

The immediate former Busia County Health former Health CEC Maurice Siminyu said the problem has been there even before  county governments came into being because the situation in Uganda is different.

He added: “Supply of medical drugs is  high in Kenya compared to Uganda due to a more developed pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry.”

Dr Siminyu said because of high demand and increasing population in Uganda and lesser free government and medical services, including chemists, it is inevitable that the trade has been and is still thriving.

He said thousands of Ugandans who live at the common border or districts nearby still come to Kenyan government and private hospitals to get treatment.

They also cross over to purchase drugs from private chemists in Malaba, Busia, Port Victoria and even in other smaller towns dotting the shores of Lake Victoria bordering Uganda.

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