The waterways of Lagos offer a speedy means of alternative transport that could foster the local economy, but many hurdles need to be overcome, as Linus Unah reports.
Michael Emu used to dread the daily commute from Ikorodu on the Lagos mainland to Lekki on the island. The road is heavy with traffic during the rush hour, and what should ordinarily be a journey of 50 minutes can stretch up to three hours or more. But everything changed when Emu, a self-employed electrical engineer, started using boats at a jetty in Ikorodu.
“Within 20 minutes I am already on Lagos Island, and that saves me a lot of time and energy wasted on the road,” he says.
Although water bodies occupy about 22% (or 787sq km) of Lagos’ total area of 3,577sq km, road transportation remains the dominant mode of commuting for many Lagosians.
Nigeria’s largest city and commercial hub, Lagos, is brimming with over 20m people and their vehicles place enormous pressure on public infrastructure. The presence of tankers and heavy-duty trucks moving goods from the two major ports make this situation even worse. Even the modern Bus Rapid Transit – a set of air-conditioned blue metro buses with separate lanes – has not brought much respite to commuters.
Lagosians are well aware of how fast movement can be on the waterways, but most residents baulk at using ferries and boats for safety reasons.
“The ride on Lagos waters can be dreadful especially when the current is heavy,” says 29-year-old Emu, who worries that overloading makes the boats vulnerable to accidents.
Israel Igiri, a field researcher with a Lagos-based energy and development consulting firm, says he has never considered using boats to go to work. “I think this is based on the stories I have heard about it – usually horrible stories,” Igiri explains.
In a recent boat accident in early July, at least 15 died after a boat moving 26 passengers to Ikorodu from Ajah, a suburb on Lagos Island, capsized in the night. The Punch newspaper reported that none of the passengers were wearing life jackets and cites eyewitnesses who blame overloading.
“Over the years, the transport system has been poorly managed by the government; most of the boats are rickety and bad and are so shaky while moving. So, managing those boats on a big body of water jeopardises the lives of people,” says Igiri.
Lagos state authorities know too well that to decongest the city’s roads, they must rehabilitate inland waterways. It was with this understanding that the government injected a new lease of life into the Lagos State Ferry Services Company (or Lagferry), buying new ferries and refurbishing abandoned boats to provide safe and affordable alternatives for commuters, reduce travel time, and improve connectivity across the city.
The state has moved to address worries around safety by empowering the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), created in 2008 to manage and control boat operators in the city, and driving reforms intended to change the face of water transportation.
Entrepreneurs fill the gap
While authorities continue to grapple with solutions, local companies and entrepreneurs like Metroferry Marine Services, Lagos Water Taxi, and SIFAX Group are stepping up to fill the gap through their boat services.
All price points are catered for – in June, Nigerian bike-hailing service Gokada announced that it is teaming up with Lagos Boats, a private boat rental service, to start a luxury yacht service as part of plans to expand its operations.
The startup, which raised $5.3m in Series A funding in May, said its boat service – GBoats – would help Lagosians reduce time spent in traffic. It currently operates 15-minute rides around the Lagos Island neighbourhoods of Lekki, Victoria Island and Ikoyi, but plans are underway to expand this service to other routes like Ikorodu and Apapa.
Ride-hailing company Uber is considering a similar move. In late June, Uber’s chief business officer, Brooks Entwistle, told Reuters that the firm was discussing plans to provide a boat service in the city with Lagos state regulators.
“We did launch Uber Boat in Mumbai and we have watched the product develop,” said Entwistle. “It’s in its early stages and we think there is high relevance here [Lagos].”
But without adequate investment in infrastructure, progress might stall, analysts say. Lagos is hoping to divert at least 2m passengers to the waterways daily as part of its ambitious integrated transport management plan which aims to fix water, rail and land transportation.
The government has been working to address challenges resulting from the spread of water hyacinth, which can affect boat mobility, while improving the conditions of existing facilities such as the Ijegun-Egba jetty, the Ebute-Ojo ferry terminal, the Badore ferry terminal, and the Mile 2 ferry terminal.
In May, the state built a new jetty in Bariga suburb on the mainland and added five more ferries to ease the operations of Lagferry.
The Lagos authorities have promised to support commercial boat operators with modern boats in order to encourage more private sector investment in water transportation. LASWA is working to dredge more than a dozen identified routes and improve channels.
In an article published on the Lagos state government website last September, Olajumoke Bello of the Lagos State Ministry of Transportation’s Public Affairs Unit said that the schemes would have a number of benefits.
“Exploring and developing water transportation in the state is, no doubt, a beneficial venture. For one, it has tremendous economic possibilities, especially in terms of job creation and reduction on time spent on the road,” said Bello.
“It will also encourage fishermen to rebrand their aquatic enterprises, creating room for innovations in the trade of seafood and petroleum products within the state.”
Igiri urges the government and boat operators to train their staff to respond to emergences, saying that it is another way to win the public’s confidence and get more people to use boats and ferries.
Moving forward, regulators have to encourage boat operators to adhere to safety standards including providing life jackets to their passengers and punishing those who do not adhere to safety rules.
The government may have to explore innovative ways to support private boat operators, who are often saddled with high operating costs that make it difficult for them invest in maintaining their boats.
“New boats of high quality are urgently needed,” says Igiri.