Container nightmare – a 21st century Kafka tale!

Fighting bureaucratic madness in Kenya in 17 steps!

Bringing a container into Kenya can give you several heart attacks. Not recommendable for a sound-minded person who cares about his mental well-being.

Had Franz Kafka been alive today, he would probably have found that Kenyan bureaucracy eclipses his nightmarish descriptions of their counterparts in pre-WW1 Vienna. This is a step-by-step guide to a true Kafka experience in the 21st century:

Step 1: Make a small mistake when importing a container

As one of the few countries in the world, Kenya requires pre-shipment verification of confirmity (PvOC) for all imports. In simple terms: An inspector looking into the container to confirm that it contains what you say it contains, and sends you a big invoice. Nobody announces this requirement: You are supposed to know. Failure at this will result in a hefty penalty charge from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). In the meantime, your container will be stuck at the port, incurring demurrage.

Step 2: Start chasing a waiver

When I joined Kyoto Energy, the container was already stuck in Mombasa. My first task was to get rid of the penalty charge.  Cabinet ministers can waive taxes, charges and penalties from agencies and authorities under their ministry.  KEBS is under the Ministry of Industrialization, under Hon. Henry K. Kosgey, EGH, MP. Although the minister signs the official waiver letter, the decision is rarely made at the political level. Unless you are a friend of the minister, or otherwise give him good reasons to act in your favour, that is.

I have met Henry Kosgey several times, but that was long ago, and using contacts to get favours from politicians is a non-solution. Such favours are not free, and come with expectations I would not want to fulfill. So we started the long and burdensome process of doing it “by the book”.

My first meeting for Kyoto Energy, on my first day at work, was therefore at Teleposta Towers, with the then Permanent Secretary of Industrialization, John Lonyangapuo.

Teleposta Towers
Teleposta Towers, Nairobi

He was sympathetic with what we were doing, and even expressed a clear interest in getting involved in some projects with us in his home area, in Pokot. He first gave us the impression that the waiver would be a piece of cake: All we needed was to send him a written request. We did that, and waited for his feedback for two weeks. Suddenly, it was all over the news that Lonyangapuo had been moved to another ministry as part of a reshuffle.

Step 3: When you think you’re almost there, go back to square 1

The new PS, Kibichio Karanja was a very friendly person. Coming straight from the academic world, he complained he was still overwhelmed, and seemingly a bit confused by his new tasks. He wrote down almost every word I said, and kept emphasizing that he was sympathetic. He promised to look very carefully into our request, and provide the best service possible.

Step 4: Start gathering documentation

Some time went by, and whenever I called the new PS, he was unable to give a definite answer. He clearly remembered the case well, but obviously, something was stagnating somewhere, without him knowing exactly why.

Going to his office in person, and getting directed to the right people eventually seemed to be the best option. When I did, the PS was out, but almost by coincidence, I bumped into some senior bureaucrats who were familiar with my case. Almost magically, out of nowhere came those crucial missing leads, showing the way forward in my quest. The information I got, also explained why the process had halted.  All I needed was some documents. A pretty simple task, actually. Unfortunately, we had never gotten that information for inexplicable reasons, and I had been lucky to come across the right people.

I rushed to get photocopies of some company documents, and of the LPO from NEMA, the main recipient of the container. Piece of cake. Then a quick trip to the clearing and forwarding agent for some copies of the shipping documents. Easy-peasy! That was about it, right? Now, a letter of IDF exemption from the Ministry of Finance? hmmm..

Step 5: Run back and forth between government offices

What was an IDF exemption, and how would I get it? I was sent to a new office at the Ministry of Industrialization, and the lady there explained to me that it was a crucial requirement to get the waiver. I would have to go to the Ministry of Finance for that one. She couldn’t tell me where, though!

Treasury Building
Treasury Building, Nairobi

To avoid queuing at the reception desk, I entered the Ministry of Finance my standard way: With a big smile to the watchman, a tap on the shoulder like he was an old friend, and the usual “sasa, habari yako bwana?”.  That procedure bypasses even the most rigid and time-consuming identification and registration requirments at any government building. On my way to the elevator, I suddenly remembered that I had no clue where I was going. As I was still not keen on queuing, I returned to the watchman and explained my quest. “Mr. Wanyambura, 11th floor, office 19” he answered.

Little did I know as I was heading to that office, that Wanyambura was one of the top civil servants and one of the most powerful people in the Treasury. Needless to say, he was not in. His receptionist, who had obviously not been hired on grounds of manners, looks or professional attitude, literally barked at me when I explained to her what my mission was.  They would not issue any such letter unless requested in written by the Ministry of Industrialization to write it, she yapped. In her eyes, I was obviously the ultimate idiot who didn’t understand that intuitively. Back to Teleposta Towers, then.

The Ministry of Industrialization countered that they could not issue any written request for the Ministry of Finance to issue a letter of IDF exemption. This one, I would have to sort it out with Finance. Back to Harambee Avenue. The lady in the front office was obviously wondering why I was wasting her time and my own: “Didn’t I tell you that yap, yap, yap..”.  I, on my side was determined not no let some high-headed gatekeeper keep wasting my far more precious time, and demanded to speak with a real decision-maker. I finally found myself presenting the issue to a far better informed, and far more polite, senior bureaucrat, who suggested that I cut the Gordian knot by writing the letter requesting the IDF exemption myself, with a reference to the list of requirements from the Ministry of Industrialization.

A friend of mine who works for the Kenya Revenue Authority suggested that I simply pay the IDF, as it would not be a big sum in the first place. Armed with 2 options, I once again returned to Industrialization. The message was clear: A letter of IDF exemption was required, so the idea of paying the IDF was unheard of anyway. I needed the letter. Period. There was no way they could write a letter to the Ministry of Finance, nor could they endorse one written by me. The fact that their counterpart in Treasury Building required a letter from them to issue a letter that they required, was irrelevant.

Giving up is never an option, and pissing off people who stand in my way has always been the least of my worries. So I went back to Treasury Building, this time with a letter written and signed by me, accompanied with copies of the relevant documents.

The lady in the front office almost exploded with her hostile yapping. I interrupted her, saying I wanted to discuss this with someone who actually made decisions, so she sent me across the corridor to the same gentleman I had spoken with previously.  He looked at the documents, picked up the phone, and, voila, it turned out Mr. Wanyambura was in after all. He turned out to be a very soft-spoken, humble and friendly gentleman, who was sincerely eager to help.  After listening to the story, and browsing through the documents, he shook his head over the meanderings that his and other bureaucrats had sent me through.  “The IDF is nothing. Probably just KSh 5000 or something like that” he said. “This is a commercial transaction, so we can’t waive the IDF. I’ll give you that in writing so you can present it to the Ministry of Industrialization with a receipt for the IDF payment”.

I couldn’t believe my own ears. All this running back and forth for something worth KSh 5000, just because somebody in Industrialization had insisted on reading the requirements to the letter.  Standing outside the Treasury Building with that letter affirming the exact opposite of what I had first been told, I thought I was finally seeing the light in the end of the tunnel.

Step 6: Write a cover letter

At the clearing agent’s office, another suprise awaited me. “IDF? That one was paid upfront. Let me find the receipt for you..”. So I had been chasing a waiver letter for something that had already been paid. Would’ve nice if someone could have told me! I felt relieved as I entered the Teleposta Tower again, hoping that this would be the second last time at least for a long while. The people who work on the 11th floor there, had all gotten familiar with my face, so there was a lot of people to greet as I walked down the corridor again. The lady that I had kept most of the dialogue going with smiled, put the documents back in the envelope, and said she would update me the next day. I really didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry from the feedback I got 2 days later: “Please come back and pick up the documents again. You must include a cover letter”. About an hour later, I once again entered Teleposta Towers with a signed cover letter in an envelope, adding it to the booklet of documents that the lady handed back to me, and returning it to her with a forced smile.

Step 7: Make daily follow-up calls for some weeks

All that remained now, was for the Minister to put his signature on a letter, and the KEBS penalty charge would be a thing of the past. Now, as Kenya was gearing up to the big referendum on the new constitution, all politicians and senior civil servants were being mobilised by the government to campaign for the “Yes” team, putting most day-to-day government operations in hold. Needless to say, during my 3 weeks of daily follow-up calls, the answer was always the same: The person in charge of writing the letter wasn’t in, or hadn’t had the time ot look at it.

As I was giving up any hope of anything happening before the referendum, I suddenly received a call in the morning of Friday, July 30th. Someone needed to meet me, urgently. A relatively junior bureaucrat who had just recently started working for the Ministry was obviously the one in charge of authoring the letter. After some quick questions, he assured me that the letter would be ready immediately over the weekend, just 2 days before the referendum. I had problems actually believing that, so imagine my surprise when I the same person called me again on August 2nd, to tell me the letter was ready.

As I left Teleposta Towers for the last time, ecstatic, with the letter in my hand and my boss on the phone, we both believed that our kafkaesque nightmare was finally over, and that we would soon have the container. Clearing at the port would certainly be a breeze, compared to what we had just gone through.

Step 8: What you thought was the top of the mountain, was only the first hill

Waiver from Kosgey small
The waiver letter, signed by the Minister for Industrialization, Henry Kosgey

That the Mombasa Port has a bad reputation is an understatement at same level as the Pope being slightly religious.

People had warned us that letting a container overstay was far worse than paying any unfair penalty charge. Too late, as we had already gotten the waiver. We were well aware that the charges for storage and demurrage had risen to astronomical levels. Fortunately, the shipping lines are used to writing off containers that have overstayed, meaning that they are ready to negotiate those charges down to far more reasonable levels in order to get anything at all. Alexandria Freighters, until that point in time our clearing and forwarding agents, had turned out so useless that we had to look for someone else to take over. We needed someone with the experience, the skills and the clout to sort out a situation like ours.

The brother of a friend of mine had worked with clearing and forwarding in Mombasa for 17 years, and had heavyweight experience with this kind of situations. So we hired his company, Consol Forwarders to handle the job for us.

The container had already been listed for auctioning – the standard procedure for Customs when containers stay more than 60 days. He quickly got it off that list, and threw himself into negotiations with Kenya Ports Authority and the shipping line to get waivers on the ridiculously high charges that had accrued for the time the container was stuck. Being experienced and well-connected, he had a somewhat straight-forward ride in getting the mentioned instances to agree. Remaining was only Customs and CFS.

Step 9: Customs in Kenya are tediously slow

All solar equipment in Kenya is zero rated. That means no VAT and no import tax.

The Customs Service Department seem to consider it their duty to ensure few or none are actually awarded this exemption – a task they handle exceptionally well!

Their now-computerized ERP systems are supposed to make things easier and more efficient. At least, that might have been the intention when they bought it.

Simply entering the correct category code for solar cookers still returns an astronomical demand for import taxes. The fact that you need an exemption code, to be entered at a different part of the system is a well-kept secret that even experienced clearing and forwarding agents are unaware of. Simply getting, it and entering it in the right place, is a time-requiring challenge, apparently considered a hostile act by Customs, so count on receiving absolutely no assistance from their side!

Once entered into the system, this requires a series of “approvals” from various offices, where you will inevitably get harassed, often with mind-blowingly irrelevant questions and “requirements” that may well be pure inventions by officials chasing a bribe. Fortunately, we were now in the key area of expertise of our clearing & forwarding agent, who navigated past those hurdles, although at the inevitably slow pace that everything takes when government institutions are involved.

Step 10: Banks are rigid

After sorting out the port charges and and the demurrage, that cost was down at a pretty manageable level, and we wired the money. Time pressure was starting to build up, and we seriously needed to rush things.

Bank wires from Norway usually take 3 working days, yet after 6 days, our agent’s contact in Equity Bank still insisted there was nothing in the account and nothing on the way. Our bank in Norway confirmed that Equity had received the money 2 days earlier, and sent us a copy of the SWIFT message. Armed with that, we returned to Equity bank, demanding to know why the lady had misled us.

It turned out they had had the money all the time, but refused to credit our agent’s account as there was a problem that needed to be rectified. Obviously, they had not seen any need to notify us about that, though.

The lady that had misled us initially, was kind enough to refuse to give us the direct contacts of anyone working with international transfers at Equity Bank HQ. It didn’t take me more than a quick phone call to find the right person, though.

Obviously, the bank was not flexible enough to credit our agent’s account, even in the face of overwhelmingly sufficient documentation from our side. For them, sitting on the money for as long as it suited them seemed to be the preferred option.

In the afternoon of Thursday, September 17th, someone finally managed to give us the instructions of what to do. The bank in Norway instantly sent a change message through the SWIFT system. Equity saw nothing on their side, though.

The next morning, they still had nothing, and only some time in the afternoon did they inform us that they usually don’t receive such messages until the day after. In this case, it had delayed even further though. In the late afternoon, someone found it convenient to inform me that it was possible for our Norwegian bank to send a 999 message through SWIFT, which they would receive instantly. That was too late, though, as banks in Norway had closed for the weekend.

Equity HQ
Equity Bank HQ on Upper Hill, Nairobi

Saturday 19th, at 8:00, I called the SWIFT department in Equity. Still nothing.

– I’m coming over, I said.

– There’s no point. There’s nothing we can do, said the person in the other end. 20 minutes later, I was there.

We sat there and argued for almost 3 hours, while I kept pushing the junior bank official up against the wall (verbally!). He kept changing his position, inventing new excuses every 10 minutes, always ending up with the same conclusion: Nothing could be done unless the official message was received through SWIFT, regardless of any documentation. He also insisted that none of his managers were in, and that could not call any superiors as it was a Saturday.

Towards the end, he seemed to soften: “If only I could see the original invoice…”

I had my laptop with me, and was connected, so before he could finish the sentence, the original invoice was in his inbox. He excused himself.

When he returned, he once again reneged. Nothing could be done.

– So if your SWIFT messages go through Citibank in New York, and they have not sent it for 2 days, why don’t you call them? I wanted to know.

– I’m not authorized to do that

– Maybe you are not, but who is gonna stop me?!

I googled Citibank New York, looked through the results and took my phone, ready to dial.

– One moment, sir.. Excuse me, sir. I’ll be right back.

This time he returned, accompanied with a senior manager. Obviously, his claim that no superior decision makers were present, had been nothing but a feeble attempt to avoid looking powerless.

The manager turned out to be a friendly, and far more flexible person. After a quick look through the documents, he approved it, and minutes later, the money was in our agent’s account.

Step 11: The “last minute” is a very long one

All that remained now, was to agree with the CFS (the guys physically storing the container), and then get the gate pass. CFS are always the last instance to agree with, as they want their money until the very last day.

The initial charges were around $10 000 for the 7 months that the container had stayed with them. Our agent, well-experienced with such situations with many of the CFSes in Mombasa, was expecting to get at least a 90% waiver. He was in for a surprise : the first encounter between him and the finance director resulted in a flat “no”.

Back to the drawing table, compiling a presentation of the green and social profile of our products, as well as the project that half of the contents in the container were going to. That got us a 50% waiver, and the CFS guys seemed unwilling to go beyond that, so we told our agent to keep pushing nevertheless.

The money we had wired was based on the 90% figure, normal for many of the CFSes. Suddenly, we needed an additional KSh 460 000, as this CFS was playing hard ball.

Step 12: Fly to Mombasa

Mombasa tusks

To ensure the container would get delivered on time, I realized I had to go to Mombasa myself and push it through. On a 0-minute notice, I packed my suitcase and called a taxi.

My boss wired the required amount of money to my bank account in Norway, and armed with a debit VISA for that one, I was presumably sorted out. I brought some additional credit cards,though, just to be on the safe side.

Nairobi rush hours are no joke. My hope of making it for Fly540’s 7PM flight vanished the moment we joined Mbagathi Way. Remaining alternatives would be the 8PM flight with Jetlink or KQ at 10.30PM.

As I arrived JKIA, they had just closed the check-in for Jetlink’s 8PM flight. Luckily, a passenger hadn’t shown up, so I could just pull the cash out of my pocket and walk straight on to the flight.

Step 13: Some banks can be pretty useless

NIC Bank, where the CFS company had their main account, could not charge credit cards. That definitely adds to their credibility as a bank! In other words, there was no way we could get a bankers cheque, or wire money to the CFS company’s account there. NIC’s slogan is “It’s Time to Move”.  That’s right: To another bank!

Barclays at least could take credit cards, but since I was not a customer, they would only give me KSh 100 000, and Kenyan banks won’t let you open an account unless you have an introduction letter, etc, etc.

It took me 1 hour to withdraw KSh 100 000 over the counter using a VISA card at Barclays. Same experience at KCB. This was moving way too slow, and time that we didn’t have was running fast.

Our agent was calling the CFS.  With KSh 240 000, we already had more than half the amount needed, but now we were running into the issue of daily limits too.

The finance director was clearly a straight-talking, no-bullshit guy, but luckily a friendly one. No credit cards, cash only. No security other than money paid.

I was pushing him for solutions, as the only one available seemed to be to get someone with a local bank account to transfer the remaining KSh 219 000 as a short-term loan. Wiring the money from Norway would take at least 3 days, and then it would be too late, unless…

– If I have a copy of a SWIFT message, would that do?

– If it’s from the bank, I can accept that, yes!

– So if I can get them to e-mail me the confirmation, will you accept it?

Before the “yes” was out of his mouth, my laptop was open, and the modem plugged in. Of course I had brought the login security gadget with me, so 2 minutes later, I was logged into my bank while on the phone with their international transfers dept. in Norway.

Within the next 3 minutes, I was done on the phone, and had confirmed the transfer online. 20 minutes later, a copy of the SWIFT message was in my inbox, and the CFS part of the container saga was cleared almost instantly.

Step 14: When you least expect it, Customs strike back

Now, all we needed was a last document from Customs. Our agent had been promised it would be ready, so all he needed was to pick it up at the Customs office at the Port. Then we could just go and pick up the gate pass. Yeah right!

Unfortunately, someone had forgotten to send the letter from the Port to the main office in Kilindini, so it was not ready after all. It was already past 4PM. Step on it! Faster! Faster! To Kilindini!

At Kilindini, the Deputy Commissioner, who was supposed to sign the letter was in a meeting. 30 minutes went by before the other person came out of the office. We didn’t even wait to be shown in.

The Deputy Commissioner was a friendly, but straight-forward person. After hearing about the situation, she was adamant that this could not be sorted out until the next morning.

To me, that was not an option. Getting the container out the next day would move us too dangerously close to the deadline. What were the emergency procedures in such situations, I demanded to know.

She insisted things would have to go by the procedures, and I insisted I needed the letter the same day. I made sure to emphasize that we had made our preparations well ahead, and that someone in the Customs Dept was to blame for the letter having been left in a drawer for more than a week.

Nothing I said or did could mislead anyone to believe that I would leave that office before getting the letter. Eventually she picked up the phone, told a colleague to come pick up the file for a verification procedure, and from there insisted that she didn’t like doing such things, as she normally worked exclusively on a first-comes-first-served basis.

We were once again in the front office, waiting for the case to be processed. Nervous about whether the person supposed to do the verification procedure would actually do it the same day, we managed to extract information about his office location from the secretary, and went there to push him.

That worked, and only few minutes later, everything was ready.

At the Deputy Commissioner’s office, a surprise awaited us, though: Customs see zero-rating as an act of generosity, no matter how much the client is entitled to it. Zero-rating of a consignment the size of our container therefore required approval from the level above, and that person had gone for the day. Ouch!

Step 15: With Customs, even approvals from the highest levels are subject to re-confirmation

The next morning, I showed up at the office of one of the top officers in the region.

The front office was over-crowded with people waiting to see him. When he showed up, he picked 6 people, seemingly at random to join him in his office.

He was an extremely jovial, talkative and witty person, going far to entertain his audience. When a quite shy-looking, young person accidentally popped his head through the door, he was instantly waved in, and to the amusement of everyone in the room, thouroughly interrogated about his sexual endeavours during his current trip to Mombasa, and about the commercial nature of those presumed activities.

Jokes about women, ethnicity, drugs and corruption multiplied during the almost 3 hours that we were sitting in the office. Meanwhile, cases were being handled one by one in between the jokes and the laughs.

I might probably have enjoyed the light atmosphere far better, had it not been for the fact that I was in a crazy rush against time, with the hourglass was rapidly running out on me. As the success of the mission depended on the guy in front of me, I realised that the current situation couldn’t be rushed, so it was better to face it, and find his wavelength, laughing at the hailstorm of jokes, and throwing in a few ones myself.

When eventually he got to my case, he simply put his signature at 3 places, and that was it. After all the waiting, it was all over so fast. Now we could go and get the gatepass… right?

As I had paid the CFS charges the day before, the container was supposed to be extracted that same day. Now that we had sorted out everything with them the day before, they were in a positive mood, and getting that charge waived took us nothing more than a quick visit at the office.

Apparently, we still needed a sighting of the container by Customs, so we needed to pass by their local office at the CFS. We got a sighting officer assigned, and we ran, literally sprinted, the 300 meters down to the container. The customs guy didn’t seem to care much about that, though, as he took everything at his own pace.

He only found some small formality to argue about, but our agent was able to counter that one easily. The customs guys seemed frustrated he couldn’t find anything more to harass us about, so he just signed the documents, went back to the office, and entered it into the system.

Now, it turned out before getting the gate pass, some information needed to be entered into the system from “Number 5” down at the port. It was now 3PM, and the customs office at the CFS was closing at 5. After a too slow car ride, accompanied by me shouting “step on it, step on it, step on it”, we arrived there. 3 minutes later, we rushed back in the car. The waiver letter I had gotten in the morning needed to be matched in the system, and another senior official in Kilindini needed to enter that in the system. It was now T minus 95 minutes.

T minus 80 minutes: Coming out of the elevator on the 2nd floor in Kilindini, I ran into a huge crowd. As I was pushing my way through it, my agent’s assistant asked a watchman for directions to his office.

– 4th door on the right, but you can’t go in. There are people in his office already, and all these people here are waiting to see him. I have instructions not to let anyone past..

– This is an emergency! A matter of life or death, I interrupted.

I could feel and hear the fuming rage of the crowd as I pushed my way through and towards the door. I took a deep breath as we crashed into the office, that was almost as crowded as the corridor outside.

With an effort to appear as calm and collected as humanly possible, given the circumstances, I put up a big smile, walked up to the guy behind the desk, and shook his hand as my two fellows, somewhat baffled by my shamelessness, slowly entered the open door behind me.

– Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and I wish we could have been introduced under less hectic circumstances. The situation now is that we have an extreme emergency, that requires an entry from you in the system” I said, opening the file and handing him the letter signed by his ultra-senior colleague.

– Wow, right now, there’s just too many people in my office! I’ll sort put your emergency, just let me finish with these guys here.

The 6 or 7 people crowding the office, in addition to my 2 guys were still speechless as we retreated towards the door. 2 or 3 minutes later, they were all rushed out, with the officer right behind, closing his door as he was preparing to leave.

– I have a meeting that I cannot be late for. You’ll have to sort this out with my secretary. She’ll help you. I stood in front, blocking his way as I handed him the file.

– A copy of this file was sent to your office this morning, and this container must be in Kisumu tomorrow!

He hesitated, looked at it, then reopened the door to his office as he took the file and walked towards his desk. Some minutes later it was all done. I shook his hand again, thanked him, then took the file again and ran.

Step 16: Run, run, run!

Back to number 5 at the port again. On the road, we decided to split up, so our agent would finalize at the port, while I was going to make sure that the customs officials at the CFS didn’t leave before we got there. 2 of his colleagues met us at the port in a Toyota Vitz. As they were rather careful motorists, I took the driver’s seat. An emergency is an emergency, so step on it!

Speeding, flashing, danger lights and semi-constant hooting apparently convinced even trucks, matatus and police on foot to back off! Less than 3 minutes later, I drove through the first gate ignoring the sound of a watchman insisting we park outside it. The second gate was physically closed so the watchman there had the upper hand. Instead of arguing, we parked outside and put up a sprint worthy of Olympic athletes. It was T minus 25!

The local customs chief was preparing to call it a day a few minutes early. That plan was abruptly thwarted. It was now T minus 20.

Done at Number 5, my guys there were on the way to the CFS at a neckbreaking speed. I had told them not to waste time walking, but to run, and not to worry about any traffic rules.  

T minus 3: The people in the customs office were wondering whether my guys were gonna make it anytime soon, as I could suddenly say: “Look through the window” as my guys came running across from the gate. As they got in, I rushed over to the other side of the building to ensure the people in the office issuing gate passes wouldn’t leave. Fortunately, that office was open until 5:30pm, so we still had time.

There were 3 other guys waiting for their gate passes. As customs documents were finalized at record speed, there was still a queue, and this time we actually joined it. Getting the gate passes seemed to take a while too, and as it was getting close to 5:30, there was obviously a need for more pushing.

– Is it ready yet?

– Oh, that one? Wow, I hadn’t seen it..

Obviously, there was no point in asking if I could wait until tomorrow, so the guy started working at it right away.

– Where’s the receipt for customs?

– It’s zero rated! Look at the waiver letter!

The name and signature had obviously impressed the guy, yet one of the others started: “But is this a full waiver for..”

I stormed in behind the counter. “Solar cookers! 0 rated! All charges waived! CFS storage: Paid!” pointing at the corresponding documents, “What more do you need”. The guy went quiet and faced the computer again, with me standing straight behind his back.

– There’s a customs charge that hasn’t been paid..

– It’s 0 rated!! How many times do I have to repeat it?

– No, this one, 230 shillings.

He was pointing at the figure 230, somewhere at a form. I went numb. Was 230 shillings gonna stop this from happening?

Fortunately, our agent’s assistant was quick to dig out a receipt for that charge, and we could proceed again.

At 17:45, we finally had the gate pass for the container!
At 17:45, we finally had the gate pass for the container!

– There’s a charge for today, said a lady who so far had been quiet.

– It was waived by the chief accountant this morning! My reply was instant, as I pulled the receipts out from the file, and slammed them on the table.

– You’re absolutely right, she said after a quick look at the papers. After that, no more comments came until the gate pass was out of the printer.

After the lady had put her signature and stamp on the gate pass, we were finally ready to get the container out, at 5:45 pm. The people behind the desk were happy to be able to go home, and I was ecstatic!

As a last hurdle, of course we had to pass by the security desk to have the gate pass registered, but that only took 5 minutes, and they were there 24/7 anyway. Once through with that, we could finally walk over to our container and load it.

It was an almost overwhelmingly emotional moment as I watched the container being lifted on to the truck. The Kafka container was finally out! Months of surreal bureaucratic meandering were over, and the effort had been crowned with success!

The container finally got loaded onto a truck
An emotional moment: The container gets on the truck

Exhausted after 2 days of pure insanity, I was in no mood to go straight to the airport when I didn’t even know if I would get a flight. I wanted at least a taste of the beach, so I called my friend Janet, who owns the increasingly famous travel agency Exotic Expeditions. 5 minutes later, I was booked in to the Severin Sea Lodge at a giveaway price!

Step 17: Success, at last!

Of course the truck got somewhat delayed on the way, so we had to skip the partial offloading stopover in Nairobi, and send the container straight to Kisumu. The Nairobi stopover could always be done on the way back.

Less than 2 hours before the expiry of the delivery deadline, the container finally arrived in Kisumu! After a nerve-wrecking experience until the very last moment, the crazy effort was finally crowned with success!

This is a TRUE story about dealing with bureaucratic madness in the 21st century – in Kenya, a country with one of the BEST business climates in Africa!

The story contains no exaggeration in any way, rather on the contrary!

I am not complaining, though! We succeeded, and I regret nothing of what I did. The lessons learned were valuable, and thing I know for sure, is that the next container will be less complicated, as I know how to deal with it now.

Solar energy is a relatively young, yet fast-growing sector in Kenya, and having pulled this off once, now gives us a a great advantage over any competitor! If you’re one of them, feel free to use this as a guidebook, and keep in mind that I’ve left out the juiciest parts of the story! 😉


  1. Eva Dixon October 3, 2010 at 1:22 am

    Very interesting read. Keep it coming.

    I moved back to Kenya in 2008 as a returning resident and reading about your experiences brought back a few memories. I shipped 2 containers and had fun and games with the bureaucrary too!

    Good luck with everything

  2. T tehuri December 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Chief, you either had a lot of free useless time on your hands or your are one big curmudgeon cheapskate. Why in the hell would you go to the lengths that you did when we have a gazzillion clearing and forwarding companies in the country who would have gladly accomplished this task devoid of all the bitching that you have exposed us to.

    I think being white or a foreigner is no excuse for stupidity. If I were to be faced with the same dilemma in your country ofrJapan for example, I’d be a stupid ass to try to go through the bureacratic hurdles, ignorant of the ways of that country. That is why we have a agencies who are tasked to do their profession bits and we do our own. Duh!

    Damn next time I will hear you bitching about how difficult it was for you to export a four leafed clover from Magadi and how shit Kenyans and by extension Africans are.

    What a waste of time and space this piece is. Please direct your attention to fiction writing if you have nothing credible to educate us upon other than your stupid ignorance on bureacracies and why they exist.

    1. Håvar Bauck January 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      Dear T Tehuri,

      Obviously, you have a lot of time to write enraged comments. Perhaps you should have spent some of that time reading my blog post instead!

      If you had done that, you would have seen that we actually used TWO agents, and that my work came on top of that.

      Instead of yelling at foreigners creating jobs in your country, may I recommend you spend your time on something constructive? Right now, you are just making yourself a useful idiot of impunity, defending the forces holding Kenya back, in some misguided perception that any criticism by foreigners is an insult!

      By the way, I love Kenya. What have you done lately to make Kenya a better place, besides barking at foreigners who point out things that have a potential for improvement?

  3. Tekwane mwendwa December 16, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I waz excited 2 see ur post thinkin i would get first hand experienc in importin gudz..n i got to say i did tons but am stickin 2 ma day..n by the way how many kilos did u loose running..great read..n where can i get the solar cookerz n chargerz

    1. Håvar Bauck January 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm

      Hello Tekwane,

      Yes, that was an insane experience, but the good thing is, it worked out in the end, and we got the container out! Never measured how many kg i lost, or how many grey hairs I got. All I can say is that I was dead exhausted when the whole thing was crowned with success, and I awarded myself a well-deserved extra nigght at Severin! 🙂

      Kenya has a lot of business potential, but some issues simply need to be sorted out first. The Mombasa port, and Customs are definitely among them!

      I’m sending you an e-mail about the cookers and the torchligts. Take care!

  4. Shiroh August 6, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    That’s a thrilling experience and definitely the best way youi can prescribe the Government lethargic offices. Bitter sweet experience when you are finally done

  5. Ben September 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Now….now your truly Kenyan. I’d been trying to get my ID since i turned 18 like a month ago and i had to queue for the better part of a day just to get the fraking application form! Screw it, talking nice to bouncers at clubs is much easier 😉

  6. Eva November 24, 2011 at 12:42 am

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, so much truth in your perspective about Kenya, not to negate the evidence you presented. I was faced with similar madness at the port and I will never again import anything through the port of Mombasa.
    Let me first introduce myself, I am Kenyan American, living in Norway- husband is Norwegian and since I was moving to Norway, I decided to send some personal effects and donations for my non-profit to Kenya. It only cost me 500 dollars, so it seem logical to do so. Well, to cut the story short, it cost me 1000 dollars to get them out, and that a deal! Remember these are tax exempt items because they are personal effects and donations and I had the paperwork to back that up.

    Anyways, thank you for sharing your experiences, we are escaping to Kenya in December until January 16th. I want to know more about your solar equipment, like I mentioned earlier, i run a non-profit organization.

    Tusan Takk!

    Eva J.


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