China-built rail will help Kenya develop

Updated: November 14, 2019 Source: Global Times
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J. M. Karanja (Global Times/Wang Wenwen)

The second phase of a Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) that links the Kenyan capital of Nairobi with Naivasha, a small town, was opened in the middle of October. The SGR is expected to boost trade along the route and help Kenya's industrialization. But since its construction, the SGR has met challenges and obstacles. Why is the SGR important to Kenya? How does it lay the path for China-Africa cooperation? Reporter Wang Wenwen talked to J. M. Karanja (Karanja), an engineer at Kenya Railways who also manages consultants and supervises contractors about the SGR and China-Africa relations during a recent visit to Kenya.

GT: What does the SGR mean for Kenyans?

Karanja: When the old Meter-Gauge Railway was completed in 1901, the whole country was formed. Now with the SGR, we are going to form a new, industrialized country. We shall have a reliable transportation mode which is affordable and cheap. It shall positively affect the supply to the production chain in terms of reducing the cost of production, having industrial parks with factories, and optimizing the capacity of our production, and finally positively affecting the benefit to the consumers in terms of the price of the goods.

Kenya is expected to become a preferred destination for foreign direct investment from people who want to come to Africa because Kenya will be having a reliable transportation mode.

GT: Why is the SGR important for developing industries?

Karanja: The SGR project is a huge project compared to other projects we have ever done in Kenya. We are happy about the SGR because Kenyan engineers, laborers and skilled people, together with Chinese engineers, made the SGR dream achievable. It is an achievement for our Kenyan people.

One of the significant aspects that we emphasized on was what we call the local content application, which means as long as particular construction materials are available locally and within the cost range in the tender and meet or exceed the quality standards, they should be bought locally.

The reason is that we wanted to catalyze the local economy, create jobs, support local manufacturing and were happy to have achieved a 38-percent local expenditure in the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR. We projected that we contributed 1.5 percent into the local GDP by implementing the SGR.

In the Nairobi-Naivasha line, we made sure a lot of professionals, in the areas of design and construction of the railway and contract administration, worked with us under our tutelage to have the job technology transfer on the construction of the railway.

This enabled the building of capacity so that in the future, we will have the human resource capital to enable us to undertake other railway projects.

GT: What are the challenges in building the SGR?

Karanja: First of all, we had to get the local people buying the idea of the huge infrastructure project for which we had to take a huge loan from a foreign government, a project with multiple social, environmental and economic impacts all of which had to be managed to acceptable limits in order to receive the moral support required from the citizens.

Retaining harmony between wildlife and the SGR meant that we build long bridges with adequate clearance for the giraffes and elephants to pass as the SGR passes through the Tsavo East National Park. We are also extremely happy to note that the cooperation between the SGR builders and the Kenya Wildlife Service eliminated builders-lions conflict at the famous Tsavo river where the early railway builders of 1901 suffered major casualties and delays in excess of six months.

Finally we got the buy-in from the citizens but the government of Kenya had to spend heavily buying the land. In Kenya where the land is privately owned, acquisition for public use means you have to pay for it and there are regulatory procedures and legal processes with definitive timelines. These can sometimes take long posing challenges to the timelines of the project.

Given the size of the project with a huge capital expenditure, we needed to do it in phases. First it was the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR with 480 kilometers main line and later 120 kilometers to connect to Mai Maiu and Suswa towns which are the target sites of the country's SEZs to enhance Kenya's manufacturing capacity through industrialization. The next phase will be to connect Narok with Kisumu City, a distance of 260 kilometers. This is significant because reaching Kisumu City means Kenya can connect sea water to the lake water and thus connect the five East African countries through a transportation corridor.

The burden of funding such a huge project is big but the economic impact is even much bigger.

GT: Critics have also raised the issue of China's "debt trap" as hyped up by Western media outlets. What do you think?

Karanja: Any country, especially the developed countries, could develop because they borrowed from another country or from nature by exploiting natural resources for the ones with such advantages. They borrowed money, knowledge, plant and equipment resources and human capital. We as a country want to develop. Then we must borrow from those who have moved ahead of us since we know what is good for our country. We have a vision too: to be a medium-sized economy by year 2030 with a vibrant manufacturing and double digit GDP growth. We borrow funds because we know we have the potential to create and attract more funds after we build the railway. We must borrow support from those who share our vision. In case someone laid a trap for us, the passion of our Vision 2030 commits us to being a nation with prudent utilization of what we have borrowed and we are then sure to jump the set trap. In any case, if we do not borrow, we would have trapped ourselves by leaning backward and doing nothing about our economic challenges. Mismanagement of debt is bad, but debt is not bad.

China is among the leading countries in the world in the railway industry. Let's face it. They are doing railways in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. There have been benefits and the Chinese standards have gained acceptability and popularity with their rolling stock being exported world over. Purchasing rolling stock in line with the preference of the Exim bank did not put the SGR at a disadvantage but only created harmony and reliability when it comes to maintenance and spares provisions during operations.

GT: Some Westerners always criticize China's presence in Africa and treat the continent as a battlefield of major powers to compete for sphere of influence, which puts Africa in a subservient position. What is your take?

Karanja: Africa is a continent with great potential and visionary leadership. Africa knows where it wants to be by 2050 and will thus choose its partners and cooperate appropriately. All partners for development are welcome in Africa on a win-win partnership.

All the developed countries would like a stake in existing and potential opportunities/markets and such opportunities are available in Africa. It is no wonder then that each of the major powers is competing for influence in Africa.

My take is, we live in the era of communication transformation and with an apt African leadership, the competition is healthy as it gives Africa choice in picking partners who best align with its vision. So everyone is welcome.

Editor: 曹家宁