Ten years ago, the bus ride from Mombasa—East Africa’s most important port and Kenya’s second largest city—to Nairobi, the country’s capital, took 15 hours traveling from dusk til dawn. That’s about 470 kilometers along the A109 highway. Two weeks ago, when I made the journey, it took a bit over 10 hours, though we have to take into consideration that upon hitting Nairobi’s outskirts, my scrappy, stuffed van (called a matatu) was absorbed by deadlocked traffic for over 3 hours.

Once called The Mombasa Road, this crucial trade route is now referred to as “The China Road,” a result of the engineering and construction contributions care of the People’s Republic that permitted my matatu a relatively smooth ride. Ongoing renovations and massive funding from the Communist Party for such infrastructure projects no doubt paved the way for the renaming. And when former President Moi praised the opening of A109 at Voi, a small town along the route, as the best road in Kenya, it certainly didn’t hurt the Sino cause that China Road and Bridge Company (CBRC) in Kenya was involved in the construction.

Most recently, and most famously, Uhuru Road from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the United Nations headquarters, which is a continuation of A109, has undergone reconstruction. A project funded by Beijing’s 740-million-yuan ($108.4 million) aid package granted to Kenya granted at the Sino-Africa Summit in 2006, the 26-km strip of road cost 234 million yuan ($34.2 million). Beijing has also been credited with funding three Nairobi bypass roads, including the 40 km Southern, 2 km Northern, and 30 km Eastern bypass. Included in this construction is a widening of the roads, removal of at least six roundabouts, the addition of streetlights, and the building of pedestrian walkways.

Each month, Kenya adds 5,000 cars to the road (in comparison to China’s 5,000 each day), according to this Xinhua news piece. In Nairobi, traffic persists throughout the day, often at a standstill. In the last decade, “the city the vehicle population has probably gone up 300 percent,” said Nairobi motoring consultant Gavin Bennett. Moreover, most overseas products that are sold throughout inland East Africa, to destinations as far as Sudan, come via the Mombasa port, which no doubt contribute to Kenya’s growth and relevance as East Africa’s trade hub. Kenya knows fixing road infrastructure is paramount. China is more than happy to help.

China’s growing influence on the continent is regarded locally with mixed feelings, explains this video segment. China has begun a huge investment drive on the continent, investing in the extraction of commodities, including oil, copper, iron ore and other strategic commodities. It has also begun a drive to simultaneously win over “hearts and minds” of ordinary Africans by bestowing gifts like football stadiums, railways and roads, as well as soft loans to African governments. But at the same time, cheap Chinese imports are hurting millions of traders and workers in Africa.

Whereas Beijing has been providing loans and aid throughout much of Africa, the nature of the relationship in Kenya seems to be based mostly on infrastructure projects—in the hopes of helping what was once considered the most stable of East African nations re-establish this position.

Still, people question the need for Kenya to import road engineers from China rather than use Kenyan workers and engineers. Others see the initiative as crucial for speeding up development, as they trust Chinese know-how and also hope for training and knowledge transfer.

“Chinese companies are very competitive,” director of Kenya’s 25-year economic plan Vision 2030, Wahome Gakuru, said. “The quality of work [the Chinese] do is very good. They deliver before deadlines, and never ask for extensions” while Kenyan companies “ask for extension after extension after extension”.

“From China we want a transfer of skills: how to build roads, bridges, teaching discipline,” he said.

The road construction project is the largest of its kind by the Chinese in Kenya since the 1985 construction of a sports stadium, though it is a sign of China’s increasing global presence and influence that the stadium was not named after its project manager. Not so for what is colloquially called The China Road.

http://enr.construction.com/opinions/blogs/zoninsein/Kenya

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