Kenya’s mega railway project leaves society more unequal than before


In 2014, Kenya began to build a new railway to connect the port of Mombasa to the interior and to landlocked Uganda and Rwanda. Today, the standard gauge railway comes to an abrupt halt at Naivasha, 120 km northwest of Nairobi. Ultimately, it is expected to reach the border with Uganda at Malaba, helping to connect regional transport and trade in East Africa.

Cost 3.8 billion US dollars, 90% of which was provided by a bilateral loan from Exim Bank of China to the Government of Kenya, this new passenger and freight railway is the largest infrastructure project in independent Kenya’s history.

Along with other major projects such as the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (Lapsset) transport corridor, the standard gauge railway is at the heart of Kenya’s current national development policy, “Vision 2030”. The policy sees these megaprojects as essential to attracting the kind of private sector interest needed to fuel economic growth, increase exports and reduce poverty.

According to Chinese state authorities, the construction of the standard gauge railway resulted in Kenya’s economic growth of 1.5%, creating 46,000 jobs for local residents.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than these official accounts acknowledge.

In my to study, I analyze the uneven socio-political effects of Kenya’s standard gauge railway. During five months of field research, conducted over several periods between November 2018 and January 2020 in different urban, peri-urban and rural areas between Mombasa and Narok, I interviewed more than 200 people to understand their experiences of the new railway project. .

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I have found that, contrary to the government’s promises of prosperity, Kenya’s mega-railway is on the wrong track of development. My research shows that privileged groups, with sufficient access to economic resources, benefit from several advantages. However, disadvantaged groups, especially those in remote or historically marginalized areas, have found it more difficult to maintain themselves due to the development of large-scale infrastructure. The economic growth associated with the railroad is not expected to remedy this, as the project planners predict.

In fact, I concluded that instead of bringing prosperity to people, the railroad project further advances inequalities in the country.

The railroad and inequalities

With less than 0.1% (8,300 people) of the population owning more than the poorest 99.9% (over 44 million people), Kenya is a highly unequal country. This is the direct result of British colonialism and endemic nepotism and corruption since independence.

In rural Kenya, access to natural resources, such as land, is one of the main determinants of social mobility. Therefore, the land acquisitions for the new railway were an important development. The national government paid $ 29 million acquire more 4,500 hectares of land for the first phase of the new railway.

However, this land acquisition mainly benefited the large landowners who received significant financial compensation. As my research shows, many of these people were able to reinvest the money in real estate or diversify their livelihoods by starting businesses.

Smallholders and squatters without formal land titles had to leave the land they occupied without any financial compensation.

A sin other contexts In the countries of the South, large-scale transport infrastructures such as the standard-gauge railway are also increasing the mobility of the urban middle classes. With the new railway development in Kenya, this is especially the case for those who regularly travel between Mombasa and Nairobi for work, business or leisure. As the new railroad is more efficient than long and exhausting bus journeys or expensive flights, these groups benefit directly from the new rail line.

Rural populations still prefer to use bus and minibus services which offer more flexibility. For them, the railroad also presents a number of direct challenges. In many cases, it blocks existing traffic and access routes, sometimes even dividing family lands and dividing villages. Many people I interviewed see the Standard Gauge Railway as a government-controlled project that is only useful to the people of Nairobi unrelated to the rural poor.

Read more: Kenya’s huge rail project causes environmental damage. here’s how

Rail developments have also triggered an investment boom in central Kenya. Areas near Nairobi have seen significant changes in real estate. Since 2016, in Maai Mahiu or Suswa, for example, where there are new facilities such as stations and depots, land value has tripled. Here, construction of hotels, low-cost housing for truckers, and housing for other workers has increased to take advantage of the emerging transportation economy.

Other regions of the country, such as Mombasa, historically neglected by the central government, know A refusal in business opportunities. The old port’s customs clearance facilities are dispatched to the new inland container depot near Nairobi. With it, smaller scale business operations, whether in cargo handling services, commerce or hospitality, are also leave Mombasa.

As a result, many local businessmen in my study describe Mombasa as a “dying city that will soon be a ghost town”. According to them, Mombasa was occupied before the construction of the railway. It was common to get stuck in traffic for hours when large ships arrived. From now on, “it is emptying day by day, leaving young people idle, wandering the streets in search of work”.

China’s role

Besides financing the new railway, China also has a strong influence in the development of the project. China Road and Bridge Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was the main contractor.

To gain faster access to areas allocated for development, the company directly compensated individual households for leaving the land. According to several business executives I interviewed, the company paid US $ 10 million to meet project delivery targets on time.

This directly undermines the work of the Kenya National Land Commission which is mandated to regulate land compensation. Without the direct supervision of an official state authority, some people were able to negotiate better financial deals than others. As my interviews show, some have been lost in the process.

The government of Kenya has been criticized by local civil society to ignore the regulations on project development and favor short-term stimulus effects over long-term social impacts.

Uncertain future

The project to extend the line from Naivasha to Malaba was put on hold in April 2019. Exim Bank canceled its financing, citing the high number of lawsuits against the project. Other rail projects in the region, such as that in Tanzania, offer alternative options for connecting the interior of East Africa to the Indian Ocean.

There is no indication when funding could be made available to expand Kenya’s railway further inland. Meanwhile, Kenya is pay by the teeth for the infrastructure project that he once promoted as a “game changer”. It remains to be seen whether he will one day live up to the noble promises.


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