China building more than just a port at Kenya’s coast
Barely ten years ago, it would have been unimaginable that Lamu, one of the northern coastal towns in Kenya, could transform to a veritable hub of trade and commerce. Situated approximately 350 miles north of the country’s major East African port city of Mombasa and 463 kilometers from the capital city Nairobi, the hitherto sleepy Lamu Island was mainly associated with tourism for its rich history that dates back to 1370.
This will now change drastically on May 20 as President Uhuru Kenyatta commissions the first of the planned 23-berth facility Lamu Port for business to the rest of the world. The day will mark the port’s docking of its maiden cargo, which investors see as a strong and unequivocal endorsement of the project’s viability. Kenya Ports Authority says that 19 shipping lines have inspected the port and are willing to start using the facility to take advantage of the incentives.
The Singaporean ship’s arrival is aimed at testing both the internal and external support infrastructure, including the already complete surrounding road network. The US dollars 2.9 billion Lamu Port is strategically positioned and will give tough competition to the existing transhipment ports such as Djibouti and Durban in South Africa.
The new port is a flagship infrastructural project under Kenya’s Vision 2030 development blueprint and aims to transform Kenya into “a newly-industrializing, middle income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment". The China Communication Construction Company was awarded the construction contract under the regional U.S. dollars 26 billion Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor.
The corridor comprises the advanced standard gauge railway (SGR) line, road network, oil pipeline, oil refinery, international Airports, resort cities and the port at Lamu. While the port will open remote parts of northern Kenya through the construction of an inter-linking ultra-modern transport network, experts are confident that it will also change the fortunes of regional economies through increased trade, integration and inter-connectivity spanning South Sudan and landlocked Ethiopia.
The Kenya government is funding construction of the first three berths of the build-operate-transfer project under a public-private sector partnership. Kenyans have hailed the uninterrupted progress of the project amid the COVID-19 pandemic as a sign of commitment by the Chinese contractors in ensuring that the beneficiaries do not incur additional costs due to inordinate delays.
Beyond the massive impact expected in the region, Lamu Port is also strategically placed and will be instrumental in the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an Africa-wide initiative launched in January 2021. Formed under the African Union, the AfCFTA intra-continental agreement seeks to boost the continent’s trading position in the global market by strengthening Africa’s common voice and policy space in global trade negotiations.
Of course, Kenya is not new to Chinese transformational mega projects. The U.S. dollars 3.6 billion SGR, the country’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence, was launched by President Kenyatta on May 31, 2017. Now over half way through, it is effectively replacing the old 100-year old meter gauge rail and opening up the country’s hinterland by easing, increasing and accelerating the transport of goods and passengers to and from Mombasa Port.
Currently, the China Road and Bridge Corporation is constructing the U.S. dollars 550 million Nairobi expressway, which is the first such road in the region. The project is being expedited and is expected to be complete early 2022, much earlier than anticipated. It will be a huge relief to thousands of commuters in the capital city since it will save billions of shillings in man-hours lost every day in the notorious gridlocks that plague the capital city.
The new port will also totally change the security fortunes of the wider Lamu area which in recent years had been reeling under terrorist attacks that have claimed a couple of hundred lives. The infrastructural network will leave the terrorists with nowhere to hide, while enhanced security will also protect the undertaking of economic activities in the area, tremendously increasing productivity.
Interestingly, China and Lamu, and the Kenyan Coast in general are not strangers, sharing a history that dates back over 600 years when Chinese navigator Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty made voyages to the area with merchant ships. In 2005, news of a Kenyan girl with Chinese blood, then 19-year-old Mwamaka Sharifu, created much excitement between the two strategic partners. Sharifu was born in Siyu village, one of the islands in the Lamu archipelago where many pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain had been unearthed.
This is part of the unique history that made Lamu a designated World Heritage site in 2001 by the United Nations United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The ongoing infrastructural development will add tremendous value to the centuries-old town’s tourism portfolio, with the obvious ripple effect of positioning Kenya and the region above their competitors.
The bottom line is that all these projects, including hundreds of kilometers of roads under construction countrywide, are not only transforming the country’s fortunes, but also offering employment to thousands of youth. Many are saving up from their earnings and starting small businesses after completion of the projects, thus reducing crime among the youth.
The writer is the Executive Director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi based research and development communication think tank.