Local contractors to blame for Chinese stranglehold

Monday, August 19th, 2019 00:00 |
SGR train at Mombasa terminus. Photo/Courtesy

Chinese contractors have become a dominant feature of Kenya’s construction sector. They dominate government projects, especially roads and highways, where they have brought new standards.

Whether it is water, dams, bridges, airports, or railway projects, the Chinese construction  juggernaut rules.

There is a reason why. Chinese contractors have demonstrated high standards and deliver on time and within budget. Further, Chinese-funded project completion rates are impressive, given their model of supervise, construct, and deliver as turnkey jobs. 

Consequently, Chinese contractors have elbowed out local contractors from big projects. Further, it is now not uncommon to find Chinese contractors working on county governments projects.

The Chinese have now “invaded” real estate, and private developers are turning to them for housing projects and commercial buildings.

How did local contractors find themselves in such a bind? Local contractors have long been the bane of Kenya.  The most notorious were those doing roads and highrise rental buildings. Poor workmanship, delays, cost overruns and lack of professionalism have been their credo. Local contractors gained so much notoriety that at one time the biggest ones were derisively referred to as “cowboy contractors.”

Government officials were regularly bribed to turn a blind eye to the chaos. Public outrage meant nothing to the contractors. Indeed, some local contractors who have amassed huge wealth  have poorly constructed and incomplete projects littered across the country. Yet, they are seen as the cream of Kenya’s contractors. Something is wrong with this picture. 

The situation is no better for private projects, where contractors take forever to finish housing projects, wreaking havoc on the financial projections of developers. Dishonesty and outright theft have been  major features of construction sites, with collapsing buildings the signature of the local construction sector. Hundreds of their buildings have been condemned as unfit for habitation.

All this had to finally come to a head. And the government and private sector are voting with their feet. 

The big question now is, will local contractors claw back the ground they have lost to the Chinese? A lot of work needs to be done to enable them to regain their footing. 

The country cannot afford to allow the local construction industry to collapse. When the Chinese leave, then what?  Further, massive resource transfers by Chinese companies is draining Kenya. 

Kenya must accept that the local construction sector is in shambles, and requires crucial reforms. Simply crying foul will not wash. The Chinese have got to where they are by sheer hard work, discipline, determination and raising standards.

What steps must Kenya take? One, police standards. Penalise. Prosecute. Proscribe. All regulatory and professional associations are comatose. The Engineers Registration Board, the Institution of Engineers of Kenya, the National Construction Authority, the Roads and Civil Engineering Contractors Association of Kenya, and Kenya Federation of Master Builders, among others have all presided over this decay. It is this apathy that has had devastating effects on local engineering standards.

Two, weed out quacks. Three, the government must pay contractors promptly. Government has played a big role in making local contractors struggle by delaying payments. This pushes them to bribery and cutting corners to survive.

Four, local contractors must shape up. Stop greed. Be professional. Stop taking work you have no capacity to do. Employ professionals. Supervise your work. Complete works in time and within budget. 

 And finally, the government must create a contractors’ fund to lend to local contractors to facilitate them to bid for big projects.  Major projects undertaken abroad by foreign contractors are financed by export-import banks from those countries, enabling the contractors to be competitive. Kenya’s contractors will not compete against the Chinese without assistance. It’s time to think of non-traditional approaches.-[email protected]

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