Nairobi Expressway: Fruits of President Kenyatta’s new model for Kenya-China infrastructure cooperation

Monday, May 3rd, 2021 00:00 |
An aerial view of the on-going Nairobi Expressway project along Mombasa Road. Photo/PD/John Ochieng

By Adhere Cavince

As East Africa’s commercial heartland, Nairobi City is experiencing rapid economic expansion, alongside corresponding need for better infrastructure. Due to inadequate roads, the traffic situation in Nairobi has been a major cause of concern. According to the Kenya National Highways Authority, the City loses up to KSh. 50 million per day which cumulatively translates to KSh. 18.25 billion in annual hemorrhage, to traffic snarl-ups and fuel wastage.

This background informed the decision of the government to Kenya to seek partnership with China to put up the 27 kilometre Nairobi Expressway that links Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway. When complete, the project that is implemented through Public Private Partnership (PPP) model and constructed by the China Roads and Bridges Corporation is expected to cut travel time across the stretch from the current 2 hours to just 20 minutes.

A number of factors have fuelled optimism from motorists and general public regarding the Expressway. First, the speed and efficiency of implementation has been eye-catching. Kenyans are relieved to learn that the project, which is currently progressing at 60 meters per day from both ends, will be complete in early 2022, six months ahead of schedule.

The second element touches on skills transfer and jobs creation. So far, over 1800 young Kenyans have found gainful employment with the project. With many jobs having been frozen by the Covid-19 global pandemic, the construction of the Expressway has offered respite for young people. Equally, the machinery used in the project, that are now run by locals, will see massive skills transfer to the operators, benefits that will remain with Kenya long after the road is completed.

Thirdly, the Expressway symbolizes a new, yet pragmatic approach to infrastructure cooperation between China and Kenya. Besides delivering operational efficiency, the PPP model also ensures projects are completed on time and within budget. It offers additional incentives for private enterprises to inject both technology and finances where such would otherwise remain unreachable.

Indeed, the PPP model also augments the push by Beijing for co-construction of the Belt and Road Initiative. In order to buoy sustainability and responsibility of the infrastructure deals along the BRI paths, China is nudging development partners to pull together informational, financial, and technical resources. 

As the first road in which motorists will pay toll fees to use, the Expressway is also an experiment on how receptive Kenyan motorists will adjust to the new realities. However, due to the attendant convenience, reduction in wear and tear, safety and ability to plan ahead of time, the road users should find it both rational and economical to use the Expressway. In many ways, the road will be a learning point not only for Kenyans, but also for the rest of the East African region both in terms of construction and use.

The Road is also slated to further spur economic activity along its course, just like similar past projects such as the Thika Superhighway and the Outering Road did; while dramatically transforming the City’s outlook.

Although the Expressway is the latest addition to Kenya’s quest towards infrastructure adequacy, it is certainly not the last. For Kenya to optimize its infrastructure portfolio, the country needs to invest up to 40 billion US dollars by the year 2040. Like many developing countries, Kenya may not raise the requisite financing for its infrastructure needs from internal resources. It is going to be harder, especially in the backdrop of the debilitating Covid-19 global pandemic that has significantly downsized Kenya’s economy. That means Nairobi will most likely turn to external partners like China in its quest to modernize its infrastructure.

Kenya and China have enjoyed closer collaboration in the field of infrastructure building. Even during the pandemic, there are a number of projects besides the Expressway that are on course towards delivery. China has been the most forthcoming source of infrastructure funding ad technology for Nairobi; a feat that can be continued with new approaches such as those employed in the execution of the Expressway.

 The writer is a scholar of international relations with a focus on China-Africa relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld.

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