Nairobi will never be the same again

Wednesday, May 26th, 2021 00:00 |
The ongoing construction of Nairobi Expressway as of April 2021. Photo/Courtesy

The skyline of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi County will transform at the end of this year as the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)-Westlands expressway nears completion. The road aims at expediting the flow of traffic to and from JKIA, over the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD).

The construction entails expansion of the existing road to four one-way lanes, bringing the total number to eight lanes. This infrastructural marvel will also have with foot paths, drainage channels, overpass bridges and street lighting. According to the agreement with the Kenya Government, China Road and Building Construction (CRBC) Company, a subsidiary of state-owned China Communications Construction Company, has a 30-year concession to construct and operate the road.

The 31 miles (50 km) road is expected to cost shillings $599m. CRBC will subsequently collect the toll fees until their investment is recovered, after which the road will be handed over to Kenya. Indeed, pundits have noted that the road is a first in the region, with features such as underpasses, overpasses, exits and the so called Bus Rapid Transit component covering the entire stretch.

Congestion in Nairobi CBD will be eased off, while there will be no more delays to the airport. Over the years, hundreds of people have missed their flights while stuck in road traffic jams on the city’s streets, as they make their way to the airport. The new ultra-modern highway has come at a time Kenyans are desperate due to the inordinately long hours used to cross through the city from either ends.

Construction of the Expressway along Mombasa on November 11, 2020. PHOTO/FILE

According to a report released in September 2019 by the then Nairobi Metropolitan Authority, traffic jams in Nairobi are estimated to cost the Kenyan economy US$ 1 billion every year. This translates to about US$ 107,000 per hour. According to the World Bank, Nairobi loses US$ 485,000 every day in productivity through traffic jams. In 2014, Bloomberg placed this waste at about US$ 540,000 every day in terms of fuel and wasted productivity.

Traffic congestion in Nairobi takes place in two ways. First is the regular cycle which Kenyans are accustomed to. This is caused by peak hour traffic, poor infrastructure, accidents, and variable traffic speeds on congested roads. It has a direct impact on the profitability of the workforce, who spend an inordinately long time sitting in moving traffic on a daily basis. Overly slow traffic increases the costs of goods, while the car fumes increase the carbon footprint.

But Nairobi is not in a unique dilemma. Growing urbanisation is global phenomenon. This development has inevitably constrained the infrastructure of many mega cities, leading to the search for efficient solutions to improve urban transport systems, and reduce traffic congestion. The expressway has been integrated with the rest of the city's transport system in order to ease access to JKIA.  

For two decades, Kenya has constructed thousands of kilometres of roads owing to an exponential increase in budgetary allocations for infrastructural development at both the National and County Government level. According to 2018 statistics, the World Bank and the African Development Bank financed Kenyan projects for up to US$ 13 billion, with a huge share of the funds being spent on roads.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launches the project at the groundbreaking ceremony for the start of the expressway project in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, Oct. 16, 2019. (Xinhua/Xie Han)

China’s dominance in this sector has been attributed to a track record of quality work and expeditious delivery. Top among these companies include China Wu Yi Limited, a state-controlled company with its main headquarters in Fuzhou, and a branch in Nairobi established in 2002.

The company was the lead contractor in the construction of the US$ 360 million Thika Superhighway in 2006, and the US$ 63.9m project of tarmacking the first phase of a road between Kenya-Ethiopia border. Other companies include Sinohydro Construction, and China Communication Construction Company, and Shengli Engineering. They have been involved in construction of the Dongo Kundu bypass in Mombasa, as well as Northern, Eastern, and Southern bypasses in Nairobi.

Chinese companies have an upper hand in the awarding of tenders due to the pre-qualification status tied to the funding of the projects, and the companies superior technical and financial edge over their competitors.

Chinese construction companies are also building capacity of local companies, by creating synergies in the construction value chain. In September, 2018 Nairobi-based Rhombus Construction Company signed a US$ 49 million deal with Chinese equipment manufacturer, SANY Group. Rhombus Construction, a supplier of ready mix concrete in Kenya, now deals in SANY concrete machines and dump trucks. The Kenyan company has also absorbed SANY’s advanced IROOTECH system among other best practices.

In the new Chinese spirit of ‘high speed, high quality’, Kenya is fast becoming infrastructure ready, with some of the road arteries forming part of the global Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, China has continued to live up to its billing as Africa’s best friend.

The writer is the Executive Director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi based research and development communication think tank.

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