Heading north-east to Thika to interview a coffee cooperative, I took a matatu (Hiace bus) from central Nairobi early on a Thursday morning. As I headed off, I had no idea that the road I took would be one of the most interesting things I observed that day. The ‘Thika Road’ has acquired legendary status in the Kenyan press. It is being seen as a major victory for the Kenyan government, a sign of Kenya’s movement into the future. When it is finished, sometime in 2012 if the hype is to be believed, it will become a main artery to the north-east from the Kenyan capital. There is no doubt that it will be one of the best roads in the country.
Despite only a few hundred metres being visibly paved with tarmac at this stage, it is already being hailed as a shining jewel in the Kenyan infrastructure, one other African countries hope to mimic. But it’s also a triumph that the Kenyan government can take little credit for.
The smart move, it seems, has been to get the Chinese build it, to delegate the job.
SinoHydro are overseeing the project, and their countrymen are clearly visible in their blue overalls, dotted among groups of Kenyan labourers as foremen, or driving shiny 4X4s.
What’s completed of the road, or even that which is in a halfway state, is of good quality. The road network at large, in comparison, is a slapdash criss-cross of pockmarked byways, and reflective of that is the battered national fleet. All vehicles become old before their time, aged by the terrain and kept alive through the palliative care that passes for mechanical maintenance here.
The sight of a Mini Cooper, of which I’ve seen only one, is a bizarre folly. Among the clapped-out, or soon-to-be clapped out vehicles bouncing around Nairobi, a glitzy, expensive little hatchback built for smooth city streets makes little sense at all.
But the Thika road will add to the Tsavo Highway (The Nairobi-Mombasa stretch known as the ‘China Road’) a second high-standard stretch of motorway across Kenya, built largely by Africa’s favourite trade partner – the Chinese. To overly compliment the Chinese influence puts one at risk of belittling African workers, their ineptitude an inferred corollary of the efficiency and capacity of the high-powered immigrants.
A more optimistic analysis would suggest that Kenya may merely have spotted a good thing, a source of skills transfer and, at the same time, infrastructure. Much-needed infrastructure. Kenya has a long way to go to bring its road network up to scratch, by employing Chinese help to get it done, the by-product could be a drastically upskilled construction force. And that model is replicable across a variety of sectors.
And to the cynic, it highlights the continuance, best use and positive reversal of a tactical choice that has been a long-standing favourite here, from colonial times on to the present day. Delegation.
But that simplifies things far too much. The fact is, China and Kenya’s trade relationship pulls them ever tighter together as time passes. It has done more to enable commerce and development, the visible sort, than anything other international intervention on a surface level. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, many of them cheap Chinese knock-offs of familiar designs. Their ubiquity has led to a price war between operators, opening their use up further to customers. The number of motorbikes on the streets has increased by a factor of five, nearly all of them ersatz Chinese brands that would struggle to sell a single unit in Ireland or the US, where top-line marques have things cornered off. The short-lived phones, the bikes, and the tuk-tuks that now pepper the cities, are an environmentalists nightmare. There is no way of recycling end-of-life phones in Kenya, meaning they end up on the side of the road, leaching heavy metals into the watercourse, and all of the bikes are two-stroke affairs, spewing particulate matter into an already smoggy atmosphere.
But they are a new vector to prosperity for many Kenyans. Someone who can stockpile enough Kenyan shillings to buy a motorbike can become a revenue-generating piki-piki motorcycle taxi driver. Phones allow access to markets (an anomalous term – see this quasi-relevant post) and save on unnecessary journeys, a godsend when two valuable hours or more could be lost making a redundant trip by foot.
So the bikes, the phones and the roads (along with myriad other examples including the toilet roll in the header shot) are all representative of something that China has cottoned on to ahead of all other countries: Africa is not merely a pauper continent, it is an extremely valuable market. The margins may be slim and the RPU low, but there are millions of people on the continent, heretofore abandoned by global commerce.
Kenya may not have oil, it may not have strategic importance, but it has 40 million consumers and a growing middle class. And despite our prolonged ‘engagement’ with the African continent in Europe and America, China somehow got to them first.
Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant.