Chinese contractors have found a golden goose in Kenya, almost taking all the megaprojects in the construction industry. Most of the major state and private infrastructure that has been built in the last ten years have some form of Chinese involvement in them.

This goes from roads, buildings, railway, to water and sewerage projects.

Having said that, Chinese companies have proved to be efficient and reliable. They show up armed with equipment, labor, and most important, capital which allows them to complete the project in a record time.

The Standard Gauge Railway

Take the example of the Chinese made Mombasa - Naivasha railway line.

The railway line was funded through a loan from China, built by a Chinese company, and now is operated by the Chinese. It is essentially the Chinese railway in Kenya. Despite protests on the feasibility of the project and accusations of kickbacks and disregard for the environment during the construction, the railway line was eventually built.

However, it is the manner in which the new railway is run that has proved to be a rip-off to Kenyans, at least to Kenyan engineers. To date, control panels and boards are written and programmed in Chinese. The primary language used in the operations by the many Chinese people is the Chinese language. The engine drivers of the trains are Chinese, while Kenyan engineers are forced to do lowly jobs.

Some 40 Kenyans have been trained on to how operate the trains, but they remain spectators as they are not allowed to do the real work.

At the same time, the Chinese have brought people from China to do menial jobs while Kenyans continue to grapple with joblessness. In some other projects, the Chinese have even been accused of ferrying everything from China, including the brooms to be used on site.


In this episode of The Tefo Mohapi Show David Li shares his thoughts on Africa-China relations and why China building infrastructure in Africa is important. Li also shares insights on Shenzhen's history and the differences between Silicon Valley and Shenzhen.

Lack of knowledge transfer

From the onset of the Mombasa-Naivasha railway project in Kenya, there appears to have been no plan to ensure deliberate transfer of skills to Kenyans so that they can take over the running of the project. Yet, the project costs Kenya's citizens dearly, amidst growing national debt.

Why didn’t the government of Kenya care about equipping its engineers to not only operate the railway line, but also make them competent enough to build other sections that will need to be built in future?

The problem persists not just in the Madaraka Express railway, but in other sectors as well. Highly qualified Electrical, Mechanical and Civil Engineers continue to grapple with joblessness, while mega projects are being handled by the Chinese. While it is understandable that they bring in certain expertise and skills, projects must be designed in such a way that they ensure maximum skill transfer to the locals. The overreliance on Chinese contractors also means that local construction companies have faced severe competition.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta officially opened a $1.5 billion Chinese-built railway line linking Nairobi to the Rift Valley town of Naivasha on Wednesday, 16 October 2019. It's an extension to the $3.2 billion track between Mombasa and Nairobi, which opened in 2017. Source: VOA News

What next?

The Kenyan government need to prioritize the needs of its young people, and not focus on giving them a fish.

That people from China are employed as engineers for Β Kenyan railway while many competent Kenyan engineers are jobless is frankly shortsighted and stupid. The worst part is that even very low-level jobs such as cleaners and security guards are being done by Chinese nationals, in a country that has very high levels of unemployment. Building the human resources should be a top priority for any country that wants to develop.

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