Course:GEOG352/2019/The Impact of Chinese Infrastructure in Nairobi, Kenya

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Considering Africa is the world's second most populous continent[1], the level of transportation infrastructure connecting people and services continent-wide is lagging in comparison to other areas of the Global South, like Southeast Asia. Along with other countries on the continent, Kenya’s economic development is hindered by a lack of public infrastructure[2], largely due to the substantial amount of financial and capital flows needed to acquire adequate resources, technology and labor. In order to build new infrastructure, governments of developing countries often rely on foreign investment or international borrowing. Many African countries already have large levels of public debt[3]  resulting in them facing high interest rates when borrowing from institutions like the IMF and World Bank. [4].

China, on the other hand, has experienced rapid economic growth over the past two decades. The nation has accumulated large surpluses of capital and labor, allowing them to generate partnerships with countries on a global scale. As part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), huge sums of money are being pumped into Africa in order to fund infrastructure projects, with the nation of Kenya being one of the continent’s top borrowers[3]. In Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, the Chinese government has funded mega-projects like the A109 national highway and the Standard Gauge Railway. Both projects have vastly improved the trade and transportation, further reducing the friction of distance from the capital to other major Kenyan cities, as well as neighbouring countries[2]. However, there are currently suspicions about China’s ulterior motives behind its massive infrastructure investment project, with critics arguing that the BRI is an act of neocolonialism involving the use of debt-trap diplomacy[5].

Nairobi Minibus Terminal


Africa's transportation infrastructure is sorely lacking compared to other world regions, with the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa stating that approximately 60 percent of the continent's population lacks access to modern infrastructure[1]. In the age of globalization, transpirational infrastructure is extremely important to a country's economic growth, considering that trade, travel, and tourism will all be affected. Ports are needed to import and export goods, roads and highways are needed to transport the goods to businesses, and airports are needed to bring people to buy the goods. For citizens, better transportation also means better access to employment, healthcare, and education. Infrastructure that connects several countries is very important, as cross border trade and better regional integration[1] are key to economic growth. Since Africa is such a large continent, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is spread out due to limited access to resources in the region as well as many smaller landlocked countries that have limited access to overseas trade. As countries across Africa continue to develop and urbanize, the need for proper and reliable transportation infrastructure becomes an essential part of this growth.

The State of Nairobi's Transportation Infrastructure

As Kenya's capital city, Nairobi has experienced strong population growth in the past three decades, reaching 3.23 million people in 2010[2] and expected to reach 6 million by 2025[2]. The rapid growth has greatly increased the demand for transportation infrastructure and the city cannot keep up as it was originally designed as a small stopover town by the British back in 1899[2]. The port in the nearby city of Mombasa serves as a major trading hub in East Africa and due to the layout of the existing colonial road network, almost all of the traffic heading inland still passes through the capital[2], thus contributing to the traffic jams and gridlock. Although the old roads are being upgraded and new ones are being built, it is difficult for the city to meet demand with the increasing number of cars, which has grown from 207,339 in 2004 to 486,207 in 2015[3]. With the lack of rapid transit within the city, an informal form of transportation was developed in the late 1900's [4] called the matatu, which are privately owned minibuses that serve as taxis for millions of the city's population. Famous for their colorful designs and loud speakers, the matatus are a staple of Kenyan culture but have also been criticized for the lack of safety regulations; the 50 passenger maximum vehicles are often overloaded with people and many police officers accept bribes to turn a blind eye[5]. In terms of train infrastructure, Kenya's railways have largely been used for transporting freight rather than people[1], although the recently built Standard Gauge Railway has helped drastically reduce the travel time between Nairobi and Mombasa. It has also acted as a benefit to the public as the drive from Nairobi-Mombasa can be prone to many accidents due to reckless driving.Compared to other African cities, Nairobi's transportation infrastructure is above average but there are still many improvements to be made.

China's Role in Nairobi

Building transportation infrastructure can be very expensive - there are massive upfront costs for the materials and construction as well as costs over time for the maintenance and repair. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has partnered with many African countries to loan large sums to money for massive infrastructure projects, with Kenya being one of the biggest borrowers. In 2011, China became Kenya's largest bilateral donor and in 2013, it became the country's main source of direct foreign investment[2]. Many Chinese infrastructure companies have opened up in the country and over 10,000 Chinese now live in Kenya as well[2]. Significant Chinese-funded transportation projects include the Nairobi-Thika Highway, the Standard Gauge Railway, and the A109 National Highway[6].

Standard Gauge Railway

The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is a project which will connect the cities of Mombasa and Nairobi. The project’s cost is an estimated 3.8 billion USD, 85% of the project is being funded by the Export-Import Bank of China and the other 15% is funded by the Government of Republic of Kenya and the construction contract for project was given to the China Bridge and Road Corporation (CRBC). The project is projected to increase economic transfer of goods and human mobility. Proponents of SGR say the project will provide jobs through construction and maintenance of the railway for Kenya and the city of Nairobi. This project aims to bring East Africa into China’s BRI vision and promises growth from nations who are willing to take Chinese investment.
SGR Nairobi Terminus
Environmental Issues
Multiple issues have surrounded the SGR project, for instance many of those opposed to the project cite environmental concerns as the project would go through Nairobi National Park affecting the natural habitats of the animal inhabitants. The reason for the recent protest was due to the original plan for the SGR to not go through the park but was rerouted by the Kenyan Railway Corporation in 2016. Protests have ensued which demand that the second phase of the construction go around as an alternative [7]. As one of the protester Patricia Heath said at a demonstration, “This is a tiny park. It’s an absolute jewel to the Nairobi citizens and all of Kenya. It is crowded with guests. Everybody who comes for safari, their first stop is Nairobi National Park before they go to the Mara and all those places, and it’s a disaster if they take it away,”[8]. It is not only the worries of what will happen after construction is finished as animals have already been killed during the construction of the SGR at Nairobi National Park[9]. All though the CRBC has promised to put in noise reduction for the railway along these parts to preserve the habitat and tourism there has still been protest to this project. There have been additional concerns surrounding an environmental impact assessment certificate. Initially one was given out by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to the CRBC however concerns led to this certificate being revoked by NEMA following an environmental tribunal citing until a new assessment can be carried out [10].

Worker Issues

As the construction of the SGR continues there has been clashes between Kenyan and Chinese employees. One of the concerns is that the jobs that are given to the locals are being paid less than a quarter than what Chinese workers are being paid for the same kind of job. Moreover, the better paying jobs are given preference to Chinese workers. Tensions have been raised as the Kenyan and Chinese workers do not interact with each other, as an assistant locomotive driver said “Racism is so real here. There is an unwritten rule of where you need to sit. You cannot just join the Chinese table,” he goes on to say “You cannot board a van that drops us in the evening even if there's only one Chinese on board. You will have to wait,” [11]. There have been concerns of the transfer of skills to operate the train for Kenyan workers. As routes open there have been limited times when Kenyans have been driving the trains, this has been for events that have been publicized, when the cameras exit the Chinese go back to driving the routes. As one Kenyan employee said “We just sit at the back and watch. There is no actual transfer of skills that is happening here,”. Kenyans who have degrees to do the complex engineering jobs have found themselves in menial job positions[12].

Potential Solutions

Some potential solutions have been laid out to solve these ongoing worker and environmental issues. One of these solutions has been for Chinese companies to have political background. Tensions caused have been partly caused by a lack of understanding of the political atmosphere in Nairobi and solutions to these problems have been to go from top-down approaches from the national government [13]. Another problem that can be solved is dealing with the transfer of technology skills to Kenyan workers, as most of the skilled labour this requires stricter requirement and enforcement from the Kenyan government. One of the more important things is for a grassroots relationship surrounding SGR concerns. As of now it is the national government of Kenya which deals with problems and negotiating deals Chinese companies having more local input would create an SGR that would make more residents okay with the project. This would require more transparency from both the corporations from Kenya and China as well as the government of Kenya.

Lessons Learned

Multiple lessons can be learned from China's involvement in Kenya. The relationship between the two countries is a great example of neocolonialism. The moment Kenya received the loans from China, Kenya lost its sovereignty to China. The impact China has had on Kenya can be seen at both the national and local scales. At the national scale, China has gained the ability to seize Kenyan assets if payment for the loans are not met. China has gained the power to influence decisions in Kenya by using the leverage China has on the funding of various projects in Kenya.

At the local level, racial tensions between the Kenyans and the Chinese have become very high. China's increasing presence in Kenya has led to a rise in reports of racism and discrimination against Kenyans. The Chinese management responsible for building the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) have "subjected [Kenyan's] to demeaning punishment... [and have] prevented Kenyan engineers from driving the train except when journalists are present" [14]. Other Chinese employers have also been accused of unfair labour practices against Kenyan employees. For example, wage disparities between Chinese and Kenyan employees [15], separating office bathrooms by race [14] and being subject to racial slurs. The surge in cheap Chinese goods in the local market is another problem that is increasing the tensions between the two races. For example, the importation of Chinese fish has hurt the fishermen of Kenya. The fishermen are unable to make any money on the fish they catch since the fish from China are being sold at "$1.70 per kg, compared with about $5 per kg for the local catch" [16]. Kenyans affected by the Chinese traders will have to find a new occupation in order to survive.

A couple of positive lessons can be learned from the development of Kenya's infrastructure by the Chinese. The improvement of commute and travel times has opened up opportunities for Kenyans to work at locations they may not have been able to before. The influx of cheap Chinese goods has enabled the Kenyans living in poverty to afford commodities that they were unable to before. The discrimination and racism faced by Kenyan's may lead to discourse and policies that prevent future acts of racism and discrimination.


Reference List

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 EXIM Bank (March 2018). "Connecting Africa: Role of transport infrastructure". Tralac. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Bénazéraf, David (2014). "The Construction by Chinese Players of Roads and Housing in Nairobi". China Perspectives: 51–59.
  3. Omwenga, Mairura (2011). "Integrated Transport System for Liveable City Environment: A Case Study of Nairobi Kenya". Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  4. Reed, Rachel (April 14, 2018). "Transportation Turned Performance Art: Nairobi's Matatu Crews". The New York Times. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  5. Kimani, Njeri (November 16, 2018). "Taming Kenya's matatu madness". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  6. Chege, Kimani (November 22, 2018). "Top 5 Chinese funded projects in Kenya that are the real deal". The Exchange. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
  7. Ombour, Rael (2019). "SGR project likely to irreparably damage Nairobi National Park". VOA News. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  8. Ombour, Rael (March 1, 2018). "Environmentalists in Kenya Protest China-Backed Railway Construction". VOA news. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  9. Wafula, Paul (July 8, 2018). "Exclusive: Behind the SGR walls". Standard Digital. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  10. Wissenbach, Uwe (Summer 2017). "African politics meets Chinese engineers: The Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway Project in Kenya and East Africa" (PDF). Working Paper. 13: 1–33 – via
  11. Wafula, Paul (July 8, 2018). "Exclusive: Behind the SGR walls". Standard Digital. Retrieved April 5, 2019.
  12. Wissenbach, Uwe (Summer 2017). "African politics meets Chinese engineers: The Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway Project in Kenya and East Africa" (PDF). Working Paper. 13: 1–33 – via sais-cari,org.
  13. Wissenbach, Uwe (Summer 2017). "African politics meets Chinese engineers: The Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway Project in Kenya and East Africa" (PDF). Working Paper. 13: 1–33 – via
  14. 14.0 14.1 Goldstein, J. (2018). Kenyans Say Chinese Investment Brings Racism and Discrimination. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Apr. 2019].
  15. Wasonga, C. (2018). Workers union wades into SGR mistreatment claims. [online] Daily Nation. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2019].
  16. Dijkstra, A. (2019). Chinese imports 'driving fishermen to despair'. [online] BBC News. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2019].

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