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China building solid road to Kenya relations
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By Ted Fackler


In Africa, most notably the East African nation of Kenya, Beijing has entered a new phase in diplomatic fellowship. Whereas Beijing has been lauded in relieving debts throughout much of Africa, in Kenya, however, friendship has been forged in the unbreakable bond that is concrete and steel, literally.


In short, China is building Kenya's infrastructure. Through both private Chinese companies and public offerings from Beijing, Kenya is building one road, one bridge, and one Chinese overpass at a time. And never has it been more welcomed.


Each month, Kenya adds 5,000 cars to the road in comparison to China's 5,000 each day, but in a nation of 33 million people, Kenya's 5,000 per month problem is no small matter. Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in the capital city of Nairobi, East Africa's economic hub. It is here in Nairobi that politicians, businessmen, and citizens struggle with the inconvenience of a road infrastructure that simply does not work.


"Nairobi especially is well into a severe traffic jam phase," says Nairobi motoring consultant Gavin Bennett. "In the city the vehicle population has probably gone up 300 percent" in the past decade.


In Nairobi, it is not uncommon to be stuck in traffic for hours at night, as insufficient lane space, renegade drivers, and broken down roads hinder movement.


In late May, World Health Country director, Colin Bruce, further pressed the issue when speaking to the Federation of Kenyan Employers (FKE).


"In the past years, Kenyans had a second chance to return to growth, increase their income and reduce poverty," Bruce said, making note of Kenya's recent GDP growth and increased standard of living. "But the problem of poor roads is serious and it is eroding the competitiveness of the countries private sector."


It is not surprising, then, that Bruce also called on Kenya to administer an emergency road repair system.


As evident by such criticism, it seems no secret that if Kenya is to build on its impressive 6.0 percent GDP growth last year, in addition to remaining East Africa's trade hub, then fixing road infrastructure is paramount. Luckily for Chinese industry, Kenya is looking to Beijing, and Chinese firms for help. With the private sector at stake, Kenya cannot afford not to play it smart.


Beijing, meanwhile, is playing it smart as well. Not only are Chinese firms capitalizing on Kenya's demand, such as China Road and Bridge Co in Kenya, but so is Beijing, albeit indirectly. As a growing trade partner with much of East Africa, China has indirectly invested in the stability of Kenyan infrastructure and its private sector. It is no wonder, then, that Beijing in recent years has given Kenya substantial aid packages for the development of that infrastructure. In doing so, Beijing is helping itself by helping others, and rightfully so; for Kenyan roads that are well built, and plentiful, enable continued profitable trade between China and East Africa, not to mention the help it gives Kenya's private sector. In the end, it seems, everyone wins.


Only recently, however, has this change in diplomacy taken place. What began as an agreement between President Hu Jintao and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki at the 2006 Sino-African Summit in Beijing, is now in 2007 changing the infrastructural landscape of Kenya forever, and catapulting Sino-Kenya relations into the 21st century.


On April 26 this year, Jia Qinglin, one of the top Chinese leaders, met with Kibaki in Kenya to celebrate, in part, the future construction of a 26-plus km airport road; a project funded by Beijing's 676-million-yuan aid package granted to Kenya at the Sino-Africa Summit in 2006. Originally earmarked to consume 174 million yuan of that fund, an additional 69 million yuan was added to the airport project at the last moment, raising the total aid package to more than 740 million yuan.


In addition to the airport road project, Beijing also will fund three Nairobi bypass roads, including the 40 km Southern, 2 km Northern, and 30 km Eastern bypass, among other road projects. Included in this construction is a widening of the roads, removal of at least six roundabouts, the addition of streetlights, and the building of pedestrian walkways. While these additions may seem pedantic by Chinese road standards, in Kenya, these features are fairly rare.


"These projects are critical for enhancing the road transport system in the city by diverting transit traffic from the city center," Kibaki said at the event, alluding to the future bypass projects. Like the rest of Kenya's powerbrokers, Kibaki knows the importance of a strong infrastructure, and its implication on trade.


But while China is building Kenya's newest roads, and Chinese firms like China Road and Bridge Co are winning bids, motives do extend beyond trade accessibility. In short, there are reasons that Kenya has chosen to use Chinese firms. Not only are they skilled, dependable, and economical; most importantly, they are better than Kenyan firms.


"Chinese companies are very competitive," director of Kenya's 25-year economic plan Vision 2030, Wahome Gakuru, said. "The quality of work [the Chinese] do is very good. They deliver before deadlines, and never ask for extensions" while Kenyan companies "ask for extension after extension after extension".


However, not only are Chinese companies time-dependable, but so are the workers, Gakuru said.


"In Kenya, a worker shows up an hour late to work and it's normal. That's should be a shame, a crime," Gakuru said. "I cannot overemphasize the principal of discipline."


Hoping to copy the efficiency of Chinese firms, Gakuru has no problem with outsourcing Kenya's infrastructure.


"From China we want a transfer of skills: how to build roads, bridges, teaching discipline," he said.


Ultimately, if East Africa is to continue its development, road infrastructure is wildly important. China, already an expert in this sector, is reaping the rewards. In the process, both Beijing, Chinese firms in Kenya, and the whole of East Africa is benefiting, for with better roads comes better trade mobility.


And in assisting Kenya, Beijing is again showing its desire to engage, and help Africa. Welcome to the new bilateral friendship of infrastructure.


The author is a freelancer based in Beijing and the US


(China Daily October 11, 2007)

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