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How China, Japan are battling for the control of Nairobi streets

By Vincent Achuka | Published Sat, February 10th 2018 at 10:10, Updated February 10th 2018 at 12:28 GMT +3

A new battle between the Chinese and the Japanese in Nairobi’s debt-driven infrastructure race has been ignited with the awarding of the Sh2.3 billion contract for the second phase of Ngong Road’s conversion to a dual carriageway.

In the bid to curb traffic jams that have been identified as one of the most pressing problems in Nairobi, the Chinese and Japanese have transformed the city into a canvas to showcase their engineering prowess.

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This race for mega contracts has divided the city into two, with Japanese constructed and funded roads to the west and south and Chinese projects to the north and east. This has obliterated the Anglo-American presence and pushed local contractors to compete for small county projects.

Automatic control

Japanese firm World Kaihatsu Kogyo (WKK) will, in the next three weeks, start works on the second phase of the Ngong Road upgrading project after bagging the Sh2.3 billion contract. The Kileleshwa bypass also in the west side of town was constructed by a Japanese firm.

“Japanese contractors will not construct a road if it is funded by someone else,” John Cheboi, the Assistant Director of communications at the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) says on the nature of the contract race.

“It is not like the two countries are competing because we control the design. The fact is we need companies which have demonstrated they have the capability to do the nature of works we want on the capital’s major tributaries,” Cheboi said.

In Eastlands, works on Outering Road are on their penultimate stages. President Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to commission the Chinese-built road before the end of the first quarter of the year. Thika superhighway, which ushered Kenya into the grand road construction age, was also constructed by the Chinese.

Although Japan is a late entry into to the party, it announced its arrival in style last month courtesy of the first phase of Ngong Road. From the number of photos being shared online, Ngong Road’s design and Intelligent Traffic System (ITS) have impressed Nairobians.

The ITS, which went live last month, enables traffic lights to control traffic based on the amount of vehicles on any particular stretch of all the roads that connect with Ngong Road. If a particular road has more traffic, it will be given priority.

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As a result, Ngong Road, which is among the busiest in the capital, has witnessed better traffic flow in the last one month. The winners of this new contract race between the two Asian giants are the city residents who have welcomed the rivalry.

“There are obviously huge improvements in the movement of people and goods within the city, which are the immediate gains,” Richard Ngatia, the chair of the Nairobi chapter of the Kenya Chamber of Commerce says.

“But even more significant for the business community is the opportunities to supply materials such as sand and cement from local suppliers,” he says.

In its new onslaught on Chinese dominance in Kenya’s mega infrastructural projects, Japan is advocating for “high quality infrastructure” with the backing of the Asian Development Bank. Meanwhile, China is seeking to increase its influence through ‘chequebook diplomacy’ courtesy of financing from its rich state run banks.

“In all our efforts at enhancing Kenya’s economic development, Japan aims at the creation of a win-win relationship with Kenya, based on mutual respect and trust,” Japanese Ambassador Toshitsugu Uesawa said in a column published by the Standard in December to mark the 84th birthday the Emperor of Japan, Akihito.

But by using their speed in construction and boldness in engineering, the Chinese have steam rolled themselves on almost every contract they can get their hands on. Last year, they snapped up a contract to construct a 400 metre road inside Langata Women’s Prison through China Wu Yi which they completed in a week.

But beyond the glitz created by the international standards of infrastructure the Japanese and Chinese are constructing in the capital, questions about the design of the new roads are starting to emerge.

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The design variations and challenge of constructing a highway in a densely populated area are already haunting users of Outer Ring Road. Despite being designed to be a highway, Outer Ring still has no footbridges and pedestrians have to dangerously jump over guard rails and drainage trenches and at the same time avoid oncoming traffic to cross the eight lane road.

On the other side of town, motorists from Prestige Plaza coming to town have to go outwards, make a right turn into the nearby vehicle bazaars in order to join Ngong road. Lack of enough crossing sections have forced pedestrians to trample on grass and flower beds to cross to the other side.

Then there is the question of cost versus quality and speed of construction.

“Japan’s workmanship is substantively of a higher quality. For example, part of Thika Road does not even have drainage,” investment analyst Aly Khan Satchu of Rich Management says.

Japanese grant

“I think it makes preeminent sense to upshift our relationship with Japan and dilute China,” he argues.

So far, Chinese companies have gobbled up Sh14.3 billion worth of contracts on completed projects in Nairobi, excluding the Sh32 billion Thika Superhighway. Chinese companies are also set to get Sh11.3 billion when Outering Road (Sh7.3 billion), Ngong Road phase 3 (Sh1.9 billion) and Waiyaki-Redhill road (Sh3 billion) are completed.

Ngong Road phase 1 and 2 which would cumulatively cost Sh3.6 billion are being footed by a Japanese grant. Japan was relegated to second place among Kenya’s largest bilateral lenders in 2014 by China. As at the end of last year, Kenya owed Japan $600 million (Sh60 billion) and China Sh460 billion according to the latest quarterly economic review by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).