Before joining the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) construction three years ago, 46-year-old Robert Karisa was a mason. Last week he was supervising last-minute engineering works for a drainage section at section 9 near Voi ahead of the launch of the project in two weeks.
Hired to lay bricks when the project started in 2013, the mason from Malindi who only had a grade two certificate from a local polytechnic learnt and worked his way up as works progressed. He now issues instructions to the 40 people working under him.
“I trained myself from grade 3 to grade 1 and later through learning while on the project I gained enough knowledge that the company made me an engineer,” he says. He adds, “I may not have a university degree but the knowledge I have gained from working with the best in the world puts me at par with the rest.”
On the day we visited he was supervising renovation of drainages and a fence, a role which at the beginning of the project would have been assigned to a Chinese engineer.
He is not alone. Some 120 years since the British imported 30,000 Indians to build the metre gauge railway because of their experience, the thousands of Kenyans who have been at the centre of Kenya’s most ambitious infrastructure project were forced to learn on the job.
Through China Road and Bridge Company’s (CRBC) policy of “train first and deploy later,” the railway has been an interface for knowledge transfer between the world’s second largest economy and East Africa’s largest economy. This policy saying “Unskilled worker today, engineer tomorrow” is largely displayed at the entrance of Mtitu Rail Girders and Sleepers factory, which is 253 kilometres from Mombasa on the SGR.
This factory, which was the nerve centre of the whole project produced some 600 bridge sections and 12,000 track sections that went to the railway, which will be launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta on June 1. But most importantly are the skills that the over 25,000 Kenyans employed on the railway learnt. “We have an elaborate training programme after which trainees are awarded a certificate to remain relevant even after the project,” says Julius Li, external resources manager of CRBC.
“This is part of the key objectives of the contract we signed with government,” he says. Jacob Mutua, who has a degree in mining and processing engineering from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) was first taken to Shanghai, China for further training before being hired.
“It is an engineer’s job to ascertain the level at ballast; one of the main components used in rail construction would succumb if subjected to weight or chemicals,” he says.
“Every material that has been used in constructing the railway like sand, water, cement, steel beams or the soil on which the railway has passed has to be tested. This is way beyond what I learnt in school,” he explains from a workshop in Voi.
Some 98 bridges forming 28.2km and 967 culverts stretch on the 428 kilometre line between Mombasa and Nairobi. This includes the 1.6km bridge at Tsavo, which is the longest in Africa.
Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia says the knowledge learnt will enable Kenya run the railway on her own once a 10-year concession given to CRBC ends.
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“Sixty students have already been sponsored to study railway engineering at Beijing Baoji University in China and another 40 will leave next month,” he says. Among the 60 are seven women who have trained to be train drivers. Officials at CRBC and the Ministry of Transport say one of the seven women will drive the maiden ride on June 1 from Nairobi to Mombasa.
Some like Caleb Bironga, a senior lab technician now on his third project with Chinese companies, have mastered a bit of the language, something that has come in handy since most of the machines used are made in China. “I can easily work using most machines even without them being calibrated to English,” he says. “If there is one thing I will tell my grandchildren, it is that I was part of history,” he says.
Says Macharia, “Knowledge transfer is critical since it makes sure that the project we are launching is sustainable. The bitter truth is that we do not have the knowledge yet to run this project since the technology is new to us but the Chinese will not run it forever since it is very expensive.”
Already, more than 300 students are undergoing training locally and in the field. It is expected that by the end of this year, a further 500 students will have completed their training.
When the Sunday Standard travelled along the line last week, engineers were testing an automatic signaling system and fine-tuning the train scheduling routine. The signaling system operates on a fibre optic cable that runs parallel to the line supported by an independent electricity supply.
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Benjamin Wu, a Chinese engineer in charge of electric system, terms Kenyan employees as the most motivated in all the countries he has worked in Africa.
On the day Saturday Standard team met him, he was supervising the repair of an electric fence that had been brought down by elephants at the Tsavo National Park.
“The weather, temperature and air quality in Kenya is almost perfect. Kenyans are very smart and very willing to learn from Chinese engineers to gain knowledge. Everyone here wants to make their life better,” he says.
Interestingly, Wu, who was working in Tanzania before coming to Kenya has even mastered the Swahili language, removing the barrier which we noticed during our trip was a huge challenge to the Chinese employees who are working on the railway.