US, China set to compete over Kenya's crucial transport artery

President William Ruto, his US counterpart Joe Biden and officials from both governments during a technology roundtable at the White House, Washington, on May 23, 2024. [PCS, Standard]  

The planned Nairobi-Mombasa Expressway will give the United States a firm footing in Kenya’s infrastructure development. Unlike its rival China, the US does not have prominent infrastructure projects to its name in Kenya, making the expressway critical.

Whether by design or coincidence, the planned expressway will heavily interact with two Chinese-built infrastructure projects – the Standard Gauge Railway and the Nairobi Expressway. This could be viewed as being symbolic of the rivalry between the two superpowers playing out on a key transport corridor, serving not just Kenya but the entire East and Central Africa region.

The 440-kilometre road will run along the SGR that was built by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and currently managed by Afristar, an affiliate of CRBC. The Chinese extended the new railway to Naivasha and have recently shown interest in financing the Naivasha-Malaba phase and further into Uganda. 

The Expressway will also in a way feed into, and receive traffic from the Nairobi Expressway, the 27-kilometre toll road that runs from Mlolongo to Nairobi’s Westlands, which was built by CRBC and managed by Moja Expressway, a subsidiary of CRBC.

The road, which is expected to reduce travel time between Kenya’s capital and the port city of Mombasa to four and a half hours, will be constructed by Everstrong Capital.

The Nairobi-Mombasa Expressway has been in the making for years. Bechtel, the American construction firm, was to lead the project and had been selected by Kenya Highways Authority (KeNHA) to build the road. The timing of allocating the contract to Bechtel, just three days to the 2017 elections, kicked up a major storm.

At the time, critics of the project pointed to similarities with the SGR contract, noting that it was handed to the Chinese in a ‘sweetheart’ deal in the run-up to the 2013 election. 

Just like CRBC in SGR, Bechtel had been single-sourced and in both cases, the deal was a government-to-government contract.

While Bechtel was able to shake off the controversies, it was through the years unable to break ground and start the project. It had expected to start construction in early 2018. 

In statements issued following the announcement of the deal in August 2017, Bechtel said the project “had been structured to achieve early completion, under a fast-track delivery model”. Different sections of the road would be built concurrently and the first sector between Mombasa Road and Konza would be completed in 2019.

Bechtel has since faded from the picture and in its place is Everstrong. An official at the firm said Everstrong had been part of the project since 2017, only that it was not playing the roles visible to the public at the time.

The delay in starting the project had been due to differences between the Kenyan and US governments on modalities of financing the road.

On the one hand, there are doubts about whether Kenya can get a buy-in from motorists and form a critical mass to use the road, with the current highway and the Standard Gauge Railway offering ‘free’ alternatives. On the other hand, the US was wary of advancing a loan to Kenya over concerns of debt sustainability.

“We are still working on the finance. Kenya has a challenge on debt and we are wary of burdening Kenyans. We did not want to sign a project whose cost would turn out to be three or four times more than the actual. We want to ensure that there is an honest return on investment for Kenya before we break ground,” said Kyle McCarter in 2019, at the time serving as US ambassador to Kenya.

McCarter is this time round directly involved in the project, currently serving as Everstrong Capital Partner and Usahihi Chairman.

“The Usahihi Expressway isn’t just a project, it’s a testament to the transformational power of doing things right. It symbolises passion, commitment and transparency, demonstrating how to deliver immense value, not only to Kenyan citizens but to the entire East Africa region. It’s about changing lives and shaping the future of Kenya,” he said last week when Kenha and Everstrong signed the project development agreement.

The Mombasa-Nairobi Expressway was expected to be in place even before the Nairobi Expressway but caution saw the Chinese zoom past the Americans, getting their project started and has now been operational for close to two years.

An official at the Transport Ministry recently told The Standard that the Chinese-built Nairobi Expressway had offered lessons but could also have challenged the Americans.

The official, however, noted there are still areas that KeNHA and Everstrong needed to iron out, including land acquisition as well as whether the entire road will be tolled.

“KeNHA has been of the view that there are areas that should not be tolled and these are the details that are being worked out,” said the official.

The project could be significant for the country’s infrastructure development, bringing about new standards just as was the case with the construction works on Thika Road that forced local and foreign contractors building roads in the country to adopt higher standards.

The planned expressway will increase the rivalry between China and the US in Kenya and Kenya will have to find a balance as both countries try to counter each other in the region.

“The seeds for the developments that we are seeing were planted in 2015 when President Obama visited. At the time, there was a feeling that China had made inroads in Africa and America needed to keep up.

The politics of the time in the US may not have allowed the country to make much headway,” said Ken Gichinga, Chief Economist, Mentoria Economics, adding that even as the US starts to become more aggressive in Eastern Africa, China too is making moves including deepening its belt and road initiative, which SGR was part of.

“China is also a significant player. Just a week ago, we saw China commit to extend the SGR all the way to DRC. Such projects come with a big ticket in terms of amounts of money spent but also give the (financing) countries a lot of influence. China has a lot of influence as to what SGR can do.”

He added that the two countries will also try to outdo each other in the putting up of digital infrastructure. This is a key cog for President Ruto’s administration, whose Bottom-Up Transformation Agenda (Beta) has the digital superhighway as one of the pillars.

“In addition to roads and railways, there is the digital infrastructure that America has tried to showcase being ahead of China. I think it is part of what the US is putting on the table… that they can help with the digital infrastructure, security infrastructure and even training,” said Gichinga.

The US is trying to gain favour among many countries in Africa. Analysts noted that In the 1990s, almost all African countries were pro-West getting aid and loans from the US as well as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The support, including the loans, however, came with conditions, with the prominent being IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that had disastrous outcomes for some economies.

“That is why in the 2000s, you saw many African countries including Kenya facing the East. China sometimes does not have the conditionalities tagged with support, they have a culture of non-interference and a lot of African countries were swayed because it gave them a bigger latitude on what they could do with the funding,” said Gichinga.

“It is as if we have gone full circle… Kenya is somehow Western-leaning. One gets the feeling that the US wants to use Kenya as an example to other African countries of what such a switch could mean.”

Meg Whitman, US Ambassador to Kenya, noted that President Ruto’s visit to the US was aimed at sending the message that US is willing to work with African countries.

“For many, many years, it was really the Chinese who showed up in Africa and in Kenya,” Whitman told CNN.

“There’s a specific message to Kenya and to the continent, which is: America wants to be your partner.”

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