How rail and road network can lift households out of abject poverty

A section of the Nairobi Expressway. [File, Standard]

“How exactly will the Nairobi Expressway put food on my table?” a disgruntled Nairobian posed this question at a recent event.

A World Bank’s infrastructure finance brief provides a succinct answer to this question, ‘Infrastructure development lies at the nexus of economic growth, productive investment, job creation, and poverty reduction.’

In other words, the Nairobi Expressway, Thika Superhighway, Nairobi-Mombasa SGR, the 10,300km of new tarmac roads constructed in the last nine years plus future roads and railways will can spur manifold investment, create jobs and boost our economy.

Vision 2030 ‘aspires for a country firmly interconnected through a network of roads, railways, ports, airports, and waterways, and telecommunications.’

An interconnected country will transport goods and people in a seamless, profitable way that will lift households into multiple revenue streams. Roads and railways played a critical role in building the US into the world’s strongest economy.

In June 1956, the US Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act that authorised construction of a 66,000-km network of interstate highways that would spread across the nation. To ensure this mammoth road project saw the light of the day, the new Law allocated $26 billion (Sh3 trillion) for construction of the highways. Interestingly, these funds were mostly raised through an increased fuel tax.

Forty years after the enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the American Highway Users Alliance prepared a report on the interstate highways impact. The report revealed that the newly built highways had returned more than $6 in economic productivity for each $1 it cost. Herein lies the power of an elaborate transport infrastructure project – it delivers an incredible return on investment.

US’s transcontinental railroad was completed even earlier on May 10, 1869. Its completion catalysed America’s industrial revolution. In so doing, it laid the groundwork for the interstate highways to dramatically open up the US economy even further.

SGR intercity commuter train at Kenya Railways Station, Nairobi. September 2021. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Kenya experienced a measure of this infrastructural economic boost after the Nairobi – Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway was completed in May 2017. Direct jobs were instantly created when 2,285 staff were enlisted to work at the 33 stations on this route and in the trains themselves.

Further to this, the SGR is said to have boosted Kenya’s economic growth by 1.5 per cent and contributed to overall creation of at least 46,000 jobs for residents.

Although some analysts counter that the SGR’s economic impact is not as rosy, movement of people and goods between Nairobi and Mombasa is undoubtedly easier, which is a boon to business.

For these economic gains to be protected and multiplied, the SGR should extend fully to the western region and into Uganda. That way, inter-county and cross-border trade will increase exponentially.

However, the railway alone cannot deliver optimal infrastructural economic gains. Just as the Interstate Highways were built from US’s coast to coast, we need to a modern highways network spread across Kenya.

This must be a national project that will capture the imagination of Kenyans and not a piecemeal project. Such a highway network would easily cut into half the time taken to travel by road from Kisumu to Mombasa, not to mention other far-flung parts of the country. This would have a massive impact on business. 

According to the World Bank, 840 million people in the world live more than 2km from all-weather roads. This complicates their access to transport infrastructure, which undermines their business opportunities. That has been the case in Kenya since independence.

We only have eight years remaining before we reach 2030, the target year of Vision 2030. Indeed, 2030 is in the next election cycle. To achieve the lofty, yet achievable economic goals of this vision, we must work day and night to connect every corner of this country by rail and road.

If we do so, the 12 million households in the country will access new economic opportunities not limited to their localities.  Think green act green!