An efficient logistics system is more than just good roads

Southernn- bypass toll station, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

In a few months, the Nairobi Expressway will be open to the public.

The Eastern Bypass is being dualled. The two road projects are among the lasting legacies of the Jubilee and Kibaki regimes in improving roads, highways, rail, ports and airports.

Never mind the criticism over cost. The legacy of the late former President Mwai Kibaki will outlive him; it will reverberate across generations.

His other lasting legacy is that even an ordinary Kenyan can become president and a great one at that. 

What can’t be debated is the role of transport and logistics in economic growth. Does it surprise you that Britons started by building a railway line when they settled here?

It not only transported goods like wheat but also imported manufactured goods. Letters, people and their ideas also used the rail.

A visit to the UK leaves for doubt that the railway was central to its growth. That thinking was exported to the colonies.  

As we focus on the infrastructure - roads, highways, ports and airports, we often overlook three issues. One is what’s transported and the level of integration among the various means of transport. 

Think of it: logistics and transportation are not about cars, lorries, trains or planes. The whole concept is about the goods and how they reach the consumer from the factory to the table or wherever they are consumed.

That’s why the term supply chain has become so popular. In developed countries, various modes of transport are well integrated, increasing efficiency.

In Kenya, it’s one area we have not done well. Have you tried taking the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) or a matatu from Westlands to Industrial Area?

The expressway is great, but what of feeder roads and exit routes, including the bottleneck at Pangani on the Thika Superhighway? 

SGR cargo train at the Naivasha Inland Container Depot, Mai Mahiu, Nakuru County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Why do we build infrastructure and then wait for the private sector to “fill” it with goods and people? Should investment in this sector be demand-driven?  

Think of how developments were spurred by the Eastern Bypass.

The same growth has not been witnessed in the Southern Bypass.

Why? Building infrastructure and then using it to catalyse growth is the mandate of any government.  

Two is that we transport people and their ideas. The dominance of the private sector (read matatus) in the transportation of people is unique to Kenya and should be cherished.

It has served us well. In other countries, public transport is the norm. When people move from one place to another, they bring their ideas and thinking too.

They create interaction, competition and possibly innovations; that’s why many love cities. 

The third ignored component is the soft part of infrastructure - our culture. We can have our great roads and railways, but what of the users?

Our behaviour matters more than the cars we drive. As we build the new infrastructure, we must always keep in mind they are built for human beings with their hard-wired behaviour.

That is why we still get late even after buying cars. We also do not keep time despite having watches everywhere.  

How many logistics, transport or supply chain experts or consultants focus on our behaviours?  As we build our infrastructure, we must not forget the human factor. It’s the key variable in getting the economic dividends. 

Private sector

Apart from the government, the private sector plays a big role in infrastructure development.

It’s playing an even bigger role with toll roads. Why was the toll increased?

Construction works along the Thika- Magumu Road. Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Now private sector players can help build roads, diluting the term public good.  

The private sector can also help in continuous improvement through consulting and filling the gaps the government could have left. Consulting in this sector has not grown commensurate with the investment.  

One low-hanging fruit for consultants is how to get the best deals in terms of time and efficiency using different modes of transport, says Adan Omar who runs Bramex Ltd, a logistics consulting firm that has an office in Kenya and in London.  

Logistics and transport deal with real numbers and goods and shortcuts are impossible, a good must go through land or air. As we develop our infrastructure, we expect growth in this sector. 

Logistics and transportation also facilitate international trade and the blue economy. 

Add the entry of DR Congo and the actualisation of the Africa free trade area and growth of this sector is assured.

The sector may not have the glamour of the finance sector, but it’s the nervous system of any economy.