The Nairobi Expressway; is it the last frontier in privatisation?

President Uhuru Kenyatta with Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, Dr Zhou Pingjian after he unveiled a commemorative plaque to officially commission the 27 km Nairobi Expressway, Nairobi County on July 31, 2022. [PSCU, Standard]

In the summer of 2005, I drove through a toll station in Long Island, New York State, without paying. I chose the express booth. One week later, I got a letter in the mail demanding that I pay $20 dollars for failing to pay $6 toll.

Payment options were listed, including contesting in court. There was a discount if I paid in the next two weeks. It did not matter that I was driving a hired car. They still traced me as the driver. I promptly paid. Two things caught my attention. One was the way the legal system works with carrots and sticks. Two was that in most toll roads, there was an option, another road, as good.

A little less than two decades later, I am paying tolls on a Kenyan road. It seems the future has arrived prematurely. Does that mean we are catching up with USA? Who said the only thing we can copy from them was their constitution, baby names and an accent?

The expressway is one thing in many. It marks the last frontier in privatisation. Who thought one day roads could be privatised? Think of all other services, from health to schooling, they all long fell under the invisible hand of the market.

Even morgues, diplomatically called funeral homes, could not resist the market. The roads resisted for so long. One, because of the capital intensity and two, they are seen as a symbol of State power, and we must add benevolence.

Privatisation worked elsewhere, leading to competition, efficiency and innovation. It is feared that in Africa it will make exclusion easier.

Roads equated us. A driver owning a Vitz and a V8 were caught up in the same traffic jam. With private roads, they can now separate.

There has been a joke that one could be born in a private hospital, go to a private school, work in the private sector, marry in a private ceremony, and finally be interred in a private ceremony. But we all used the same roads to these places.

Others argue that such private roads, hospitals and other facilities motivate us to work harder and improve our standards of living by shifting from from public to private services. The only problem is that we are not guaranteed equal opportunities to upgrade our lifestyles. Note the pride of "my doctor, my banker, my dentist, my lawyer", among others. Can we add my spouse?

Some people argue that we should not make Nairobi transport network too good, that it will reverse devolution. That the city will continue draining the countryside of its best brains attracted not by lights but also great roads and highways. I have noted that owning that expressway ETC gadget is now a status symbol.

When will expressways find their way to the counties? In very few counties would such private roads pay for themselves. That will leave Nairobi alluring, despite devolution.

Before we get lost and mesmerised by expressways, we should ask if it is not time to give an alternative to those not interested in express journeys. I have the central business district (CBD) in mind. When shall we get trams or right rail? What of sky train or tunnels? I am happy that new roads are recognising the fact that Kenya is still a walking nation. By the way, why are underpasses and overpasses afterthoughts on the new roads like the expressway?

How about going beyond public-private partnerships? What of road swaps where communities or individuals can build a road then ask the government to convert it to its tax equivalence? If it's more than your tax obligation, you get a tax refund. Think of savings in looking for bids, evaluation.

Some have asked if PPP is eroding the power of the State by outsourcing some of its core mandates. Politicians promise roads. What will they promise now? We could ask how symmetrical and open these partnerships are.

The ultimate test of this privatisation is if services become more efficient, cheaper and result in higher living standards and economic growth. We shall be asking soon where the expressway is in our GDP statistics. Has anyone simulated the economic contribution of the expressway to GDP beyond the profits and bragging rights for those who ride on it?

And why not boldly ask if there other frontiers ready for privatisation. Are roads the last one?

We end with a simple question. Where do Chinese get money to build roads in Kenya? They save or it's part of their trade surplus. They also make money by lending their money to other countries through bonds. Why can't we do the same?

While we should see the new road as a new frontier of possibilities, we need to ask if it's our possibility or foreign investors' possibility.

The writer is a professor at the University of Nairobi, Faculty of Business & Management Sciences and a Fulbright Scholar.