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Why the Lack of Chinese Transparency Undermines Trust in Kenya’s Sustainable Development

Construction workers wrap up the work day at a section of Ngong Road in the Karen neighbourhood of Nairobi. Photo by KC Cheng.

We were inching along Ngong Road, one of the major roads in Kenya that links Nairobi to Ngong town. Even at 3 in the afternoon, the traffic leading out of the capital was packed with commuters. Street-hawkers use this slowness to their advantage, going from window to window selling everything from mosquito rackets and packets of groundnuts to floor lamps and jigsaw puzzles. It is not uncommon to be stuck in traffic for 2 hours over distances that should only take 15 to 20 minutes on clear roads. “This is why I prefer boda-bodas,” I jabbed at my friend, knowing how she feels about motorbikes. They may be excellent for weaving in and out between vehicles, but notorious for not always getting riders to their destinations in one piece. Anyone who has ever been on the continent would understand that traffic here operates differently– the regard for human life is simply on a different level. I’ve seen a matatu (bus) cross highway barriers to drive against opposing traffic only to knock over an oncoming motorbike.

I thought about how our friends joke about a sure-fire way to rise in political ranks in Kenya– declaring one’s prioritization to complete Ngong road construction. That’s one thing that Kenyans, split by everything from religion and tribe to ethnic identity, would whole-heartedly agree on: finish this road, once and for all.

How Local Corruption Benefits Chinese Contractors

Chinese contractors are well-known for building thousands of kilometers of roads across Africa, specifically in Kenya, as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative of 2013. This ambitious global development project is at times dubbed the “new Silk Road” and may be construed as an attempt to revive and extend the once-bustling East-West trade route, which stretched from China to Greece. China adopted this bold strategy at a time when few other countries were investing in African ventures. In return for boosting African economies and maintaining friendly relationships, China would have the opportunity to diversify its supply chain, fortify relationships, and invest in potential future business partners.

Foreman, Joseph Muriku, supervises work at the Ngong Road construction site. Photo by KC Cheng.

There are nearly 400 Chinese construction firms in Kenya alone, and an estimated 10,000 firms on the continent, according to a 2017 study by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. While many Kenyans appreciate the speed and quality that Chinese contractors bring to the table, the socio-economic ramifications of such extensive outsourcing have not been properly addressed, such as the already rampant unemployment rates in Kenya, especially amongst young people. Nevertheless, the Kenyan government has prioritized Chinese contractors over Kenyan ones much to the chagrin of locals. A popular excuse for delegating major projects to foreigners is that they bring in new, advanced technology and a superior work ethic. Outsourcing also theoretically has the potential to cap corruption, which pervades practically all aspects of life in Kenya. But the true underlying reasons– apart from how China serves as a generous funder– for these foreign deals are complex and their repercussions are not well understood. As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect racial tensions specifically between Africans and Asians, the working situation on the ground in Kenya is undoubtedly impacted.

Unfortunately, local contractors frequently fail to complete projects on time– sometimes years beyond the original quote. Work that is done has the reputation of being shoddy to the point of needing to be rebuilt. While the Chinese do provide certain expertise and deftness to their work, corruption is the main reason why local workers are handicapped in comparison to their foreign counterparts. In Kenya, all construction plans filter through the hands of politicians who invariably influence and reap from these deals; they are the ones with the power to approve of and modify plans. The resulting project budget suffers and the caliber of local construction workers are to blame; unfinished projects satisfy neither form nor function. Embezzling leads to lost revenue, while undelivered public services mean that the people suffer and their non-existent trust in the government further plummets. The ensuing feedback loop is vicious as local contractors lose out on potential projects and learning opportunities. Depending on one’s perspective, of course, given Kenya’s painful colonial past, it’s not surprising that the presence of foreign workers provokes such an emotional reaction.

The accruing resentment by Kenyans is understandable.

The Need for More Transparency and Engagement

As China increasingly became more involved in Kenyan infrastructure development projects, speculation that these contracts were influenced by arm-twisting stipulations proliferated. The contents of these international contracts are very hush-hush– very few Kenyans in the construction industry have actually laid eyes on them. This lack of transparency is not only frustrating and unnerving but also contributes to logistical issues for project managers due to a pressing need for context and understanding.

However, the Kenyan government does try to engage local chiefs regarding the objectives, benefits, and relevant compensation of new projects that will cross over their lands. With regards to the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, which traverses 472km from Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital to its beautiful coast, communications seemed to go rather smoothly. Nevertheless, both the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) have responded that such significant projects need extensive engagement with local agencies and more in-depth environmental assessments.

Due to shifting geopolitical aims and ongoing cultural adaptations with the significant influx of Chinese workers, the inevitable impact of construction on the environment has garnered even less consideration.

The Nairobi-Thika Highway Improvement Project (NTHIP) is another example of how Kenya’s hurried pursuit of infrastructure development demonstrated a need for more effective environmental regulations surrounding project undertaking, specifically waste and environmental impact assessments. NTHIP was funded by loans from both the African Development Bank and the Chinese government. Other significant Chinese-involved projects include the railway from Nairobi to Mombasa and a railway linking Kenya to Uganda.

The Lack of Transparency Breeds Mistrust

I interviewed a public relations officer, Anne (named changed for anonymity) for Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a flagship railway project. SGR is funded by the Kenyan government and boasts the goal of delivering Vision 2030: an effort to “make Kenya a middle-income country by 2030.” She spoke of the inevitable cultural differences that come with working with the Chinese. In the case of SGR, it was initially difficult to find common ground between Kenyans and Chinese. During breaks, they would socialize in separate groups. But gradually, workers from both sides started to mingle and bridge cultural boundaries. As tensions relaxed, the shared work gained traction and became less uncomfortable.

When asked about whether outsourcing has curbed corruption, Anne sighed: “Kenya is a very corrupt country. Unfortunately, this has at times bled into Chinese work ethic.” She also said that it is quite difficult working as one of the “common people” (she explained that this term refers to those separate from the decision-making process). Anne believes that more insight into the contents of those agreements would provide context to clarify project deliverables and help smooth out the construction process. When asked about feasible strategies to improve human capital development, she suggested defining a minimum percentage designated for local contractors. Quotas would insure that some Kenyans have the opportunity to learn from Chinese workers.

A notice acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic at an unfinished section of Ngong Road. Operations were able to resume in May after a 2-month hiatus due to the strict lockdown. Photo by KC Cheng.

At the ongoing construction site of Ngong Road, which has now progressed to Karen, I met the foreman, Joseph Muriku. He has worked in construction for more than 14 years and is currently employed by Qingjian Group Co, Kenya Ltd. Muriku seemed to have no qualms when asked about working for foreigners. He spoke glowingly of his Chinese bosses and co-workers: “They are so disciplined,” he said, “so very hard-working.”

The Chinese are well-known for their no-nonsense, get things done attitude. Unlike historical white colonizers, the Chinese in East Africa are not interested in leveraging political control. They don’t care about influencing elections or overthrowing political leaders; they just want things to work. However, the lack of reliable information has led to some interesting theories about the Chinese presence in Kenya. Some say that there is a reason behind their reluctance to assimilate. There are widespread, unfounded rumors that Chinese sent to work in Kenya are prisoners, due to their restricted movements outside of work. Anything could be possible when there is no trusted flow of information.

Ecological Repercussions

From an environmental perspective, there are mounting concerns from ecologists that the Road and Belt Initiative promotes permanent ecological degradation amongst influencing global trade can no longer be ignored. These problems range from drainage issues, land and soil degradation to material sites (e.g. quarries and borrow pits), noise pollution, and water pollution. An environmental assessment from 2013 regarding the Nairobi-Thika Highway improvement project encouraged more public consultation and attention to public safety through the project cycle and called for investment in a monitoring system to track water quality standards and implementation of air quality standards, all in an effort to advocate local engagement.

As Kenya navigates its developmental journey, the biggest question lies in its capacity to prioritize local populations without compromising the quality and delivery of construction projects. A careful and necessary examination of race relations in the context of outsourcing major work may better indicate the future trajectory of Kenya and China’s working relationship.

Kang-Chun Cheng is a Nairobi-base ecologist and visual storyteller. More information about her background and samples of her work can be found on her portfolio site at kang-chun-cheng.format.com.

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