From Aid to African-Made
Chinese SOEs' work in east Africa grows from building railways to contributing to all-round development
By Chen Ran  ·  2016-12-16  ·   Source: | NO. 51 DECEMBER 22, 2016

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project in Kenya


Zebras at the wildlife corridor built in the Tsavo National Park on the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project (COURTESY OF CRBC) 

While driving their railway freight wagon back and forth to deliver equipment, Li Xiaohua and Peng Zhanbin enjoy a bonus—watching wildlife passing by. The Chinese veterans have been working at the construction site of the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard-Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya since May 2016.

Officially started on December 12, 2014, the 472-km railway by China Road and Bridge Corp. (CRBC) is the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since its independence in 1963. It is also considered the flagship of Kenya Vision 2030, the development plan that seeks to realize a medium-industrialized Kenya by then. The existing meter-gauge railway built by the British to connect port city Mombasa and capital Nairobi has been used for over a century. Its annual freight volume began decreasing due to lack of maintenance and upgrading and now accounts for less than 10 percent of Mombasa's total throughput.

The sketch map of the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project (COURTESY OF CRBC)

Safety top priority

"Watch out! There are two baboons on the track ahead. Drive carefully!" Peng, standing in the wagon control room and monitoring the surroundings, shouted a warning. In response, Li, at the helm of the locomotive control system, began sounding the train horn.

"I was excited to see a giraffe during work. It was the first time I saw a giraffe," Peng said. "But now we are used to seeing animals along the railroad as it passes through several wildlife reserves."

The 672-meter-long Marimbeti Super Major Bridge is being built over the Nairobi National Park for the train to pass the wildlife reserve without affecting the animals. The bridge has 21 corridors to allow stray animals passage. Besides, the rail line has fences on both sides to prevent the animals from coming to the path of trains.

"We are paying special attention to the environment and safety, for both men and animals," said safety officer Benson Chege, as he patrolled the unfinished bridge structure. The 46-year-old former security guard has been working in his current capacity since March. Some 2,500 security professionals­—98 percent of whom are locals—have been recruited to prevent and control public safety risks. It is the largest-scale security measure for CRBC's overseas projects, according to Sun Liqiang, the project general manager.

In addition, there is a public safety committee and a police command center. CRBC staff work together with police officials and Kenya Railways Corp. representatives to regularly review the project's public safety measures. "I think it sets a good example because safety is always our top priority along with quality," Sun added.

Bilingual safety signs are seen everywhere at the construction sites, especially at bridges and stations. Shen Hui, the only female safety officer working at the Inland Container Depot Terminal adjacent to the Nairobi South Station as part of the project, has been assigned to road projects across the world since she joined CRBC some 30 years ago.

"This is the first time I have been working on a railway project, and also the first time in Africa," the 48-year-old said. "We are focusing on electrical safety as the tracks cross over here. It is challenging but we are doing our best."

The project has recorded zero major public safety incidents since commencement, thanks to the well-organized management.

According to Sun, phase one of the project will start operation by the summer of 2017. It will cut passengers' travel time to a little more than four hours from over 10, and less than eight hours for freight trains. The second phase will see the railway extend to neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

"Our goal is to make this project quality-oriented and sustainable," Sun said.

So far, more than 38,000 Kenyans have been employed. The project has also boosted local industrial development by buying materials such as cement and steel locally as well as cooperating with over 200 subcontractors, according to the Social Responsibility Report 2015 on Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project released by CRBC earlier this year.

Better transport, in the eyes of Atanas Maina, Managing Director of Kenya Railways Corp., will help business boom between neighboring countries in East Africa, and Kenya will benefit the most.

"The best part of this project is that young engineers like me know both the similarities and differences between Chinese and British standards in railway construction. So we can find a suitable solution for our country's development," said Stephen Mutiso Makovo, a 29-year-old assistant structural engineer from Kenya.

"For me, it is an eye-opener," said Samuel Lang'o, a 49-year-old senior architect at the Nairobi South Station. "The Chinese way of building is educative. For example, we never think of flat roofs for railway stations. But they make the impossible possible and maintain consistency at the same time."

The Nyerere Bridge, sub-Saharan Africa's largest cable-stayed cross-sea bridge, is built by the China Railway Construction Engineering Group (COURTESY OF CRCEG)

An innovative approach

In neighboring Tanzania, the China Railway Construction Engineering Group (CRCEG) East Africa shares the same philosophy.

One of the initial builders of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara), China's biggest overseas assistance project dating back to the 1970s, CRCEG (East Africa) has been enhancing its core competence through innovation. The $135-million Nyerere Bridge, jointly funded by the Tanzanian Government and the Tanzanian National Social Security Fund, is one of its landmark projects.

Begun in February 2012 and officially opened in April 2016, the massive 680-meter-long, 32-meter-wide bridge named after Tanzania's first president comprises six car lanes and two pedestrian lanes, linking the central business district of Tanzania's largest city Dar es Salaam to Kigamboni District across the Kurasini Creek in the Indian Ocean. It is the largest cable-stayed cross-sea bridge in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tittos Moses is a regular commuter on the bridge. The 17-year-old rides his red bicycle from home in Mji Mwema to downtown Dar es Salaam every working day. It takes him only 30 minutes and doesn't cost anything. The other option is using the badly maintained ferry with the journey taking almost 90 minutes one way. "It is very convenient," the teen security guard said.

Zhou Zejun, 47, Director of Projects at CRCEG (East Africa), probably has a better understanding of the Nyerere Bridge than anyone else. Settled in Tanzania since June 2003, he has led the team, overcoming several challenges including long-awaited compensation for relocation and postponed work schedules. Of the over 5,000 staff, 90 percent are locals. "I am very proud of my team to have met the deadline. They have made the people of Tanzania feel proud, too. It is their bridge, indeed," Zhou said.

The Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation Square is a CRCEG (East Africa) innovation in the financial sector. Overlooking the sea in Dar es Salaam's central business district, the $77.7-million complex is designed to incorporate a five-star hotel, office building, as well as retailing and parking facilities.

Xie Zhixiang, Managing Director of CRCEG (East Africa), said it is the first loan from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to a Chinese company in Africa. It will also be the first energy-saving building across Tanzania upon completion by the end of 2017.

"These projects are African-made rather than Chinese aid. We are thinking out of the box to explore new models of partnership through pilot projects like this," Xie said.

From the standpoint of Lu Youqing, Chinese Ambassador to Tanzania, one merit of encouraging large Chinese state-owned enterprises to do business in Tanzania is that they can set an example for small companies and avoid disorder. "The notion of made-in-China being fake and of poor quality was yesterday's perception. Today, it is market-oriented competition that values mutual benefit."

The Tanzania National Internet Data Center in Dar es Salaam partners with China Comservice to construct the National Information Communication Technology Broadband Backbone Project (CHEN RAN)

Invisible assets

Professor Faustin Kamuzora, Permanent Secretary of Tanzanian Ministry of Communication, Science and Technology, returned from the World Internet Conference in east China's ancient water town Wuzhen in November 2016. He is impressed by the state-of-the-art technology he experienced there, particularly mobile payments. He believes his fellow countrymen will soon enjoy a better-connected world with more accessible services based on information and communication technology (ICT), thanks to the partnership with China Comservice.

The construction of Tanzania's five-phase National ICT Broadband Backbone (NICTBB) Project started in 2009 with a preferential loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. Two phases in which a 7,560-km-long optic fiber cable network was laid were completed in 2012. "The project together with submarine cables has reduced the cost of backhaul transport bandwidth by about 99 percent compared to 2009," Kamuzora said.

Statistics from the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority show that the number of mobile phone subscribers hit 39.66 million in 2015. Mobile penetration is approaching 70 percent, with annual subscriber growth of more than 20 percent.

Besides benefiting domestic users, Tanzania is also serving its landlocked neighbors by extending the benefits of high-capacity submarine cables through the NICTBB infrastructure. "We are fulfilling our aspirations to become a regional ICT hub," Kamuzora added.

The promotion of ICT has been a national strategy and also a major driving force for the realization of Tanzania Development Vision 2025, which envisions a middle-income Tanzania by 2025 with a high level of human development.

Trainees attend a class at the Kenya Railway Training Institute in Nairobi on December 2 (CHEN RAN)

Educational exchanges

Ernest Jacob Masasi is a beneficiary of Tanzania-China education cooperation. Masasi, in his 60s, has a Chinese name as well, Lao Ma, and speaks fluent Chinese with a typical Beijing accent.

He studied in Beijing Jiaotong University in the 1970s, majored in engineering, and then worked on Tazara with some 16,000 workers, most of whom were Chinese.

"The most impressive and useful thing I learnt from Chinese is hard work," Masasi said.

When Ding Lei was born in 1986, Tazara had already been operating for a decade. The civil engineering major was offered a job by CRCEG (East Africa) in 2011, requiring him to be based in Dar es Salaam, the terminal station of the over 1,860-km railway. Today, Ding is manager of planning and marketing and one of his department's jobs is to submit tenders. "My first bid price was $40 million. It was such a huge sum that my hand shook while writing it," he smiled. "What I have achieved here is maturity and inner peace, and I am still learning."

Lydia Wangui Muriuki, a former data analysis clerk, is attending a six-month ICT class at the Kenya Railway Training Institute in Nairobi. "I am grateful for the knowledge and skills," the 27-year-old said. "My Chinese teachers are hardworking and patient. We are encouraged to ask questions and fix problems together. I wish I could intern at the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project in 2017 and then go to China to find a job!"

The CRBC and Southwest Jiaotong University, based in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, are behind this vocational training program, aimed at shaping ambitious young Kenyans into competent technicians and professionals.

By 2017, 40 Chinese teachers will be working in the training program, and over 700 trainees will finish 14 railway-related courses. The first batch of 102 trainees in three programs—locomotive engineering and maintenance, railway telecommunication engineering and signaling, and traffic management and logistics—completed the on-campus courses in August and are interning at the SGR Project, according to Dai Ruoyu, head of the training program from Southwest Jiaotong University.

"We have adjusted the teaching plans to better suit Kenyan students who think more critically than Chinese students," Dai explained. "The training is practical. We want to contribute to Kenya's development."

(Reporting from Tanzania, Kenya)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to chenran@bjreview.com

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