Nairobi, Kenya — Kenyan and Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya’s post-independence history – a $3.8 billion, 472-km (293 mile) railway that runs from the port city of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi, part of a larger Chinese-built rail network linking several countries.
When the locomotives and freight wagons begin rolling in June, the line could be a game-changer for Kenya. Home to East Africa’s largest port, the country moves its goods by a notoriously dangerous two-lane highway.
The new railroad is expected to handle 50% of freight from Mombasa to the border with Uganda, compared to just 4% taken by the old British colonial-built railway, according to Alexander Wang, an associate professor at the Shanghai International Studies University, who has conducted field work on the railroad.
The company behind the Kenyan railway project, Chinese state-backed China Road and Bridge Corporation, has tried to ward off criticism by employing 25,000 Kenyan workers and training all crew members including drivers. It’s also built special underpasses to allow wildlife to cross the railroad, which plows through two national parks. However, last year at least eight elephants were killed while confused by the construction work, according to monitoring by Kenyan NGO Save the Elephants.
The railway line’s price tag has raised eyebrows. Funded by loans from state-backed China Export Import Bank (Exim), it’s twice as expensive per kilometer as the 750-km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, also built by the Chinese.
Kenya Railways, which will operate the line, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment but officials have been quoted as saying in the past that the two projects shouldn’t be compared, as the Kenyan railroad has greater freight capacity and travels through more urbanized areas, making it more expensive. China Road and Bridge Corporation referred questions to its Chinese headquarters, which didn’t immediately respond when contacted by CNN.
“In Africa sometimes our policy makers think the Chinese are Santa Claus,” says Ali Khan Satchu, a financial analyst in Nairobi. “No, they’re there to make a return on their investment.”
In the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, African countries borrowed nearly $10 billion for railway projects from China, facilitated by Exim. China sees the railways as an investment opportunity, which also creates an export market for their booming steel and construction industries.
At the railroad’s first stop out of Nairobi, locals like security guard Joseph Mailoya have little criticism for the project. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Things are going to change around here.”
He motions towards hundreds of corrugated tin houses across from the terminal, a settlement for new inhabitants drawn by the railway.
“These people are going to start businesses, the community will get developed,” he says. “My kids may even be employed here.”