China moves in to rebuild Kenya’s Railway

More than a century ago, British engineers and their African and Indian laborers spent five years carving a railway through what would become Kenya in a propose to open up East Africa’s interior.  Along the way, close to 2,500 workers died, struck down by malaria, attacked by lions or overcome by exhaustion.  This Chinese funding includes a selection of projects, including new hydro-electric dams and the expansion of Kenya’s ports, but the railway is expected to consume most of the money. Its British-built predecessor was rendered almost abandoned by decades of state-sponsored looting of Kenya Railways, forcing almost all freight on to blocked and potholed roads.

Of the 1,700 miles of track that were operational under British rule in the Fifties, no more than 700 are used today. Trains rarely go faster than 20mph even on the best maintained sections. Mr. Kenyatta describes the planned new railway as “important in the context of East Africa’s shared goal of ensuring quicker movement of peoples, goods and services”.

China’s new engagement with Africa was “very similar to the British engagement in the past: railways, roads, bridges, major infrastructure”.  Today, big construction projects have fallen out of favour with Western donors. Meanwhile, Mr. Kenyatta is owing to stand trial before the International Criminal Court in November for alleged crimes against humanity. Few doubt that new railways would help Kenya to sustain its economic growth, already running at a healthy annual rate of 5 per cent. A new rail link could knock 79 per cent off the cost of shifting freight across East Africa, according to the government.

But critics point out that trade between China and Kenya is almost entirely one-way. Kenya’s exports to China totaled only £32 million last year, compared with imports of £1.2 billion.

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