The SGR Project: A closer scrutiny

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By Dr Victor Mutindah and Edwin Musonye

What are implications and potential of the Standard Gauge Rail (SGR) project so far? There is a fast growing normalised attitude within the Kenyan society that we do not need to know details of things, and that the important thing is to have a cosmetic idea of what it is. This has led to increased complacency at all levels.

The casual appraisal given to the SGR project, the single biggest infrastructural construction ever in the country, and subsequently in the region, confirms this reality.
As there was more information on the Thika Super Highway, a lesser-cost project comparatively to this mega undertaking, more facts and figures are required. Reading the brochures and fact file on the project, the documentation accompanying the development is proving to be bare minimum.

In an international on-line discussion about this project, on the part of building a bridge to enable it transverse the Nairobi National Park, several commentators have pointed out – they have also been outspoken in many forums – on the need to invest in the software (people) just as much as there is investment in the hardware (infrastructure).

This project, though not fully seamlessly on schedule, will be a major shift to what we are accustomed to, yet no one has seen the need to sensitise people on the need and method to adapt to the change. This is the point at which social scientists, psychologists, and technical communicators ought to be harnessed to help prepare people for the differences and variations that will arise. We should have value of our expensive facilities, their usability and explore and utilise their full functionality.

Going by the recent exposition of graft in the country, it is clear that it is much easier for money to be drawn off from physical projects than from social projects. Social projects are proving less lucrative in two ways: first, they deny the procurers a quick channel to collect kickbacks and; secondly, the masses are enlightened and empowered.

The information shared on the SGR project is far too shallow. It contains information such as contributing 1.5% to GDP, but most of this contribution would go out to the contractors, some international consortium out there. GDP, calculated on the basis of expenditure, can be misleading as to the actual economic achievement. The valuation of the asset is ignored, especially going into the future; how long will the technologies used in the project last before becoming obsolete in this fast-paced world, for example? Such factors ought to form part of the analysis and projections.

There is a suggestion that it will create 60 jobs per kilometre during its construction period. How do we quantify and specify the exact jobs, and how much they pay? The Thika Super Highway project brought with it half-caste children, born of school going girls, as part of the “package”. Is this part of what we should expect?

There are high chances that even the actual jobs will be temporary and menial, and will benefit Kenyans for a very short time. It will take more caution to avoid it being portrayed as conjecture.

In online platforms, we are told that [large quantities] of local inputs such as steel, cement, aggregates, electricity generation and electricity transmission pylons and cables, roofing materials, glass, etc. required from local industries with potential to create at least 10,000 jobs. These need to be broken down to the exact quantities of each component and its share of income to the concerned industry in supplying the material (to keenly check and avoid encountering much pilferage in this process).

Despite the positive assertions, it is evident that local content is still very low as an input. The foreign contractors will prefer to bring in supplies from their home country – indeed, it has been repeatedly claimed that this is what happens on every other project. This can be a valid demand given that they are certain of the quality, but the loss to the local economy from that angle should not be underestimated, and it should not be assumed that the attendant benefits will make up for this loss to the local economy.

Another counter-point is that the railway will reduce the number of heavy trucks on the road, thus reducing wear and accidents, making the roads safer for human traffic. This is a speculative assertion because there is no data or concrete proof that most road crashes are mostly caused by heavy-trucks. A railroad network has its own merits, but its impact on the other forms of travel is irrelevant. Otherwise, we may need to question whether rail constructions are done as a response to road accidents.

Finally, there are the traditional whims on technology transfer. If we truly wish to enhance our engineering, it would have served Kenyans better giving this funding to the Chinese, and let them start by constructing minor rail-line works, for example between Nairobi and Kikuyu stations, before they can then proceed to bigger ones. Our road construction manpower would learn more by actually getting involved, than only by simply watching.
There is no denying that the SGR project is good for the country and the region, but its construction must give us an opportunity to advance economically, socially and technologically. This will not happen if it is undertaken as nonchalantly as it is being done so far.

Recent developments that the entire route of the SGR may not be clear as yet, and that it may be re-routed to save money that would have gone towards compensating high-value property that may be affected by the earlier route – is testimony of a venture hurriedly taken for political mileage.

The lesson here is that planning and implementing any mega project in Kenya ought to be a more professional endeavour.

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