Why French airport-train deal could go off the rails

Why French airport-train deal could go off the rails

Both France and the United States have been vocal critics of China’s state-led infrastructure development model in Africa and the accompanying loans for projects extended by Beijing’s policy banks. 

Fearful that China is using loans to extend political influence along with the fact that some African countries are taking on too much debt, US and French leaders launched high profile Public-Private-Partnership initiatives they claimed would be more economically sustainable and provide a clear alternative to African countries taking on more Chinese debt.

But now both the French and US ventures to build even modest infrastructure projects in Kenya are in question and potentially on the verge of collapse.

In October, news broke that cost overruns are jeopardising the construction of a new Nairobi-Mombasa Expressway to be built by an American PPP consortium led by Bechtel. US ambassador Kyle McCarter angrily refuted the report but doubts over the project’s viability keep lingering.

Now there is word that a €3 billion French PPP deal to build a railway from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to downtown Nairobi is on the verge of falling apart due to a lack of transparency and jurisdictional turf wars within the Kenyan government. Three things explain this scenario:

Transparency: The Transport Ministry secretly gathered a consortium of five French firms to build the new railway line, but didn’t publicly disclose the project’s costs.

Authority: Kenya Railways Corporation says this procurement of the French firms is illegal and accused the Transport Ministry of meddling in its regulatory responsibility of initiating and managing railway projects.

Jurisdiction: Kenya Railways contends that the Transport Ministry has no role in a project structured as a public-private partnership (PPP).

The bottom line is that these two projects by French and American consortia serve as important tests of the viability of PPP infrastructure projects in Kenya (and Africa at large,) compared to the Chinese debt-led Build-Operate-Transfer model.

While French and US officials have long criticised the lack of transparency in Chinese infrastructure deals, it’s worth considering that there may be an advantage to doing it that way as it limits the number of stakeholders involved and avoids the messy turf politics that often spill out into the media — making it even harder to get these deals done and the projects built. (

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