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Standard Gauge Railway project a mixed bag for Mtito Andei residents in Kenya

By Moses Wasamu.

The much-awaited Standard Gauge Railway, at a cost of US$3.1 billion (Ksh. 380 billion) the most expensive infrastructural project ever in Kenya, will be launched in June, six months ahead of schedule. The first batch of six locomotives (manufactured by CRRC Qishuyan, one of the major diesel locomotive manufacturers in China) out of a total of 56 was received in the country in January. The locomotives are expected to transport at least 40% of the goods between the port city of Mombasa and Nairobi, and to take less than a tenth of the time to get to the Ugandan border compared with road transport. Civil works on the 472 km railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi were completed in November 2016.

The Chinese company that built the railway, China Road and Bridge Corporation, together with John Holland Ltd of Australia, will operate the railway for ten years, before Kenyans are set take over. To prepare Kenyans for the take-over, the Chinese company has announced that 2,000 local youth will be trained in operation and maintenance of the railway infrastructure and equipment, while 100 Kenyans will undergo a five-year undergraduate course at Beijing Jiaotong University in China.

China Road and Bridge Corporation also announced that it had set aside US$949,000 (Ksh. 1 billion) for development of a Railway Engineering Institute at the Railway Training School in Nairobi, for which it will also provide instructors and equipment.

In September 2015, I travelled to Mtito Andei town in Eastern Kenya, to report on the impact of the new railway on local communities. I spoke to locals who told me how the project had proved to be a source of both blessings and curses – the town had seen tremendous socio-economic changes since the project kicked off in January of that year. There was an influx of foreigners lured to the town by the availability of jobs and other business opportunities. Like in any other kind of development, the SGR project brought with it challenges, chief among them being environmental degradation, break-down in family and societal values, and increased cost of living, among others.


Standard Gauge Railway project a mixed bag for Mtito Andei residents 

First published in The Star, Kenya.

One of the Jubilee government’s flagship projects is the Standard Gauge Railway that is being undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

In May, the company announced that it had finished 28 per cent of the roadbed construction for the Mombasa-Nairobi project, 23 per cent of the construction of the bridges and 29 per cent of the culverts needed along the line, all ahead of schedule. The project officially started in January 2015 and is scheduled to be finished in 2017.

The 472-kilometre Mombasa-Nairobi SGR will cost up to $3.8 billion (Sh380 billion), with the Import-Export Bank of China covering 90 per cent of the funding, while the Kenyan government will fund the remaining 10 per cent. The ambitious project is expected to boost economic growth in Kenya by 1.5 per cent. This year, Treasury cabinet secretary Henry Rotich announced an allocation of $1.46 billion (Sh146 billion) to the project for the 2015-2016 financial year.

The SGR is set to pass through Kenya’s oldest and largest national parks — the Tsavo West and Tsavo East — within Makueni county, which borders Machakos, Kitui and Taita Taveta counties.

Mtito Andei in Makueni county is one of the towns where the project passes through. The town has seen tremendous socio-economic changes since the project kicked off in January. According to locals, the town has had an influx of foreigners lured to the town by the availability of jobs and other business opportunities.

Lorries and trucks moving construction materials around the China Road and Bridge Corporation factory in Mtito Andei.

Lorries and trucks moving construction materials around the China Road and Bridge Corporation factory in Mtito Andei.

Whereas the SGR project has been a blessing to the town, it has brought with it challenges, chief among them being environmental degradation, break-down in family and societal values, and increased cost of living, among others.

The CRBC had agreed to mitigate any negative impact caused by the project but this does not seem to be the case. Some residents fear that there will be more wildlife-human conflicts in the future as a result of the railway project encroaching into the national parks.

Whereas grass has been planted to address deforestation along the artificial embankments, residents complain of failure by CRBC to sprinkle water on the roads to clear the dust. The blasting of rocks in quarries has led to cracking of walls in houses and locals are not sure whether they will be compensated, with the company saying that it will compensate only those within a 300-metre radius of blasting sites.

One of the biggest impacts of the project has been in terms of creating employment opportunities for locals. By May, CRBC said it had employed 10,889 Kenyans. The company has two factories in Mtito Andei, employing more than 1000 skilled and unskilled workers.

This writer spent two weeks in the area in June-July, conducting interviews with residents who were affected by the project’s implementation to bring out the following report.

 

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David Lazaru Monyani, a garage owner and beneficiary of the Standard Gauge Railway compensation in Mtito Andei.

David Lazaru Monyani, a garage owner and beneficiary of the Standard Gauge Railway compensation in Mtito Andei.

David Lazaro Monyani, 52, has been living in Mtito Andei for 22 years. The coming of the Standard Gauge Railway was both a blessing and a curse to him.

The proposed railway line was to pass through his land. He says at first he thought of it as a disturbance, but later on, he came to appreciate the project after officers from the Kenya Railways and the National Land Commission sensitised people on the proposed project and its benefits.

He used to live in a place called Shauri Moyo but later on moved to Matulani village, a few kilometres from Mtito Andei town. Even though he was compensated before he relocated, he laments that the compensation did not take into account some of the disturbances they had to face.

Monyani, a father of four, is a garage owner in the town. For two months, during which he had to buy land, build and relocate, his garage was closed.

“The compensation did not consider the economic disturbance and the opportunity cost that was lost by some of us,” he says.

Even though he is grateful for the money he was paid, he wishes that the government would give them a breakdown of how the compensation was arrived at, for example, how much was paid for land, the structures thereon and other property.

All the same he is grateful.

“The lump sum payment enabled me to build my dream house; I bought a bigger piece of land and build a better house than I had,” he says.

He says one of the negative effects of the SGR project was that the cost of land went up twice or even three times its former value. He was forced to pay twice the amount he had initially agreed with the person who sold him land.

But on the positive side, he says many young people in the town and surrounding areas are now employed in the two SGR factories in the town, and they are able to support themselves and their families.

Festus Mbuni, an official working in the local Member of County Assembly’s office, says there has been a rise in demand for accommodation, with property owners converting their buildings from residential to commercial use.

“To be sincere, the town did not have enough buildings for rental purposes,” he says. “Every sector — food, clothing, accommodation —has been boosted.”

The construction of the railway has also seen an increase in the population of the town. He says the leisure industry has also been boosted, with an increase in night activities and an influx of commercial sex workers from other parts of the country, hoping to reap from the fruits of the railway line.

 

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David Otemba is another resident who was affected by the construction of the railway line. He is a businessman who does poultry farming and food production in a small cottage industry in his compound.

The construction of the railway line ate into part of his land. Three quarters of his plot was taken. He had to bring down some of the buildings where he kept his chicken and rebuild them on a different part of the land.

Because of the short notice (30 days) he was given to bring down some of the buildings, and make adjustments, he could not supply his customers consistently during that transition period. His business competitors took advantage of that lull to fill the gap he had left. Recovering from that setback has not been easy.

“I lost important clients who were buying chicken and other products from me,” he says. He however says the compensation he received has brought a lot of difference in his life.

“I used some of the money to pay off bank loans and now I am free of debts from banks,” he says proudly.

In one building in his compound, we find workers who are frying and packing potato crisps in polythene bags. In another part of the compound, his wife and some workers are cleaning chicken ready to be supplied to hotels in the town.

“With money, there is nothing that you can’t do,” he says of the compensation money he got, which has enabled him to expand his business and employ additional staff.

Otemba, a father of five, says because of the fresh capital that he injected into the business, he now keeps the stock he requires, and he can give credit to his customers without any cash-flow challenges.

Like others, he agrees that the compensation has brought tremendous change for those who were directly affected.

“Each and every person who was compensated has seen changes in their lives,” he says.

He says that currently, it is difficult to hire a fundi because most of them are busy either in individual businesses or they are working in the SGR project.

Otemba and Festus say the project has created jobs for many young people and they have observed people’s spending going up, as more money circulates in the town.

Besides expanding his business and employing more workers, Otemba also bought a piece of land in Western Kenya where he hails from, where he intends to plant bananas, from which he hopes to reap a fortune in future.

 

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In another part of the town, Joshua Kithome Kasovo, 68, still laments how the project has had a negative impact on his school-running business. It forced him to make changes, which he had not anticipated.

He is the owner of Mtito Andei Christian Primary School, which was forced to relocate as a result of the railway project passing through its former premises. As a result of the relocation, the number of learners in the school dropped from 225 to 116.

Out of all the classrooms that were on his land, only three were not affected after the project ate into three-quarters of his land. The three classrooms are now used by the lower classes. The upper classes relocated three kilometres away in a place called Matulani, where he has to rent premises.

“We now have to bear the additional cost of taking the upper primary children to school three kilometres away, and providing lunch for them,” he laments.

He says some parents were not happy with the abrupt changes and refused to move their children to the new location, and thus they lost the children, who opted for schools closer to the town.

Like many others, he says they were given a short notice and he claims the compensation did not cater for the loss he incurred as a result of losing business.

Kithome still hopes the railway will have a positive impact in the future, because he sees it leading to an increase in the town’s population, which will likely lead to an increase in number of children, who will hopefully enroll in his school.

On a positive note, he says the project has brought a lot of benefits to the locals.

“The town is expanding, many investors are coming in, there are no longer vacant plots in the town,” he says. “Today, unless you have more than Sh500,000, you can’t get a plot of 50m by 100m in town.”

Another family whose life was disrupted is that of Patricia Mwanza, whose land was taken over by the railway construction, and she was forced to go back to her parents-in-law’s home, where she now stays in a mabati house with her husband and four children.

Her children have to walk for more than 8km every day to and from school. The children are in class six, four, two and in nursery school.

Six months later, they are yet to get land to buy and build a house, since the cost of land has shot up, unlike she had projected. She had anticipated to buy land at Sh100,000 per acre but now the cheapest land she can get goes for Sh200,000.

“Once I buy land and build a house, that is the time I will settle down,” she says.

 

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At the time I met him, Peter Kisoi had been looking for a house to rent for a month at Hillside town. All his efforts bore no fruit. He will now be forced to stay in a lodging house for the one month that he will be staying in the small town a few kilometers from Mtito Andei town.

He comes from Wote, a town hundreds of kilometers away. He is a self-employed skilled worker who was coming to the town for a short-term contract. He was hoping to pay Sh2,000-Sh3,000 for the month, if he got a self-contained room.

But since he has to find accommodation in a lodging house, he will have to pay between Sh9,000 to Sh10,000 for one month. The last time he was here in February, a lodging room cost Sh120 a night. This has now shot up to Sh300 per day.

Hillside is one of the towns that has been revived as a result of the SGR project in Mtito Andei. It is a town on the old Mombasa-Nairobi highway, which was abandoned some 10 years ago when the current Nairobi-Mombasa highway was constructed.

According to Nzuki Ndaka, the chairman of Hillside market, this development, together with the closure of many of the railway stations of the former Kenya Railways, led to the decline of many towns, including Hillside and Kathekani.

He says many people moved out of the town when the operations of the former Kenya Railways went down, and when the highway was relocated to its present site. He says previously, the town was sustained by road and railway transport.

But the coming of the SGR has seen dramatic reversal of some of these negative effects in the town centres around Mtito Andei. They are now bubbling with life, thanks to the many workers who are employed in the two SGR factories in the area, who either live in the adjacent towns or who spend their money there.

“When the old railway went down, it went away with people, and the economy in this area went down,” says Nzuki.

“The new railway project has revived this town. The factories have employed many people and created employment for our youth,” he adds.

He says the railway project has led to increased population in the area, the number of new shops and businesses has gone up, and residential houses that were previously vacant are now occupied.

“It has led to transformation of lives, some of the people have build houses and bought motorcycles and other things which they could not afford previously,” he says.

Nzuki says the small town has seen a rapid increase in population since the railway project began. He says one of the effects of this can be seen in the housing sector, where the cost of renting houses has gone up from between Sh200 and Sh500 per month, to between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000 per month.

Despite the positive developments, Nzuki says because of the work going on in the area, and the heavy vehicles driving on the roads, there is a lot of environmental pollution from dust.

He says the SGR needs to tarmac the roads as part of its corporate social responsibility to the community. Further, he says that tremors that are caused by blasts in some quarries are destroying houses.

In Miangeni High School, the blasts have caused cracking of classroom walls and the walls of the water tank constructed in a corner of the school compound.

Noise pollution is another negative effect of the construction project. According to the school head, the blasts, which used to happen during the day disrupted learning in the school, and led to some of the students suffering from trauma.

The residents are apprehensive that they may not be compensated for the cracks on their houses, because the National Environmental Management Authority says only those within a radius of 300 metres of the blast sites will be compensated.

Nzuki is appealing to the government to intervene so the SGR can reconsider this, since many houses, as far as one kilometre away from the blasting sites, have been affected.

 

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One of the factories in Mtito Andei where materials for construction of the railway are being manufactured.

One of the factories in Mtito Andei where materials for construction of the railway are being manufactured.

In Kathekani location, Ndulo Mbae, 48, the chairman of Kathekani market, says the railway project has seen the revival of the once-dead market centre. The market, along the old Nairobi-Mombasa highway, is now a beehive of activity.

Mbulo says business is now booming, with shop, hotel and posho mill-owners seeing an increase in number of customers. The market neighbours the SGR slipper-making factory. Some of the factory’s workers live in the centre and majority of them come there for lunch every day.

Mbulo says whereas the market had only three shops in the past, now it has more than 20. He says previously there were only two eating-places in the market.

“This was a dead market, there were no people, now there are more than 50 eateries around here,” he says. “Now, we even have money transfer businesses in the market centre.”

He was referring to the internationally known mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa.

“We also have barbershops whereas we had none in the past,” he says.

He says over 300 workers come to the market centre at any one time. This has led to the eateries in the centre, which previously served only tea, to graduate into preparing a variety of foods, assured of a ready clientele from the factory workers.

 

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Compensation money tearing families apart…

Paul Luvai is the chief of Mtito Andei location. He says the railway project has brought good tidings to the town.

“Even though some people were displaced (or relocated), the people have gained because they received money, bought land, built houses, some even bought vehicles with the money,” he says.

He says the construction of the railway in the town has created employment for the youth, and brought about new business ventures like sand harvesting and selling, and lending of money by ‘shylocks’.

He says the increased demand for land has led to increase in cost of land, from around Sh150,000 to Sh350,000, for a 50 by 100 metres plot.

“The crime rate has gone down. Incidents of petty crimes that used to be reported in my office have gone down,” he says.

He attributes this to the fact that many idle youth, who previously engaged in petty crime for survival, now have a source of income through employment in the SGR project.

The cost of renting houses in Mtito Andei town has also gone up. Initially, one could get a house for between Sh1,000 and Sh1,800. This has now gone up to between Sh2,000 and Sh5,000, for a one bed-roomed house.

Another positive development that has come about is that the China Road and Bridge Company has sub-contracted locals to do some of the works like landscaping.

The CRBC also buys sand from local sand-harvesting groups that have been formed to take advantage of the current situation.

Luvai says that businessmen in the town have reported increased business, and today it is not easy to find houses that are vacant.

“Lodgings have also increased,” he says.

The implementation of the SGR project in Mtito Andei has come with some negative socio-economic challenges.

Twenty-five-year-old Vera (not her real name) left her home in Tigania, Meru, years ago to search for work in Nakuru. As fate would have it, the Nakuru county government authorities pulled-down illegally constructed kiosks and that is how Vera found herself without employment, and a five-year-old child to take care of. That was sometime last year.

With the help of her uncle, she started a second-hand clothes business but this went down after a few months. This pushed her to the Nakuru-Nairobi highway, where she joined a friend and they became part of the commercial sex workers who lure long-distance truck drivers along the way.

Early this year, Vera and her friend got wind of information that there was plenty of money in Mtito Andei and an influx of men who had been hired to work on the railway project. They found their way to Mtito Andei.

Today, they ply their trade on the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway, where they entice men along the street at night.

Secrecy is the name of the game here, and Vera knows so little about her friend, apart from the fact that she comes from Nakuru.

“The less you know about each other the better,” she tells me.

Vera rents a room for Sh300 per month, which she uses when she gets clients. Her clients pay her money ranging from Sh200 to Sh2,000, based on the number of hours they spend with her.

In a month, she makes as much as Sh30,000. She sends her mum around Sh15,000, to help with taking care of her daughter. But her mum does not know her source of income. “I wouldn’t even want her to know…she wouldn’t accept to take the money if she knew where it was coming from,” she says, chuckling shyly.

Her mother believes that she works in a hotel in Nakuru, where she went to when she left home some years back.

She plans to go back to Nakuru once she has enough money to start her own business. “No one wants to live this kind of life,” she says.

 

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‘Employment opportunities favours outsiders’

Steve and David (not their real names) are workers in Section 3 of the standard gauge railway factory located a few minutes drive from Mtito Andei town. Steve was employed as a turn-boy while David is an unskilled labourer.

Steve says through his own initiative, he has been able to learn how to operate the cement-mixing machine.

David says he has learnt some new skills in the section where he works using steel-cutting and bending machines.

Earlier, CRBC announced that it had trained about 1,000 of the 5,000 Kenyan workers it plans to train for railway construction and management, including roadbed construction engineers and culvert construction engineers. This was in May.

They both agree that the coming of the project into the area has brought about tremendous change, socially and economically. They say the standard of living among many local residents has improved because many young people have been employed and have built houses, something they could not afford to do previously.

However, the two lament that their employers have not put in place deliberate plans of skills transfer, as is the belief by many. Moreover, learning new skills is difficult because all the machines in the factory are written in Chinese and the locals cannot operate them unless they have a Chinese supervisor around to instruct them.

Another challenge they face is that the technical drawings for the project are also written in Chinese and so even the local engineers are not able to read them without the help of the Chinese workers. This is very frustrating for them.

They also face the challenge of language barrier, because most of the supervisors are Chinese and they don’t understand English. Exchanging information between the workers and the supervisors becomes a big problem.

In May, Lu Shan, the general manager of CRBC, said the company planned to send 60 Kenyans to study in China for five years, including a year’s preparation for Chinese language and four years study in railway related majors. This was during an inspection tour led by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The two lament about nepotism in employment in Section 3, since the method of advertising for new positions is opaque and ends up benefitting outsiders at the expense of non-locals.

“We don’t know when new positions come up and the locals are not benefitting,” they say.

They are of the view that the CRBC should have a policy of promoting to the next level those already working rather than bringing in new people into vacant positions that arise in the factory.

They blame the Kenya Building Construction Timber Furniture Workers Union for concentrating only on the issue of salary negotiations while neglecting other pertinent issues pertaining to workers’ welfare.

They add that the management has failed to provide the required protective gear — industrial boots and gloves for handling steel. Currently they use rubber shoes and gloves, which are not durable.

But the local field organiser for the union, Dorcas Wanjiku, says she is not aware of any unfair employment practices in the factory.

“As far as we know, the employers are trying to give skills and even certificates for those that they train,” she said.

She added that the company has an agreement with the union to provide the rubber shoes as the company makes plans to provide the required industrial boots.

In response to our queries, Mary Oyuke, Kenya Railways corporate affairs manager, says the company had addressed some of these issues earlier.

The Section 3 factory has employed more than 600 employees while another factory close-by has employed close to 1,000 workers. Most of these are Kenyans from other parts of the country.

 

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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