Kenya’s major railway project is making life even more difficult for the poor by ignoring their reality | So Good News


People’s responses to large infrastructure projects – railways, bridges, motorways – are rarely neutral. For some, these projects represent powerful social and political promises of transformative change and a brighter future. For others, they mean evictions and disruption of livelihoods.

The reaction of Kenyans to the country’s Standard Gauge Railway, called the Madaraka Express, is no different.

In 2017, Kenya completed the railway’s first phase, which connects Mombasa port with the country’s interior. The second phase stops abruptly in Naivasha, a town 120 km northwest of the capital Nairobi. Ultimately, the railway is planned to reach Kenya’s border with Uganda at Malaba, helping to further link East Africa’s regional transport and trade.

Alongside other major projects, such as a transport corridor from Lamu port to South Sudan and Ethiopia, the Standard Gauge Railway is central to Kenya’s current national development policy, Vision 2030.

The policy frames these mega-projects as key to attracting the private sector interest needed to drive economic growth, boost exports and alleviate poverty. From this perspective, the new railway is a strong symbol of development, change and national pride.

But there is a downside. In my previous research on the impact of the railway project, I looked at evictions, displacement and disruption of livelihoods. In my new study, I set out to investigate how people deal with these disruptions in life.

Read more: Kenya’s mega-rail project makes society more unequal than before

The resounding response? This mega project has failed to bring the promised positive changes. My latest research builds on my previous work, which showed that the project increased socio-economic inequalities in Kenya. I demonstrated that mega-projects tend to represent only the interests of the state and business elites.

In this study, I further examine how the most disadvantaged experience the changes with mega-projects.

Villages split in two

I conducted more than five months of fieldwork in several periods between November 2018 and January 2020 in various urban, peri-urban and rural locations between Mombasa and Narok in the south-west of the country. I interviewed more than 200 people to better understand if and how the new railway had affected their lives.

Makueni County is located in the southeastern part of Kenya. Some of the county’s small villages, such as Kima, home to over 400 people, were split in two when the railway was built. A rampart and fence run right through what was once a single village. Previously, residents could visit neighbors and relatives in less than 15 minutes. Today, it takes one hour to reach the nearest underpass connecting Kima.

A narrow tunnel under a railway line.
A doom in the village of Kima.
Gediminas Lesutis

As a group of men in the village told me:

(The government) imagines that they are creating development for the people, but this is not the case, this railway is bringing serious problems (here) – the road to development is the path of pain and suffering to poor people like us.

According to community leaders, this disruption of local mobility patterns occurred due to a blatant disregard for their lives by both the national government and the project contractor, the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

In other parts of Kenya, similar views were expressed by several community liaison officers. They were contracted by Kenya Railways to mediate community affairs before and during the railway’s construction. These officers explained how the rail design was developed without prior community consultation and therefore ignored existing mobility routes.

Read more: Projects like Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway could unlock development

The Standard Gauge Railway has actually disrupted livelihoods that depend on local transport systems.

This particularly includes the Nairobi-Mombasa Road A109, notorious for traffic congestion caused by long-haul trucks carrying cargo to and from Mombasa port to inland destinations in Kenya and beyond.

In Taita Taveta, for example, over a 47 kilometer stretch of the A109 between Voi and Miaseni, local livelihoods are fundamentally dependent on traffic movement. Next to this road there are convenience stores, eateries, guesthouses and brothels.

Outside these facilities, young men wash cars or provide mechanical services for passing truck drivers. For a small fee of a few hundred Kenyan shillings, elderly men watch these trucks overnight when the drivers stop to rest. Women offer laundry and other services.

Although trucks overload the road, resulting in air and noise pollution, a busy road means economic activity for those in nearby communities.

However, this reality was ignored by the Kenyan government. In 2018, it passed a national decree mandating all containerized cargo entering the Port of Mombasa to be transported on the Standard Gauge Railway. According to the Kenya Transporters Association, this led to around 12,000 lorries carrying container cargo being put out of service. As a result, a similar number of drivers and truck loaders lost their jobs.

At the time of my research this had noticeable effects. Next to the A109 road, guesthouses with accommodation for long-distance drivers were empty most days, car washes were closed and drinking houses were mostly frequented by local men. The residents of these areas had been economically dependent on the long-distance car industry for 30 years. They expressed their displeasure and despair. As one shop owner noted:

This SGR, it has taken our lives, it has left us here with no customers, no movement, no nothing. People are very poor here, so they don’t buy the things I sell here. I need movement to survive.

The rail project’s impact on livelihoods was turned into a campaign issue ahead of Kenya’s August 2022 elections. A month after being voted in, President William Ruto kept his campaign promise and lifted the order mandating the railway for containerized cargo. Various groups, including shippers and Mombasa port stakeholders, have hailed the move as likely to revive the coastal economy and restore lost jobs.

What is needed

As shown in other contexts, the key to avoiding mega-projects that have a dramatic effect on vulnerable groups is to carefully assess the social and environmental consequences before, during and after project construction.

These legal mechanisms exist in Kenya. But there is not enough political will to use them.

Unless the needs and livelihoods of local people are taken into account when mega-infrastructure is planned and implemented, these projects are unlikely to bring the promised development.


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