With one of the fastest growing economies in East Africa, Kenya has solidified its spot as one of the region’s rising stars. Yet as the country’s white-hot economy shot up in recent years, so did traffic, especially in the capital city of Nairobi. And it came with a high price: As of 2019, the country was losing over KES50 million daily from the delays and fuel wastage cause by traffic jams and accidents, especially in urban areas, according to Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA). Looking to move into the fast lane, government leaders launched the Nairobi Expressway project.
Kenya’s first major public-private partnership (PPP) project has KeNHA joining forces with China Road and Bridge Corp. (CRBC), which will lead the design, financing and construction of the expressway.
Connecting the city’s international airport in the east and Nairobi-Nakuru highway in the west, the 27-kilometer (17-mile) roadway will no doubt cut congestion for Nairobi’s beleaguered drivers. But it’s also positioned along a critical section of the region’s Northern Corridor: the main gateway for imports and exports from Kenya’s booming port town of Mombasa to neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda. When complete, the expressway could slash rush-hour travel time from two hours to about 15 minutes. And that could be a boon for the whole region. Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia estimated the new expressway will carry 85 percent of all cargo and commuter traffic in surrounding areas.
Kenyan officials have promoted the expressway as an essential infrastructure project that will spur modernization. And as the country slipped into its first recession in two decades in late 2020, the roadway could be a gamechanger in helping achieve Kenya Vision 2030, which aims to transform the country into “a globally competitive and prosperous country with high quality of life.”
For now, the project is providing an economic boost in the form of jobs, with CRBC hiring more than 1,800 locals to support the project. Yet despite the promise, the project has hit some bumps in the road since launching in 2019. Construction of the first section was in full swing when the pandemic hit, forcing CRBC to revamp procedures and adjust the schedule to prioritize key milestones.
By the end of 2020, things were looking up—with some tasks even finished ahead of schedule. But in May, a video showing debris and sparks falling from one of the construction sites prompted concern about safety. KeNHA officials took action, inspecting the highway to ensure workers were following proper protocols and directing CRBC to implement a better traffic management system.
There are also some concerns that the tolls charged by CRBC under the PPP deal could prevent some drivers from being able to use the road—not only exacerbating the city’s traffic problems, but also fueling socioeconomic divides.
The US$600 million infrastructure project was roughly one-third complete as of March. But CRBC has now promised to push up its deadline to complete the project by early 2022.