The fanfare accompanying the recent ground-breaking ceremony of the intended construction of a new port in Lamu and the wider LAPSSET infrastructure development corridor could have easily concealed other equally important dimensions to it.
That all three presidents of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Southern Sudan attended the ceremony confirmed its priority in the development programme of the region.
In that respect, it is hardly surprising that many reputable comparative studies long identified poor infrastructure and lukewarm intra-African trade as some of the biggest challenges to the continent’s competitiveness.
It is, on the face of it, plausible that regional states break historical barriers through joint infrastructure projects in which stakes are shared and political commitment guaranteed.
Arguably, South Sudan’s political dynamics together with its rich oil deposits; and protracted tension in Ethiopia’s north presented much needed incentive for the two countries to commit to the project.
Yet it’s the irony of development that projects like this potentially stagnate development itself.
Apart from the possibility of underutilisation — which would mean that economic returns to service funds invested in the project is inadequate and therefore passed onto the next generation — the project’s impact on the environment and the domestic industry call for caution.
Besides, as a signatory to the Convention on Biodiversity and related multilateral agreements, Kenya must exercise utmost restraint on initiatives whose environmental damage are predictable.
The economic benefits of Lamu as a world heritage site and the natural habitats that this project will inevitably disrupt far outweigh its projected revenue arising primarily from oil and unsustainable agricultural exports from Southern Sudan and Ethiopia respectively.
In addition, we are yet to fully explore alternatives.
The notion that modern day development is achievable purely through mega projects is perhaps misplaced as it ignores the place of technology and, for Africa, the contribution of “small” industries at this stage in achieving sustainable industrialisation.
In any case, the problem for Kenya has never been really a question of lack of infrastructure but more of inefficiency to deliver in tandem with national economic planning due to institutional lethargy and blatant corruption.
This is the problem with Mombasa port which consistently performs below par.
Unbelievable as it may sound, with technological modernisation and elimination of a multiplicity of vested players with narrow focus of the port’s utility, Mombasa port’s turnover can accommodate more than 10 times the expectations of Lamu.
Had the port been modernised and competitively managed, we probably would not need another transport corridor.
It’s also difficult to ignore the impact of cheap imports dumped on Africa’s markets including the East Africa Community. In fact, it’s indisputable that Africa’s path to sustainable development has largely been frustrated by unnecessary and cheap imports into our market which do more harm by unjustifiably competing with local industries.
The result is that basic industries notably textile, manufacturing, and other value-addition sectors long collapsed leading to joblessness. African governments must thus accord priority to supporting revival of these sectors so that we have value-added products to export before allowing in competing imports.
Unless this is done, the curse of exporting cheap raw materials only to import them back in a value-added form will be here to stay. Toward this end, available statistics show that Kenya, Uganda, and other Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) partners have not invested enough in reviving domestic industries that collapsed in the 1980s.
A clear testimony to this is the number of dilapidated go-downs found in Nairobi’s Industrial Area that used to be the embodiment of Kenya’s manufacturing sector.
Farther west, Kisumu railway remains idle because sustainable industrial production long ceased in the region. As my recent experience revealed, the only active rail service is for exports to Uganda from Mombasa.
The real and rather weird risk is that unless these challenges are addressed strategically, Lamu port will just be another route for dumping products into our markets once Sudanese oil runs out.
The potential devastating consequences of projects like this on sustainability of the region should therefore not be ignored.
In any case, being a tropical zone alternative clean energy source will be key to its sustainable development in the long run.
Komolo is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a doctoral candidate at HKU.