Ideas & Debate

This is what must be done to tap full potential of the Thika superhighway

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The national government and the counties ought to recognise the migration shift along the superhighway and provide necessary support to adjacent developments. File

Summary

The juicy gains

  • Kenyans facing distress got jobs and acquired new skills for similar tasks.
  • There is improved productivity, more so in reduced hours previously lost in jams. This will lead to reduced costs and better profits.

It must have been a proud moment for the Head of State, the roads authorities, and in deed for Kenyans to witness the Thika superhighway inauguration. Several other infrastructure projects are understood to be lined up for inauguration by the President prior to his well-earned retirement. The highway represents many high impact infrastructural projects that have either been completed or are in various stages of implementation. All these projects will form a memorable legacy for the head of state.

The Kibaki government has consistently emphasised that it is the economic infrastructure (transport, energy and IT) that will mostly open up development opportunities. For this reason, we can define the Kibaki presidency as one which has created the essential bridging links to the economic takeoff projected by the long-term development plan, Vision 2030.

This is through provision of appropriate enabling infrastructure including laws and institutions to support their development and management.

The Thika highway stands out for its engineering uniqueness and its immediate socioeconomic impacts especially to the adjacent counties. The patience demonstrated by users during construction has paid off. Above all, its sheer magnitude provides increased confidence to Kenyans that even larger infrastructure projects can be financed and implemented by Kenya.

Embarrassing vandalism

Although they say the project had delays, according to historical Kenyan experiences the implementation time was well within our normal expectations. The experiences gained from what looked like flawless work execution by the Chinese contractors will no doubt become a good yardstick and reference on project execution for roads authorities and local contractors in particular.

The completed project should also challenge the roads and security authorities to effectively and with finality deal with the embarrassing vandalism problem. The project cannot be considered complete until it is fully protected from vandals.

The highway project has many immediate direct and indirect pay backs. Firstly, it provided Kenyans with jobs at a time Kenya was going through economic stresses. Employees benefited in acquiring skills which will be useful in similar civil projects.

However, the most significant pay back to the economy is improved productivity. Many hours previously wasted by persons and transport equipment in traffic hold-ups will now be put into more useful economic and social activities. Reduced lay-time on the roads by commercial and public transport vehicles means increased vehicle turnaround and lower business and travel costs.

I have a simple but real example of increased productivity.

My dairy farm manager near Karatina is now able to supervise morning milking; hop into a matatu; pick bull semen from Nairobi and be back to the farm in time to supervise afternoon milking. Before, travel to the city and back was a full-day (six to six) effort.

Other frequent users of the highway I am sure have similar positive stories to tell. The imposition of highway transit tolls should be positively viewed as worthwhile cost-sharing for maintenance costs of a project with undisputed benefits.

The project has significant “green” attributes. Reduced traffic hold ups mean reduced vehicle idling; overall reduction of petroleum consumption (in fact, wastage); and resultant reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. This positively contributes to global warming mitigation. I am sure the roads authorities did not overlook registering the highway project and other similar petroleum-saving projects as green projects for earning carbon credits for this country.

Financing hurdle

From an urban planning point of view, the Thika highway together with other by-passes have helped to reverse human migration flow to the City of Nairobi by opening up satellite townships and settlements along the highway.

This reduces pressure on the city utilities and services, while expanding economic activities and employment, especially in property development. The national government and counties should acknowledge this migration shift and plan to provide quality services and amenities to these emergent peri-urban satellite towns.

As shown by the highway project, the government has also succeeded in diversifying infrastructure project financing which was always the biggest hurdle to infrastructure implementation.

Previously, it was mainly the World Bank with its very stringent conditionalities. Now we have funding flexibility offered by other development funding banks; private equity for energy projects; and also bilateral funding arrangements with countries like China.

Many have commented that the Kibaki government has emphasized the economic infrastructure while ignoring the social infrastructure (schools and hospitals). This apparent imbalance will certainly need to be corrected by the coming government as we sure will need more education and health facilities. A successful economy can only develop on the back of quality education and health provision.

Finally, as we continue to mainstream infrastructure and economic development, let us not forget that it can all come to naught if we do not manage our politics responsibly.

Mr Wachira is director of Petroleum Focus Consultants. E-mail: [email protected]