Ideas & Debate

Is SGR built to lock out the poor from trading?

A modern SGR train. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A modern SGR train. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, I attended a conference with infrastructure development at the heart. Several interesting points were made by attendants that provide important food for thought as we continue with aggressive infrastructure development.

The topic of conversation was the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the issues beginning to emerge as it starts work.

The first point was that it can be argued that the way in which the SGR has been built is anti-poor—and by that I mean it functions in a manner that locks out low-income individuals and traders from accessing passengers.

The SGR in some sections is lined by electric fences on either side and the stations are built in a manner that prevents hawkers and traders from selling wares to those inside.

In the past when the train snaked through the country, train stations were a beehive of business activity, a point at which passengers could buy various items from local traders.

The stations were built in a manner that allowed easy access to and from trains. This is no longer the case. The SGR is built in a manner that does not allow local traders or mama mbogas anywhere near the stations or train.

Is this fair? Is it fair that the SGR seems to be locking out low-income traders from a potential client pool? What does this mean for income of traders?

The second issue is the electric fences. Locals can only watch the train swish by, looking at the rich who can afford the service while they remain locked out of any development that could have been brought to the peri-urban and rural villages.

It should be noted that the poverty question is already negatively affecting the SGR. A few weeks ago, it was reported people have stolen materials worth Sh1.2 billion from the line in the last five months; mostly steel bars, electric goods and signal facilities. It would be naïve to fail to consider that poverty is a factor here.

While I am not justifying such theft, the reality is that poverty is causing individuals to steal in the first place. It would be interesting to find out if the old railway line had/has the same problem; and if not, why not?

Thirdly, we have not unpacked how the SGR will affect the trucker’s economy. To be clear, I am of the view the development should be embraced and potential game changers such as the SGR are important, but there ought to be serious consideration given to the knock-on effects so that the economic situation of Kenyans is improved, not compromised by new developments.

It is estimated 4,000 trucks are on the roads criss-crossing East Africa. While the SGR will be important in decongesting roads and hopefully making the movement of goods cheaper, informal traders and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will be hit.

Those who will lose jobs include truck drivers (estimated at 8,000) and informal businesses and SMEs who sell spare parts, and repairers. They will lose jobs or have businesses negatively impacted. How will this be managed?

So the question remains: Is the infrastructure we’re building pro-poor? Does it build or diminish commerce along its path? Does it build or compromise income sources of the poor?

Given the high levels of informality in Kenya, we ought to be cognisant of the effects of infrastructure built in a style that locks out indigenous enterprise.

The above issues are difficult with no easy answers, but they are realities we have to address so that future projects avoid or address potential negative effects of new infrastructure.