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What Happens in Kenya When Modernization Clashes With Nature? 

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A newly completed section of Nairobi Expressway, which is slated for completion in Sept. 2022. (Kang-Chun Cheng/VOA)

The tension between nature and modern development is being played out in Kenya. Along Nairobi Expressway’s construction site, workers can be seen wrapping marigolds and other greenery onto industrial beams, a contrast to ongoing welding and excavation activities.

“It’s been nice working with some greenery for a change,” said 32-year-old Julian Wandera, who has been working on the expressway since May 2021. “Especially as the weather gets hotter,” he added.

A beam along Nairobi Expressway that has been 'beautified' with greenery. (Kang-Chun Cheng/VOA)
A beam along Nairobi Expressway that has been 'beautified' with greenery. (Kang-Chun Cheng/VOA)

Aside from the greenery, Kenyan authorities are asking for more trees to be planted by the China Road and Bridge Corporation as part of the Kenyan government’s attempt to uphold higher environmental standards.

In late January, the Director-General of the National Environment Management Authority’s (NEMA), Mamo Boru Mamo, ordered CRBC to plant at least 3,000 assorted tree seedlings over the span of three months. The order was publicized in mid-February; the contractor has until the end of March to not only replace those uprooted during the construction process but also to contribute to Nairobi’s beautification process.

Neither the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi nor CRBC responded to multiple requests for comments. The beautification process is part of their compliance with the Kenya government’s greening orders.

Last October, China announced a Second Belt and Road initiative which aims to bring a more environmentally friendly approach to building land and sea infrastructure projects from Asia to Africa.

Mamo noted that the seedlings must be in compliance with Kenya Forest Service guidelines to prevent introducing invasive species. In a phone interview with VOA, he said the contractor had no option other than to comply with this order.

“We understand they have already engaged in undertaking the activities as directed,” he said. Mamo added that the directive is indeed part of the initial environmental impact assessment that was approved alongside the management plan of the expressway.

The Nairobi Expressway is Kenya’s first major public-private partnership, which started in October 2019. The Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) has collaborated with the Chinese company, China Road and Bridge Corporation, for the design, construction, and financing of the 27-kilometer road.

Kenya hopes the $600 million toll road sparks modernization and increases tourism as it links Jomo Kenyatta International Airport east of the capital city with the Nairobi-Nakuru highway west of the capitol.

In an interview with state outlet Kenya Broadcasting Corportation (KBC), Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said the road will cut down on the city’s notorious traffic from as long as three hours during rush hour to as fast as 20 minutes. Macharia added it would save money lost in bad traffic and create more jobs.

Wandera is one of an estimated 6,000 Kenyans employed by the project. “We should be done by September 2022,” he told VOA. “I’ve learned a lot in the process, and we’ve all gotten along (with the Chinese) for the most part.”

Throughout the construction, CRBC felled an estimated 2,500 trees, according to the National Environment Management Authority’s (NEMA) environmental impact assessment. Trees are needed to mitigate air pollution, improve water quality, provide urban habitats for birds, small invertebrates, and insects, and cultivate the overall livability standard of a city.

Lestan Kimiri, the project manager of the Mukogodo Forest Association, believes that the Kenyan government is right to demand replanting as they have evidence that biodiversity was affected. In an email response to VOA, he said that this is part of the construction company’s corporate social responsibility.

“In the modern era, everyone is working to green our cities and towns. Nairobi being Kenya’s capital, it’s right to green it,” Kimiri said. “Remember the polluter pay principle where the company releasing carbon emissions pays for it? Planting of trees and other vegetation is part of it.” He believes that NEMA’s order will set a precedent for the environmental standards expected from foreign contractors.

As China’s engagement with African nations deepens, particularly in the infrastructure development sector, questions about China’s level of commitment to advocating for environmental standards arise.

Elijah Munyi, an assistant professor of International Relations at the United States International University-Africa, focuses on the politics and regimes development in foreign direct investment, particularly in the context of China-Africa relations. In a phone interview with VOA, he said that as African countries are developing internal infrastructure and environmental regulations, the convergence of development and sustainability goals remains a critical matter.

Munyi doubts whether China is committed to upholding high environmental standards. “I’m not completely convinced. Since this is just on Waiyaki Way, it’s super visible. It could be an aesthetic coup over the government and [the] Chinese,” he said. “I wouldn’t think of this as a groundbreaking development. It’s a little addition to mark a very politically important project.”

Tyson Nuthu works in the outdoors industry in Nairobi and is also skeptical whether NEMA’s order extends beyond a public relations stunt. “The fundamental problem has to do with accountability. Who will ensure that NEMA follows through with its own environmental regulations,” he asked.

The major anticipated users of the expressway include embassy employees, politicians, and other high-level individuals, given the tolls that will be required for expressway access.

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