How Construction of the Mombasa-Malaba Railway will Transform Kenya

By Don Pablo

On Thursday this week, Kenya will recreate the steps that led to the formation of the country by commissioning the construction of the railway to Uganda. That it has taken us more than a century to add to what the British built in the 19th century is a shameful story for another day.  Now is the time to rejoice at a crucial and long overdue move by the state.

The commissioning that will take place in Mombasa will be a walk down memory lane as attempts to open up East Africa’s hinterland are given a big push by the authorities in the region. The railway once complete will run from Mombasa to Malaba, into Uganda and beyond to Rwanda. South Sudan is said to be eager to have the railroad extended to Juba as well.

Construction of the railway has been a necessity for a country that relies heavily on road transport to haul bulky goods. Shockingly, Kenya uses trucks to transport up to 95 % of goods from the port in Mombasa. This reliance on an inefficient form of transportation has seen Kenyans pay heavily for our lack of options with the cost of transport and logistics accounting for 45% of the cost of goods in Kenya. The situation is bad enough without our neighbours relying on the same creaking infrastructure to transport their goods.

The advantages of rail over road are quite significant. This goes to explain the zeal shown by the President in having the rail infrastructure in place ASAP. For instance, one train carries approximately 216 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units); those big containers carried by trucks along our highways. It would take 108 trucks carrying 2 TEUs each to move the same number of ‘containers’. The heavy use of road transport explains why up to 60 trucks leave Mombasa for the interior of the country every hour!


The train carries in one trip what would take 108 trucks to transport (c/o Tom Shermer)

This comparison of tonnage transported doesn’t even take into consideration the speed factor where the trains would move goods and passengers almost four times faster than the trucks. Incidentally, you’d be shocked to learn that Kenya is considered ‘landlocked’ due to the period it takes to move freight inland. It takes up to 7 days for a truck to move from Mombasa to Kisumu, a journey that the train would cover in a maximum of 17 hours.

The trucks that dot our highways are dangerous for road users and have been known to brazenly defy traffic rules. The crazy number of deaths on our roads can be partly attributed to their dangerous antics such as ‘freewheeling’ when driving downhill, driving in the middle of the road, and lack of tail lights. The trucks are also heavy and cause damage to the roads. The section between Uthiru and Limuru is a good example of the roads ‘sinking’ under the weight of the heavy machines. In terms of pollution, it’s quite obvious that 108 trucks would cause much more pollution than a single train.

The difference between these two forms of transportation in terms of cost efficiency, pollution and could not be any clearer.

Simply using a train to move goods would reduce the cost of transport by up to 60% according to government statistics. This would have a significant effect on the overall cost of living in the country and boost our economy. Crucially, Kenya will also reduce her import bill since we’ll require less fuel for transportation. Easy and cheaper means of transportation might also lead to industrialization along the rail corridor as industrialists take advantage of the infrastructure.

The benefits of the railway will also include appreciation of property value along the corridor. Sultan Hamud is particularly tipped to grow into a big town being a future railway depot. This would help in decongestion of major cities as satellite towns develop along the railway corridor.

The railway will be built in two phases with the first phase between Mombasa and Nairobi being completed in 2016. The construction phase will also come with benefits. At least 60 jobs will be created for every kilometre of track laid, a total of 30,000 jobs during the Mombasa-Nairobi phase.

The Sino-African workers won’t face as severe a threat from wildlife at Tsavo as their Anglo-Indian counterparts though, largely due to decimation of animals through poaching. Nor would they have to deal with locals attacking and stealing rail materials from them. The danger they will face will come in the form of competition as Tanzania tries to steal the shine from us.

As was the case in the early 20th century, the railway will transform life in Kenya and beyond. With the lines clearly drawn in the battle to be East Africa’s preferred transport route, it is good to see that our country is alert to the danger and willing to out-do our southern neighbor. It’s also encouraging to see the country seek alternatives to the 21st century lunatic express, the chaotic Mombasa-Kisumu highway. Sit back and watch the future of East Africa take shape.

(Statistics courtesy of Kenya Railways)

Categories: Human Interest, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo Blog: Ngong Hills 4/20

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So it’s been a while since I did a photo blog. Last week I had the chance to go hiking up Ngong Hills. The hills are the most predominant physical feature around Nairobi, rising to a height of over 2400m above sea level, a cool 500m above the average height of Nairobi.

The Eastern slope of the hills overlooks Ngong town, Rongai, Nairobi National Park and the city of Nairobi. On the western slope is a steep descent into the Great rift valley. My visit coincided with the peak of the rainy season and the lush, green expanse that stretched to every horizon was magical. My body was complaining the whole way up the hill but the sensory delight made it worth the hustle.  The massive windmills, watching the rain fall on the rift valley side and the colourful iridescent clouds all added to the delightful experience.

Hope you enjoyed the photos and if you can, go and experience for yourself the beauty of nature from a vantage point so easily accessible. Cheers

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | Tags: | 7 Comments

Rio in Pictures

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | 20 Comments

From Brazil, with love.

From the comfort of a sofa and a screen, I have ‘traveled’ the world over, ‘discovering’ corners of the world that would leave many a great explorer of centuries gone by green with envy. Satisfying as it may be knowing the geography, history and culture of a region in Nepal or a city in Bolivia, the yearning to feel the experience in actuality never escapes an armchair traveler. I recently got the opportunity to get this monkey off my back when a trip to Brazil with my friends materialized. It’s true what they say about travel being an eye opener and the trip to South America was quite an enriching experience. Among the many observations, the following stood out:

  1. Being away from home makes you appreciate your roots – The default outward looking mentality of appreciating anything foreign and exotic makes someone not fully appreciate their own. We have seen it with the post-humorous discussions of Wangari Maathai’s life. A foray outside our borders sharpens our ability to observe another culture, enabling us to apply that level of perception and appreciation to our own roots. This got us to understand how big Kenyan athletes are in the worlds eyes. Every time you told a Brazilian you are from Kenya, they asked you about running or whether you are there for a marathon. As far as ambassadors go, you can’t beat that. The same way we associate Brazilians with football is how the world associates us with running. No offence to our East African neighbors but I’m certain we would have been given a puzzling look if for instance we stated our nationality as Ugandan or Tanzanian. Nor would a Brazilian know anything about Moldova, Oman, maybe even Euro countries like Latvia, Montenegro and such. But they know about Kenya. Which gives you a rush of nationalistic pride. It’s incredible to think that I had to be 20,000km from home to realize how much of a big deal our runners are and the extent to which they have put our country on the world map.
  2. Travel challenges you to get you out of your comfort zone – In many ways, our lives are a set of routines repeated ad infinitum and the measure of success and personal achievement becomes equally limited. As long as our bank accounts are regularly replenished or our transcripts favorably graded, most will feel contented without further introspection or an urge to self-improve. Chatting with an uneducated hawker or a Brazilian hooker in English when their native language is Portuguese leaves you red-faced and feeling quite limited as a person. Knowing a foreign language became a goal of ours as we left Brazil, if not for anything to get rid of that bugging feeling of inadequacy and foster that common bond of humanity.
  3. Brazilians love their football- Yes, everyone knows that Brazil is a football mad country but you don’t realize the extent to which the game permeates every aspect of their society till you set foot in the country. From floodlit mini-pitches in the city center where tournaments go on way past midnight to the beach pitches, football facilities are everywhere. And they are not afraid to nail their colors to the mast as almost all shops will have a flag of the team the owner supports. A waiter will politely tell you the jersey you are wearing is ‘shit’ if he supports a rival team. The height of their passion was evident when you see a group of friends playing beach football at Copacabana at 3:30 am. At the stadium, football attendance isn’t limited to the lower class and a section of the middle class male population as happens locally; from chain smoking old men to incredibly beautiful and scantily clad ladies, the crowd was as diverse as it could get. (For the football fans, you will be surprised to find out that Mane Garrincha and not Pele is regarded as the best player of all time).

    For the love of the game. Brazilian drummer chica leading the chants at Fluminense vs Avai match, Egenhao stadium.

  4. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness – In a world where stereotypes are taken for facts, getting to see people in their natural setting and interacting with them changes how you see them. Yes there was that white woman who clutched her bag tighter upon seeing you but that was an exception rather than the norm. At the end of the day, all human beings are essentially that; humans. People are curious to know your story, where you come from, how people live where you come from as they warmly welcome you to their country. The fears you had about a certain place quickly dissipates as you realize the innate friendliness of people. As Maya Angelou put it, travel is the one hope we have to recognize “that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die.” And just like that, the artificial divisions we put upon ourselves goes away. Essentially, we are all just people trying to get the best out of life.
  5. Brazil is no 3rd world country – The perception among most people is that Brazil is a third world country when it’s anything but. Rio is Brazil’s second largest city and the standards set there are extraordinarily high. From ethanol-fueled cars, to elaborate subway systems, exemplary public amenities to general public hygiene, Rio reeks of a highly developed city. As per Mercer’s city rankings of cost of living for expatriate employees, Rio de Janeiro ranks 12th among the most expensive cities in the world in 2011 ahead of London, Paris, Milan, and New York City. Rio also has expensive hotel rates with the daily rate of its five star hotels the second most expensive in the world after New York City. With these rates set to increase during major events, those planning to attend the 2014 world cup best save up quite some amount if the trip is to become a reality.
  6. 6.The beauty of Art- If done in a coordinated way between the artists and authority, street art adds real beauty to a city.  Words don’t do justice to art so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Photography, Travel | 36 Comments

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