Kenya Railways Can Tap into Greater Lakes Market
Published on 1st December 2008
The developed economies of the world long recognized that infrastructure especially transport is a very important catalyst of economic development. Efficient delivery of goods, personnel and services is crucial to economic growth. An efficient transport system encourages innovation in the industrial sector to produce more efficient vehicles to take advantage of the smooth flow of traffic.
In Kenya, as in most African states, this tested dynamic has not dawned on economic planners. The result has been to denigrate this important sector to the periphery.Building of roads has been at best shoddy. Waterways on existing water masses are chocking from preventable causes. The Railway system has stagnated since independence. Maintenance of existing systems is almost non-existent. This has resulted in nightmarish experiences for transporters and exporters. Compound this with inefficient service delivery at custom and border points and the effect on the general economy is felt.
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The transport sector must be revamped if East African countries have to move to the next level and take advantage of expanding markets in the Greater Lakes region. Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are raw markets in need of development. Kenya’s industrial base for example, can serve the expanded region to the mutual benefit of all.
However, while goods and services abound, moving them to needy areas can discourage even the most tenacious entrepreneur. Moving heavy goods over long distances requires sturdy roads. It begins at the point of road construction. If this was well supervised, there would little point in establishing axle load points every so often. Not only would well built roads support big loads, efficiency in the time it takes to move between points would be enhanced.
While Interstate Highways can go a long way in moving the economy, it is the Railway system that can make the most contribution. Railway transport interferes least with other economic activities. Because the railway like water has to look for even gradients, it also interferes least with human settlement. For this reason, massive loads can be moved with little effect on other activities.
In spite of the fact that the Railway makes money, not a single Kilometer has been added to the National Grid since independence. This makes one wonder where all the profits go. The only plausible explanation is that the Railway has been a cash cow for politicians all these years, an unfortunate offshoot of bad governance. It is a classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Further to this, there is massive neglect, wastage and underutilization of facilities at Kenya Railways. The descript picture at all Railway Stations in the country attests to neglect and waste. While we have a genuine museum at the Railway Headquarters, the rot that has crept to the whole Station is evident that like all other far flung stations, it has become a veritable graveyard of disused coaches.
Kenya Railways boasts one of the biggest and best equipped mechanical workshops in East Africa. If they cannot recommission these relics, what then is this facility good for? All along the railway line, one comes upon tons and tons of discarded steel and other metal. Surely if the Corporation cannot use them, it can dispose them to Steel makers at a handsome profit.
As for underutilization, here is my two penny worth of thought. First, the rail line on its way to and from the hinterland passes through most of the food growing areas of the country. Groceries come to Nairobi’s market (marikiti) by road. On a night bus from Western Kenya, one comes upon shivering market women by the roadside waiting to transport their wares to Nairobi. As one moves closer to Nairobi, you begin to overtake tired trucks spewing smoke into the atmosphere trying to get food to the city.
The rail line also passes by Dagoretti market where the biggest abattoir in the city is located. The meat slaughtered here is transported to various parts of the metropolitan by all manner and means. From bicycles, motorcycles, trucks and even matatu. Now, if the Railway Corporation were to have a shuttle line to bring in these items, apart from the fast and efficient delivery of food to the city, I am sure they would make a good profit. After all the Central Railway Station is situated next to ‘marikiti’ near the Central Business District.
The rail line also passes through some of the most densely populated informal settlements in the city. These are Kibera, Dandora and most parts of Nairobi’s Eastland. These population centers are challenged for facilities such as ambulances. Were the Railway Corporation to introduce an ambulance service to these areas, they would still make profit and gain an inordinate amount of goodwill from the public. Even at their busiest, the line is idle most of the time and therefore these innovations would not significantly impact on their core business of transporting bulky goods.
I am certain others with better knowledge of the intricacies of transport management can think of more imaginative ways to utilize the Railway. However, I know that they will agree that the facility can contribute to the economic development of the country much more than is the case today.
By Isaac Masidza