From roads to noodles soup; how China is shifting to ‘small is good’

The lines between the rich and those with low income in Kenya are being re-drawn by an ancient phenomenon called inflation, and no clear marker can be seen than on our roads, laced with thin traffic because of rising fuel prices.

Many have questioned whether or not the government re-introduced subsidies on fuel rather than why, but going by the vacant petrol stations and clear traffic, it is not hard to see that consumption has simply dipped, and further hikes were simply out of our elastic limits.

It is a consolation for me, when once in a while, I can afford to come to town, when I really cruise just on the speed limit flowing into the common purring din of engines against the cold wind and the clock.

Such privilege is for the elites on the Nairobi Expressway where 31,000 cars traversing it daily need just 20 minutes, before descending back to the lower deck chaos on an inconvenient exit.

There were 31,000 cars, at least by the count around March 2022. But I bet the numbers have come slightly down, at least by one because they counted me. Probably more because some of the other wannabes, who were testing how it feels like to drive in the movies and created such long traffics at exits that we made the news, are no longer as many.

Inflation manifests in China-built Expressway

That crowd is dissapearing. You see the Expressway has its subtle ways of pruning out the small men. Matatu’s clearly brought the attention to themselves with the splash of colour and rogue driving and won an early exit ticket. They only returned on mounting accusations of elitisms on the Expressway.

For the rest of us, they mark you off on an Olympic-size-world-record display screen declaring ‘You can’t possibly think you afford to be here when your ETC toll point balance is ten percent the average vehicle.’  

But you ignore it. Initially we used to cause traffic at the exit, but now we do it at the entry. Whenever you see those ETC stations parked with traffic, it means someone with insufficient balance had still imagined that somehow his points will miraculously get refilled. Some wishful thinking that you, maybe, can afford to use it just for a small section to jump the General Motors traffic with your insufficient balance only to get stopped on your tracks.

And the sanctions are loud enough to ensure you are not a repeat offender. It glares red like a siren and blares off like you are a Mexican crossing the US border illegally. You have to back out against other cars while apologizing to the hooting elites while you make your way to the manual line or join the Freeway.

Mombasa Road had been forgotten by the praise of the speed and flashy toll road above it. The freeway was not quickly reinstated. On long stretches, it was left unmarked. It was full of inconsistent road lines with some sections with three lanes suddenly merging into two without warning.

Last year, Uhuru Kenyatta’s government announced it had given China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the builder of the Expressway, an additional Kes9 billion job to repair the lower deck road.

But turns out the contract could be read in different ways. Sources indicate the Chinese were to repair the damages done by the Expressway on the road and not those caused by the Kes1 billion relocation of the service ducts and power lines along the road reserves.

So instead of the Chinese, the new Kenya Kwanza government went for local contractors, Shovels & Trowels Limited and Wolf Paving Kenya Limited taking over repairs of sections of Mombasa Road to restore the areas damaged by the construction of the Chinese built Expressway for Kes3 billion.

At China Town in Nairobi, the Mandarin strokes jump at you like martial arts that could keep you away. However once you come closer, they will take you in on their beautiful calligraphy. What’s more, beneath each calligraphy, and English translation is provided. Photo / Kelly Obaete

Chinese road companies edged out

It is the first time in a long while that African contractors are finally back on major trunk road construction in Kenya, beating the Chinese, who had come to dominate national and county government roads. Of course it helps that Shovels & Trowels belongs to Chepkirui Kones, the wife of Belgut MP and Chair Departmental Committee on Defense, Intelligence and Foreign Relations, Nelson Koech.

One can see the difference of contractors from the machines deployed, the speed of construction, dredging sleeves onto the sides of Mombasa Road to reinstate lanes, plastering a layer of tarmac and mostly waving red flags, creating traffic with the lack of signage.

Over the last 10 years, local contractors have been squeezed out of the way by growing presence of Chinese contractors. By 2022, Chinese companies controlled 85 percent of National trunk road contracts under Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) and a half of Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) across urban roads in counties.

Just a handful Chinese companies amassed road and infrastructure contracts worth Kes1 trillion under the Jubilee administration. Kenyan contractors were left fighting for small roads and sub contracts. In the period, they were muscled out by cheaper financing and state-backed terms on machinery imports.

The image of Chinese contractors in a sun brim cap and overalls smoking cigarettes from Beijing almost formed part of the travel vistas along the scrub of acacia trees. The frugal prefab units where technical engineers lived alongside the projects they built, became almost analogous with the way the Chinese did contracting. In a way, this explained the lower costs of projects compared to the West, who splash luxuries on their ‘expats’ at the builders cost.

End of ‘Going Out’

But the mortar has ground to a halt as China’s ‘Going Out’ decade comes to an end. Interestingly, it is at this point Kenya’s new administration is pivoting back to the West amidst huge debt.

While these trifle tender wars may seem small, it signals the changes in official state contracting against the Chinese. This comes as China changes how it does business in Africa from mega projects to ‘small is beautiful’ model.

When the Jubilee regime ascended to power it coincided with the rise of China’s President Xi Jinping. President Xi set out a new strategy to expand Chinese influence rapidly through global infrastructure. And the Jubilee party became a huge beneficiary of loans from China. Infrastructure and influence saw state-backed CRBC and CCCC maul the lion’s share of Kenya’s mega projects. These two multinationals bagged at least two railways, two ports and 23 road projects.

But after ten years, the golden era was coming to an end. China, which used to splurge $80 billion (Kes11.5 trillion) on 150 projects in the mid 2010, was all of a sudden only spending $10.5 billion (Kes1.5 trillion) on just 28 projects in Africa.

This was driven by the bursting of a property bubble in China and the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s more, years of probing secret contracts like SGR have raised viability concerns, graft, and conflict of interest issues. Further, these projects have lumped disproportionate debt on Kenya.

This meant that Kenya’s largest bilateral lender would cut back on debts. As a result, China’s loans under President William Ruto’s first full-year budget fell to Kes1.74 billion. This was the smallest credit on record in 16 years. In contrast, Beijing had lent President Uhuru Kes29.5 billion in his last year in office and Kes71.2 billion in 2017.

Small is Beautiful; China’s new stock in trade

As a result, the Chinese have shifted to a strategy called ‘Small is Beautiful.’ They are moving towards projects structured like the Nairobi Expressway where a private company enters deals with government to create financially viable ventures on small scale.

“‘Small is beautiful’, a phrase becoming popular in Chinese official language regarding its focus on Africa, means that projects are increasingly being financed with smaller loans and shorter repayment windows,” a policy brief by the South African Institute of International Affairs read.

As President Xi Jinping starts his Africa tour in Johannesburg today and is expected to co-chair the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue, he would be keen on the success of his strategy shift on Chinese approach to Kenya.

China is sneaking back into the good books of Kenya under President William Ruto, who has pivoted to the Americans. During campaigns, the then Deputy President promised to reveal secret Chinese railway contracts and deport foreign nationals, including Chinese working illegally in Kenya and operating small retail businesses that could be done by locals.

But upon entry into office, the practicality of decoupling Kenya’s largest source of imports, biggest bilateral lender and a powerful player on the geopolitical space directly invested in Kenya’s strategic location was easier said than done.

“The Chinese government has been waiting carefully, knowing that even if Kenya has pivoted to the West it cannot ignore Chinese influence. Kenya needs them to balance with the west if authorities want to survive the current geopolitical space,” said Dr Oscar Otele, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Political Science and Public Administration.

Read also: Lost above Nairobi’s trees

Ruto’s UDA to learn from Communist Party of China

Last week, China held the inaugural China-Kenya film festival. Then Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingjian, offered to help develop Dr Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance into the image of Communist Party of China (CPC). Officials say the UDA officials will soon visit China as relations continue to thaw.

Presently, however, the large-scale Chinese presence is reducing as Kenya cancels road projects on thin budget. Kenya is cutting back on its spending, culling several road projects under state rationalization plans. Overall, the construction sector decelerate to 3.1 percent in the first quarter of this year from six percent in 2022.  

In the construction sector, Kenya saw shrinking volumes of imported Bitumen, iron and steel. This is coinciding with a Kes13.5 billion drop in Chinese imports in the five months to May. In comparison, this was seven percent decrease from a similar period last year.

All of a sudden, the road projects that earned Kenya the moniker of one huge construction site complete with humming earthmovers round-the-clock came to a halt.  And without the roads, the Chinese have disappeared.

For instance, Chinese Overseas Construction and Engineering Company China Railway Number 10, sent away workers on unpaid leave according to the workers disputing delayed eight-month pay from the company building Kisumu Boys Roundabout-Mamboleo and Mamboleo-Miwani-Muhoroni road.

And while China’s presence has all but vanished, they still maintain a vibrant presence outside the construction centre. A visit to China Town off Ring Road Kilimani and Kindaruma Road, shows the community remain resilient albeit living true to new mantra of small is beautiful. China town is a small market serving the Chinese community as if attached to their Embassy.

The eatery at China Towm has inviting homemade noodles, peking duck, soup dumplings and pork innards. All these carefully whipped dishes export the Chinese cuisine to Kenya, enriching cultural exchange and therefore soft power. Photo / Kelly Obaete

Nairobi’s China Town

At China Town, the Mandarin strokes jump at you like martial arts that could keep you away. If you come closer, they sit as if they can take you on their beautiful calligraphy. What’s more, beneath each calligraphy, an English translation is provided.

While China Town mainly serves the Chinese community with condiments, and rice liquor, it is open to everyone. The eatery has inviting homemade noodles, peking duck, soup dumplings and pork innards. All these carefully whipped dishes export the Chinese cuisine to Kenya, enriching cultural exchange.

Over the decade, China has been more successful exerting soft power on Kenya and African elite. The country has, however, done little to penetrate the continent at the level of the common man.

China has struggled to wedge Mandarin into the palette of Kenyans’ language. The only attempts were through university students under Confucius institutes. Last year, the University of Nairobi’s Confucius Institute, had over 500 students enrolled in different proficiency-level Chinese classes. Currently, estimates put just over 2,400 Kenyans as having enrolled in different Chinese universities by 2019.

This demand for Mandarin is riding on availability of construction jobs when the Chinese builders ruled Kenyan roads. Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingjian, said Beijing is noticing rising interest in Chinese language by local students and citizens.

“Chinese language ability may open a big door and provide you a sure way to understand China, its foreign policy and predict its future,” said Dr Zhou.

China signage in Mandarin

China seemingly insists on placing signage in Mandarin. Beijing has been placing the calligraphy into public spaces especially around the infrastructure it puts up like the SGR. As a result, roughly 10,000 local workers as masons, mechanics, carpenters, and heavy construction equipment operators and the 38,000 temporary labourers, who worked on the railway over three years interacted with Mandarin in text manuals and safety instructions.

This is because it has been almost impossible to break the advantage of the West, which had a structural advantage having colonized Africa. Britain and France imposed their languages on the locals, making their messaging pervasive.

My generation and older grew up with the lyrics of American Hip Hop artists, branded in Nike and Adidas. The more affluent wore Ralph Laurens Polo’s and Calvin Kleins. Ubiquitous American shows, and basketball and football sports were instrumental in pushing soft power influence and helping the West export goods to Africa.

Instead, China is trying to catch up on the pop-culture space and recently held the inaugural China-Kenya film festival, screening 14 Chinese films. A total of 12 films are now in Swahili to boosting Sino-Africa cooperation and cultural exchanges.

China is also sponsoring students and faculty to study in the Asian country, but Dr Otele, a recipient of this offering said the engagement has not been structural.

“China has only been successful in advancing its module to the political elite, it has not trickled down to the masses. Chinese media in Kenya is still elitist, using the Confucius Institutes also gives them access only to the elite and even for us, the beneficiaries of their scholarships, the engagement has not been structural in terms of building networks and trying to make us brand ambassadors,” Dr Otele said.

Presidents from the BRICS economic bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will hold three days of meetings in Johannesburg’s financial district of Sandton starting today, with Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s attendance underlining the diplomatic capital China has invested in the bloc over the last 10 years.

Cheaper source of imports

But where China has struggled with the soft power necessary to push commercial agenda beyond concrete and debt, it is compensating with costs. Cheaper Chinese alternatives allow Kenya to muscle into China, the largest source market for imports. Kenyan traders import electrical and electronic equipment, machinery, iron and steel, plastics, articles of apparel and furniture from China

One wonders whether with the current inflation pushing up the cost of Western fast-food cuisine of burgers and pizza will finally push Kenyans to try fairly priced dumplings instead.

At China Town, the waiter, a Kenyan man hired to do the service and translation for the business owners, who only speak Chinese by design or because they have no proficiency in English, trains us how to use the chopsticks.

You place it on your index finger, support it with the other fingers and use your thumb to pick up chunks of meat floating in a broth of steaming boiled noodles. Occasionally, he takes an order from his employer in casual Chinese, impressing us well. Did he learn Chinese in at the Confucius Institute before coming here? “No, when I came here, I could not speak it, but I learned it. They do not speak any other language here, so we learn,” he said.

And so, with every casual laborer at small businesses learning Mandarin, maybe Chinese will be more effective pushing soft power, selling noodle soup and maybe continue their run with mega infrastructure. Truly, ‘Small is Beautiful’.

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