BRI: The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway

BRI: The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway

In the second installment of the Belt Road Initiative series, Justin Du discusses the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, which will likely aid China's quest for control of Africa's natural resources.

Justin Du

In May 2017, the President of the Republic of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, attended the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (MNSGR) delivery ceremony. It also found a special mention in China's Lunar New Year celebrations in 2018.

The MNSGR is one of the flagship projects of the BRI, with over 3.8 billion dollars of building cost. The standard gauge railway is 472 kilometers (293miles) long with operating speeds of 120 km/hr. (75 mph) for passengers and 80 km/hr. (50mph) for freight, connecting the Nairobi South (inland Kenya) to the Mombasa West (Coastal Kenya).

In terms of population, Nairobi, the capital, and Mombasa, its oldest city, are the first and second ranking cities of modern Kenya. Mombasa was one of the most famous ancient cities in East Africa and also one of the few trade centers on the ancient maritime trade route where the Arabs traded slaves and ivory.


The Arabs built the earliest port of Mombasa in the 8th century, and the port town was visited by trade ships from Arabia, Persia, India, and Europe. The Portuguese, who built Fort Jesus, also significantly influenced the city of Mombasa. It is believed that Vasco da Gama was the first known European to visit Mombasa with the mission to spread Christianity and expand Portugal's trading area. Once discovered by the Europeans, Mombasa became the main trading center for spices, cotton, coffee, and slaves. No longer satisfied with just trading at the coastal areas of Africa, the imperialist powers extended their activities inland in search of more resources. East Africa, which lacks navigable rivers like the Niger, Congo, and Zambezi, could not be explored until new means of transport like the meter-gauge railway was invented.

The first-meter gauge railway in Mombasa was built by the British, the Uganda Railway. It connected the British East Africa Protectorate and remained as one of the significant landmarks in Kenya. Besides moving goods, it transported European tourists, in search of game and adventure, inland. The railway facilitated the growth of Nairobi, which later became the country's capital.

Uganda Rail Way poster circa early 1900's

The MNSGR is designed to run parallel to the Uganda Railway with a straighter alignment that accommodates higher speeds.

Import of the MNSGR

Three elements contribute to the significance of building a modern railway that connects Nairobi and Mombasa.

First, it links Kenya's capital to its most valuable coastal area, Mombasa. The port of Mombasa has maintained its significance from the 8th century to the modern days. It has an unparalleled natural advantage that allows East Africa to connect to the world commercially.

Second, the development of the MNSGR serves as an initiation project that opens the possibility of a more extensive and more sophisticated East Africa network. In the future, the MNSGR can extend its reach to countries like Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia; this network will benefit China greatly as the land of East Africa harbors a tremendous amount of strategic natural resources. For example, according to the Brookings, "Uganda has a reserve of 2 billion barrels of oil and expected government revenues of $3.2 billion per year for the period from 2010 to 2040." Should China successfully secure the partnership with these countries, it will effectively alleviate China's concern for resource overdependence. On the other hand, according to S&P Global, "East Africa is a new frontier for the discovery and exploitation of so-called "technology metals," including tin, lithium cobalt and gold." An investment such as the MNSGR allows China to secure these strategic minerals to advance its technological advancement and political influence.

Third, from China's perspective, completing this flagship project of the BRI will allow China to create an information cascade. As other developing countries recognize the project's success, they may be more open to BRI ventures. China's hope of advancing its global influence rests on the success of BRI. With the successful establishment of a strategic railway network and harbors in East Africa, the port around Mombasa is expected to achieve a handling capacity of 24 million metric-ton by 2030.  It is going to impact global economics and trade significantly.

The primary contractor of the MNSGR is, of course, China, specifically, the China Road & Bridge Corporation (CRBC). China has financed 90% of the project. According to Kenya's Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, the project has created more than seventy thousand local jobs, contributed 1.5% of its GDP growth, and decreased the expense of goods transportation from Nairobi to Mombasa by 10-40%.

At the same time, there are controversies linked to the project. First, according to the Daily Nation, the most circulated newspaper in Kenya, the MNSGR project is allegedly unimaginably corrupt and overpriced. The report states that the CRBC has spent hundreds of millions of Kenyan Shillings entertaining the Chinese officers; over a billion shilling for grass along the railway; such spending has unjustly put the Kenyans in significant debt and deprived their sovereignty. While China has refuted these reports as false and unreasonably one-sided, they have raised understandable concerns among the Kenyans.

Second, as a standard gauge railway that reaches deep into Kenya, MNSGR raises concerns about disturbing Africa's precious wildlife. According to Save The Elephants, an NGO from Kenya, instances of elephants killed by trains and vehicles during railway construction have increased. To ease the anxiety that has emerged, China has constructed paths for animals along the railway. However, its effect remains to be seen.

Despite the concerns, Kenya's government has remained excited and supportive of the project as officials believe trade-offs are unavoidable in advancing economic growth. According to James Shikwati, the Inter Region Economic Network director, "for the foreseeable future, the wealth and jobs created by the project" will stay in Kenya.

From China's perspective, the installment of MNSGR serves as an economic accelerator and strategic natural resources pipeline. For the past 10 to 15 years, Africa has been actively seeking infrastructure development. During this time, China has increased its trade with Africa 20 fold, while America has only doubled it.

Chinese strategy focuses on seeking cooperation by facilitating development. Investing in developing markets with lightning speed has become China's secret to successfully fostering collaboration with these countries. On the other hand, the establishment of MNSGR and the Lamu Port (a port at Manda Bay, Lamu, Kenya) will eventually allow the transportation of strategic natural resources from Africa to China. And Mombasa is expected to become the heart of the East Africa Corridor that connects Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia to the rest of the world.

Justin Du is an analyst interested in the nexus of geopolitics and economics, focusing on China.  

Anjali Krishnan edited the story.

TIPP Takes

Malaysia's $2.4b Project With China Railway Falls Through

Malaysia Mega Rail

Bandar Malaysia was slated to house the terminal for the now-defunct Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail link.

The government, developer Iskandar Waterfront Holdings (IWH), and a Chinese partner will not proceed with an equity deal for a planned megaproject near Malaysia's capital, the parties said in a joint statement.

The agreement between IWH and its partner China Railway Engineering Corp (CREC) to acquire 60 percent equity in the Bandar Malaysia mixed commercial project for 7.41 billion ringgit ($1.77 billion) expired on May 6 due to a failure to meet conditions, according to a statement issued on Wednesday.

WHO Proposes Fresh Covid-19 Mission To China And Lab Audits

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization

The World Health Organization proposed the second phase of research into the origins of the coronavirus in China, including audits of laboratories and markets in Wuhan, while urging authorities to be transparent.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, presented the plan to member states a day after stating that investigations were hampered by a lack of raw data on the first days of Covid-19 spread in China.

Dr. Tedros added that it would also necessitate "audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019."

"When it comes to traceability, all parties should respect science, scientists' opinions, and conclusions, and maintain an objective and fair attitude," he stated.

The WHO was only able to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January, more than a year after Covid-19 first surfaced there in late 2019, to help Chinese counterparts probe the pandemic origins.

IOC's Bach Calls For Solidarity In Hiroshima 1 Week Before Olympics

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach offers flowers at the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park on July 16, 2021, a week before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. (Pool photo)(Kyodo) ==Kyodo
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach offers flowers at the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park on July 16, 2021, a week before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. (Pool photo)(Kyodo) ==Kyodo

His trip coincided with the starting day of an Olympic truce, an idea dating back to ancient Greece and restored by the United Nations in 1993, calling for a worldwide cease-fire during the games.

The head of the International Olympic Committee traveled to Hiroshima and called for global solidarity in building a more peaceful future, amid opposition from some survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing on the city who say the visit ahead of the Tokyo Games beginning next week is politically motivated.

Thomas Bach's one-day trip from Tokyo to the western Japan city, which has been at the vanguard of the global campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, comes as public frustration persists over the IOC pushing ahead with the Olympics despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Eiffel Tower Reopens After Nine-Month COVID Closure

Eifel Tower

The 'Iron Lady' of Paris was ordered shut in October; now, visitors are allowed to enter after showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

The Eiffel Tower reopened to the public after a nine-month closure due to the COVID pandemic, the landmark's longest closure since World War II.

As a marching band played, the "Iron Lady's" lifts whisked tourists to its 300-meter (1,000-foot) summit and its majestic views of the French capital.

The number of daily visitors to the tower will be reduced from 25,000 to 13,000 per day. The French are expected to make up half of the visitors.

The opening comes after France reopened to international tourists this summer; however, the rules vary greatly depending on the country from which they are traveling.


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