Two stories from Reuters this week show China backing major road projects in Africa. While many accounts of “China in Africa” emphasize Chinese involvement in the energy sector, these reports underline the extent to which China is flexing economic muscle in diverse and important areas of African life, including infrastructure.
In Kenya, where the government is launching “its most ambitious infrastructure investment programme ever,” Chinese firms are outcompeting local firms to win contracts to build roads.
“You have to be competitive vis-a-vis the Chinese in terms of costs, quality and speed,” Raila Odinga told a conference called by the ministry of roads to find ways of increasing the involvement of local firms in construction projects.
Although China’s increasing economic presence in Africa has aroused fears of excessive dominance, Chinese contractors have won admiration from Kenyans due to their efficiency and speed, which have helped lift the country’s dilapidated road network in recent years. Typically, Chinese road-building contractors employ some Kenyan workers mainly as labourers.
In Ghana, the government signed a loan agreement with China in September for $13 billion. Over 20% of that money will now go to improving roads, further fueling the economic boom in Ghana.
These projects will have a cultural as well as an economic impact. The cultural impact could include resentment against China (as we see with some Kenyan contractors), but could also boost China’s image in these African countries. When Kenyan and Ghanaian motorists drive along new roads and think, “These are here (partly) because of China,” that could foster the impression that China is making a positive difference on the continent, not just for elites and governments but even for ordinary citizens. This is a dynamic to keep an eye on.
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