NAIROBI, Jan 6 - Kenya and Uganda plan to build a new railway from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to cope with increased trade between the east African countries and their landlocked neighbours, officials said on Tuesday.
The two countries are now served by a metre-gauge track built at the turn of the 20th century and officials say it carries less than 6 percent of freight destined for Kenya's interior and countries in the region.
Kenyan Transport Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere told a meeting of Ugandan and Kenyan government officials that Mombasa handled more than 16 million tonnes of cargo annually and this was expected to rise to 30 million tonnes per year by 2030.
Mwakwere put the cost of constructing the new railway at about $3.5 billion and said the two governments were still working on how to structure the financing options.
The line would extend to Rwanda, Ethiopia, southern Sudan and Burundi. Mwakwere said it should be ready by 2017.
That we are finally planning to tackle the issue of our derelict railway is music to the ears.
Just to rehash, some basic facts about our situation;We are a landlocked country and as result our transportation costs are relatively higher than our neighbours Kenya or Tanzania. Despite this our economic model has been designed to mirror the East Asian model of export led growth. We produce little or no manufactured goods so all our exports are bulky, low-value commodities like coffee, tea and cow hides. But even our exports of these bottom-of-the-food-chain items are frustrated by perpetually poor roads and an antiquated railway system that can not cope.
As a result despite the bountiful harvest we live in we exported $1.37b in 2007. Our less physically endowed neighbour Kenya doubled its exports to $5b last year while Tanzania exported about the same.
For fear of looking a gift horse in the mouth, one has got to wonder given the facts above why it took so long to get to this point? It is even more painful when you think that given the best projections the railway line will be ready by 2017?
In the book “The Third Force” author Alvin Toffler charts the course of world power – the ability to influence events, from the days of the cave man to the present.
In the beginning muscle power determined influence, the man or woman with the biggest muscles laid down the law. But with larger population coercive force could only go so far and that is where money came into play, with money you could not only buy armies – coercive force, but you could also pay off people in order to have your way. Now information is king, the one who can generate, transmit and utilize the most information will run the show. Information now dictates the strength of your armies and how rich you can be.
Toffler notes that the north-south wealth divide pales in comparison to the asymmetry of the north-south information divide, which invariably will widen the wealth gap.
The course of economic history suggests you have to progress from the agrarian to the industrial to the information age. The transition from one age to another is financed by the surpluses of the previous age, so food surpluses from the agrarian age made the industrial age possible and surpluses of capital – money, infrastructure and human resource are now making the information age possible.
So in replacing more than a 100-year old rail line and extending it into the region we are, in effect still trying to accumulate the capital to fully participate in our own industrial age.
But the reality is a bit more complicated. Our agrarian revolution has not happened – thanks to our land tenure system issues among other things, our industrial revolution can be said to be in its pre-conception and we are logged into the information age in a very rudimentary way.
This suggests that our regional leadership need to think on multiple planes and seeing as we are hundreds of years behind the curve, speed is of the essence.
Panasonic founder Kanosuke Matsushita, venerated as the god of management in Japan, had a 500-year plan for his company, our leaders need to think at least 10 years ahead and this is beyond drawing up wish lists, to actually mapping out concrete plans with various scenarios.
The challenge is to fast track the region’s populations past the agrarian, industrial and into the information age in a generation, a challenge that demands longer term planning than they are used to doing.
Published January 2009, New Vision