Tensions between nature and modern development are playing out in Kenya. For example, workers can be seen wrapping marigolds and other greenery around industrial beams at construction sites lining the Nairobi highway, in contrast to the ongoing welding and excavation activities.
“It’s nice to deal with some greenery; it’s a change,” said Julian Wandera, 32. “Especially as it gets hotter,” he added. He has been working on the highway since May 2021.
In addition to greening, Kenyan authorities have asked China Road and Bridge Corporation to plant more trees. This is part of the Kenyan government’s attempt to maintain higher environmental standards.
In late January, Mamo Boru Mamo, director of the National Environment Administration (NEMA), ordered China Road and Bridge Corporation to plant at least 3,000 saplings of various types within three months. The order was announced in mid-February; until the end of March, contractors will not only replace those trees that were pulled during construction but also contribute to Nairobi’s beautification process.
Neither the Chinese embassy in Nairobi nor China Road and Bridge Corporation responded to repeated requests for comment. However, the landscaping is part of their compliance with the Kenyan government’s greening order.
Last October, China announced its second Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build land and sea infrastructure projects from Asia to Africa in a greener way.
Mamo mentioned that the seedlings must meet the guidelines of the Kenya Forest Service to prevent the introduction of invasive species. Therefore, contractors have no choice but to comply with the order in a phone interview with VOA.
“We understand that they have been instructed to carry out these activities,” he said, adding that the directive was part of a preliminary environmental impact assessment approved along with the highway’s management plan.
The Nairobi Expressway is Kenya’s first large-scale public-private partnership project, launched in October 2019. The Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) has partnered with China Road and Bridge Corporation to design, build and finance the 27km road.
Kenya hopes the $600 million toll road will modernize and boost tourism. It links the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the east of the capital with the Nairobi-Nakuru road in the west.
In an interview with state television Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), Kenyan Transport Minister James Macharia said the road would reduce the city’s notorious traffic congestion from up to three hours during peak hours 20 minutes to the fastest time. Macharia added that this would save the cost of traffic congestion and create more jobs.
Vandra is one of about 6,000 Kenyans employed in the project. “We should be done by September 2022,” he told VOA. “I learned a lot during this process, and for the most part, we got along very well (with the Chinese).”
According to the National Environmental Administration’s (NEMA) environmental impact assessment, throughout the construction process, China Road and Bridge The company felled about 2,500 trees. Trees can slow air pollution, improve water quality, provide urban habitat for birds, small invertebrates, and insects, and improve a city’s overall livability.
Lestan Kimiri, project manager at the Mukogordo Forest Association, believes the Kenyan government is right to ask for tree replanting because they have evidence that biodiversity has been affected. In an email reply to VOA, he said it was part of the construction company’s corporate social responsibility.
“In modern times, everyone is trying to green our cities and towns. As the capital of Kenya, Nairobi is right to green it,” Kimiri said. “Remember the polluter-pays principle where the companies that emit carbon pay the associated costs? Planting trees and other vegetation is part of that.” He believes the NEA order will set a precedent for the environmental standards that foreign contractors expect.
As China’s engagement with African countries deepens, particularly in infrastructure development, questions about China’s commitment to advocating environmental standards have grown.
Elijah Munyi, assistant professor of international relations at American International University-Africa, studies politics and regime development of foreign direct investment in China-Africa relations in particular. African countries are developing domestic infrastructure and enacting environmental regulations, and the convergence of development and SDGs remains a crucial issue, he said in a phone interview with VOA.
Mony is skeptical that China will commit to maintaining high environmental standards. “I’m not entirely convinced. Because it’s just on Wyaki Road, it’s obvious. But, on the opposite hand, it can be an aesthetic coup against the government and (the Chinese),” he said. “I don’t think it’s a breakthrough development. It’s a little embellishment to a significant political project.”
Tyson Nuthu works in the outdoor industry in Nairobi. He also wondered whether the NEA order would not end in a public relations stunt. “The fundamental question has to be about accountability. Who’s going to make sure the NEA follows up on its environmental regulations?” he asked.
Given the tools required to access the highway, its primary users are expected to include embassy employees, politicians, and other high-level figures.