Had everything gone according to plan, this August, the leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, the so-called Coalition of the Willing, would have inaugurated the first seamless railway operation between Mombasa and Kigali.
Conceived in the mid-2000s, the Northern Corridor Standard Gauge Railway project was supposed to connect Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda through the port of Mombasa.
At a summit in Nairobi last week, the leaders of the same three countries, this time joined by South Sudan, met to review progress. Despite a mixed report card – Kenya is laying its part of the metal even as its partners still struggle to commit funding – the project at least remains on the cards and is making headway.
The completed Nairobi-Mombasa section is now running six freight and two passenger trains a day. The Nairobi-Naivasha section is 50 per cent complete and funding for the onward leg to Kisumu and Malaba is in the pipeline.
Costly as it may be, the SGR project is significant because it represents radical and unified thinking by the region’s leaders. After decades of minimal investment in which businesses and citizens had to cope with barely functional infrastructure, the leaders have found a point of convergence on something that works for ordinary people.
Along the Southern Corridor, Tanzania is also moving to construct a new railway line that will connect the Central African hinterland to the port of Tanga. When fully developed, the new railway networks will give Africa an interconnected web linking the West and East African coasts for the first time.
Built in the 1890s, the Uganda Railway played an important role in taking East Africa’s exports, almost exclusively raw materials, to global markets. It was also the conduit through which manufactured goods found their way to consumers in the region.
That function has in recent times been delegated to road transport, significantly reducing the region’s competitiveness and contributing to the high cost of doing business. To give one example, it costs almost twice the shipping charges from Shanghai to Mombasa, to move a container of cargo from Mombasa to Kampala.
Today rail accounts for just under 10 per cent of all the cargo moving out of Mombasa; this is, however, not due to a lack of business but rather a deficit in rail transport.
Whatever the upcoming challenges, there is no turning back now. Kenya has taken the bull by the horns and more than ever, it is important that Uganda put its house in order and get its section of the SGR off the blocks.
Upwards of 90 per cent of Uganda’s international trade is through Mombasa and there is no way that volume can be redirected without a major upset to the regional economy.
Second, distance is key to the economy of rail so Uganda’s investment would be more feasible if it extended its section all the way to its borders with Rwanda, the DRC and South Sudan.
From the look of things, Kenya is likely to unlock financing for the remainder of its planned network in the in the next two months. That leaves very little time for Uganda and Rwanda to deliver seamless connectivity when the Kenya line reaches Malaba.