Bridging divides in Kenya: lessons from a Chinese construction project

As China’s presence grows in Africa, so does its responsibility to ensure that its investments benefit local economies and people. A recent Saferworld project supported a Chinese company to ensure the construction of a vital bridge in Kenya would contribute to peace rather than create or worsen local tensions.

China’s visibility in Africa has grown rapidly over the past decade. As Africa’s largest trading partner, Chinese products line the shelves of shops, and its investments – such as roads, buildings and telecommunications – can be seen from Cairo to Johannesburg. However, in a time of rapid growth and investment, and in a bid to win contracts over their competitors, Chinese companies don’t focus on the effects their infrastructure projects can have on local people.

“Many of these companies are focused on winning the contract and beating out the competition, which means they sometimes have to cut costs,” said Zhang Hui, Saferworld’s China Programme Manager. “Local conflict dynamics are often little more than an afterthought.”

In 2015, the China Overseas Engineering Group Co., Ltd (COVEC) won a contract from the Kenyan Government to build a bridge on the river Nzoia in Busia County in Kenya. The bridge – spanning 100 metres and connecting Sigiri and Khainga villages – was meant to prevent perilous trips across the river which had in the past led to fatal accidents, including the deaths of as many as 18 people in a single incident several years ago.

Saferworld was invited to advise COVEC on how they could make sure that they did not create or contribute to local tensions, and to facilitate dialogue between the company’s management and communities. “We wanted to know how the local community saw our work, and we wanted to improve our communications with them,” said Zhu He, Project Manager of COVEC.

“We wanted to accomplish three things,” said Saferworld’s Zhang Hui. “First, we wanted to understand the impact of the project on the local people and environment and to know where there were potential sources of tension, as well as find out more about community concerns and thoughts on the project. Second, we wanted to be able to facilitate regular dialogue between communities and the company, providing a space for each side to express their thoughts and concerns. And third, we wanted to encourage COVEC and the local communities to work together to address the issues they had raised in previous discussions.”

Together with COVEC, we facilitated an event where communities could express their concerns. These ranged from difficulties in communicating with COVEC, delayed compensation, limited local purchasing of materials, and a loss of livelihoods for some local workers. “The company is buying sand from outside,” said one representative from a youth group. “We collect sand from this river and we can provide it locally. Why can’t the company use our sand?”

Cultural and language barriers only increased frustrations. “The Chinese manager doesn’t like it when we chat during working hours,” said one local employee. “They are so quiet, and they expect us to be quiet too. But this is not us!”

We shared these concerns with COVEC managers in Kenya, and also with senior executives in Beijing. Their enthusiasm to learn more was a positive start. We provided recommendations on how to address some of the concerns that had been raised by local communities, including ways to maintain regular communication about key policies and guidelines on things like working conditions and buying material locally. We also suggested that the company ensure those who had lost work as a result of the project – such as canoe operators – would be prioritised for any future bridge maintenance work.    

We have seen an increasing level of communication between the two sides. “Now we understand what criteria the company has when buying sand,” said one local worker. “As a result, we have improved our sand quality and the company is buying more from us.”

Many recommendations were taken on board and helped to prevent tensions from building. For example, COVEC management participated in company-community forums to provide project updates and explain any changes to the construction schedule. They also rebuilt a school gate that had been knocked down for the construction, and began to hire more workers locally – helping to stimulate the local economy.

“We’ve learnt a lot from this experience that will help us to work with Chinese companies in the future,” said Zhang Hui. “Management really understood the value of community engagement, but at the more junior levels the message could get lost. There needs to be a fundamental shift away from a business-only mind-set, to one that acknowledges local realities. There also needs to be high-level buy-in to ensure that resources are set aside – for example, to designate a community liaison – to engage with local people”.

Chinese government support would enable companies to focus more on working with local communities – especially for Chinese state-owned enterprises. It is also crucial to engage with the host government – Kenya, in this case – to handle a range of issues such as compensation.

“We have learnt a lot from this experience,” said Zhu He. “We would encourage other colleagues in our company to continue speaking with communities in order to make sure that trust and understanding is built on both sides”.

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There needs to be a fundamental shift away from a business-only mind-set, to one that acknowledges local realities. There also needs to be high-level buy-in to ensure that resources are set aside – for example, to designate a community liaison – to engage with local people

Zhang Hui