Planes, trains, and automobiles: East Africa’s massive infrastructure project begins

It is a massive infrastructure project originating from Kenya, consisting of a 32-berth port on the country’s north coast, a railway, an oil pipeline, highways, international airports, and resort cities.

LAPSSET stands for “Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor,” a project to connect Kenya with South Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually west Africa.

One of the project’s creators, Gerrishon Ikiara, was Kenya’s permanent secretary for the Ministry of Transport from 2003 to 2008.

“You know, for a long time, the products for the exports and imports going to those countries and other countries within east Africa, they have been uncompetitive in international markets because of the costs of transportation, which has been taking as much as 30% of the value of those product,” said Ikiara. “It [LAPSSET] will make the countries’ exports much more efficient and rise in value and so forth.”

LAPSSET corporate affairs officer Benson Thuita says dredging of the first berth at the new Lamu port began in 2016. A new road linking Isiolo to Moyale, on the border of Ethiopia, was finished in September. He says the new Isiolo airport is ready to start operations; once open, it will facilitate the export of beef and the stimulant miraa to the Middle East.

Regional circumstances changing

Steve McDonald, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, says the project has the potential to be a great advantage for the region, but circumstances have changed since its inception.

“The security situation in east Africa, the border situations between South Sudan and Kenya, the border situations between South Sudan and Ethiopia, the refugee flows in Uganda and Kenya and Ethiopia, the security situation is very, very dicey. And that is going to be a real challenge,” said McDonald.

Ikiara, on the other hand, believes the project may improve security

“It is likely to open up the whole of northern Kenya, which for a long time has been a neglected area, and even help to possibly improve security and increase other economic activities,” he said.

But other issues are also at stake. In 2012, the group Save Lamu filed a petition against the government, warning of environmental degradation, “unprecedented” levels of population growth, and of the destruction of the town’s cultural heritage. Lamu, whose old town is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, survives on tourism.

Save Lamu chairman Abubakar Mohamed Ali says that mangroves have been destroyed and local fishermen are trying to figure out how they will earn a living once their normal fishing grounds are occupied.

“So all these things matter a lot, towards these projects,” said Ali.

Despite these issues, Ali says he is now in favor of the project, in part because the Kenyan government has compensated local landowners, with some receiving the relatively large sum of about US$14,500 for one-acre plots. And, Ali says the government is sending locals for training programmes to make them employable.

LAPPSET is an estimated $24bn project, relying heavily on public-private partnership initiatives for funding. – VOA