China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa: Kenya’s pivotal role

China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa: Kenya’s pivotal role


08 | 03 | 2024


An evaluation of the benefits that the BRI has meant for Kenyans and the complains about quality of the infrastructure, labour, and debt

In the image

Nairobi train station for the Madaraka Express to Mombasa [Kenya Railways]

The People’s Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping first announced what was originally called the ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative’ in 2013 during official visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. It consisted of two elements: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. His plan sought to create a vast network extending to the West, South, and Southeastern regions of Asia. This analysis will focus on the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will keep an eye on Africa, and specifically on Kenya, a country that has been dubbed Africa’s main ‘door to the East’.

Once a British colony, Kenya has rapidly risen since it achieved independence in the 1960s to become one of the key players within the region of East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its foreign policy has especially propelled its growth as it has strategically transformed its traditional donor-recipient position to a more dynamic approach focused on bilateral and multilateral relations with several international actors. The nation’s strategic location makes it extremely desirable as a foreign investment destination. Thus, Kenya has widened its horizons as well as its potential by pursuing diversifications in partnerships. Through the years they have increasingly fostered South-South cooperation with China and Russia while also maintaining its pre-existing relationships with other powers such as the United Kingdom and the United States. As such, the rising star of East Africa increasingly acts as a shining example for the African continent, other developing countries, and an increasingly multipolar international relations in promoting regional integration, dynamism, cooperation, and fostering mutually beneficial economic ties.

The BRI project

China’s revival of the Silk Road through its BRI project is concerned with far more than just infrastructure. It is an attempt to strengthen China’s economic and political might while cultivating a wider, more interconnected market for the country as well as establishing the prerequisites for the nation to establish a high-tech economy. The BRI is seen as a key element of China’s vision of becoming a global leader in the 21st century.

There are three main motivations for the BRI. First, is China’s rivalry with the United States as the BRI initiative crucially establishes its own alternate trade routes that have been deemed more secure. China’s unambiguous intention is to establish interdependence between nations participating in trade with them and the Chinese economy. Second, was the impact of the 2008 financial crisis as the Belt and Road Initiative provided China’s giant state-owned enterprises with an alternative market beyond the nation’s borders. Lastly, the Belt and Road Initiative is seen as a key element in the Chinese government’s efforts to revitalize the economy of its central provinces. The government aims to utilize the BRI to promote and support businesses in these key regions, providing generous budgets and encouraging competition between companies for contracts.

Furthermore, the BRI is globally relevant in today’s highly interconnected world for several reasons. Firstly, it is a key part of China’s foreign policy and its efforts to expand its global influence. The initiative’s participating countries, alongside China, account for 40% of global GDP. Moreover, about 63% of the world’s population lives within BRI member countries. Secondly, the BRI is seen as a way to promote economic growth and development in participating countries, of which many are emerging economies. By investing in infrastructure and other projects, China hopes to spur economic activity and create new markets for Chinese goods and services. Thirdly, the BRI is seen as a way to promote regional stability and security. Finally, the BRI is seen as a way to promote China’s vision of a new world order that is more multipolar and less dominated by the United States as well as the West.

As of 2023, the initiative has been joined by over 140 countries and international organizations that have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) or cooperation agreement with China. They span across Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. There are forty-four members from sub-Saharan Africa, thirty-four from Europe and Central Asia, twenty-five from East Asia and the Pacific, twenty-two from Latin America and the Caribbean, nineteen from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and six from South Asia. Some notable countries that have joined the initiative include Pakistan, Russia, and Indonesia.

Membership is pronouncedly biased towards the Global South. Beijing’s visions and opportunities for the future have found the most purchase in these emerging markets and, as such, will most likely continue to focus its efforts on this sector. President Xi has notably emphasized promoting South-South solidarity.

Countries not participating in BRI are most likely to be in Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This could be attributed to them having the largest shares of collective defense agreements with the US. In addition, these nations are characteristically the most democratic, politically stable, and economically developed.

It is significant to note that about 50% of the countries that have signed cooperation agreements to participate in the Belt and Road are located in sub-Saharan Africa. These nations have the fewest collective defense agreements with the United States and have been traditionally categorized by researchers as the least democratic, the least politically stable, and the least economically developed.

The BRI in Kenya

The bilateral relationship between Kenya and China has existed for more than two millennia, specifically in the context of the Maritime Silk Road. The modern chapter of Chinese relations began under President Jomo Kenyatta’s administration from 1963 to 1978. Kenyatta’s approach was focused on non-interference and decolonisation of Africa. Despite initial economic strides in economic engagement with China, Kenyatta prioritized collaboration with the traditional powers of Western Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. This continued in the administration of President Arap Moi (1978-2002) which still expressed skepticism towards working with the Chinese.

However, the 1990s saw a shift as Kenya diversified its economic partnerships by engaging with non-Western economies such as China. President Moi’s dispatch of a new ambassador to Beijing in 1978 marked a turning point, breathing new life into the bilateral relations in the form of economic agreements, infrastructural projects, and cultural exchanges. These relations were further deepened by President Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki's era (2002-2012) as there was a substantial deepening of ties during his historic visit to Beijing in 2005. Moreover, the introduction of the ‘Look East Policy’ signaled a strategic shift that emphasized collaboration with China and other Eastern nations over its Western counterparts. This policy has reshaped the geopolitical landscape, weakening ties with the West while fostering increased agreements and political visits with China

The BRI has grown as a means of fostering various connectivity and has garnered widespread participation with 52 out of 55 African Union member states being involved since April 2013. Kenya officially joined this initiative in 2018 during Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. The BRI has a combination of strategic and economic considerations which are relevant to Chinese state-owned enterprises. The objective of a favorable international environment is to further propel China’s economic development. For Kenya, the BRI project aligns with its vision for 2030 which concerns the long-term development that is motivated by a collective aspiration for a better society with a high quality of life.

Of China’s many partners in Africa, Kenya has experienced especially revolutionized infrastructure development. This marks a significant departure from the skepticism of traditional narratives concerning Africa. China has instead positioned itself as a supportive ally, invested in utilizing Africa's abundant resources and future market potential.

In Kenya, the BRI has played a pivotal role in advancing modern transport with notable achievements such as the Mombasa-Nairobi railway flagship project that is in alignment with Kenya’s 2030 vision. China’s investments have increased railways, roads, ports, dams, industries, digital connectivity, and airports. All of which have a significant positive impact on the region’s economic growth, job creation, and cultural exchange. Port projects such as the Mombasa Port and oil terminal improvements have demonstrated the initiative’s focused commitment to efficiency in transportation. Kenya’s dedication to fostering free trade, open economies, and collaboration with China under the BRI promotes free trade and global cooperation while also resisting anti-globalization trends like protectionism and isolationism that have recently risen in many regions of the Global North.

First, one of the most tangible outcomes of the BRI in Kenya is the significant infrastructure improvement. Over the past decade, Chinese investment has led to the development of ports, railway lines, and airport enhancements. This has addressed critical gaps in the country’s transportation infrastructure. The most significant project has been the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) which has revolutionized travel between Nairobi and Mombasa, making it both convenient and affordable for 10 million passengers since 2017. The SGR cargo train has become the preferred choice for businesses and facilitates the efficient movement of goods from the Port of Mombasa. This has bolstered Kenya’s business and Service sectors and transformed the overall economic landscape of the country.

Second, through partnerships with Chinese technology companies such as Huawei, Kenya has seen significant growth in the digital economy. The efficient implementation of high-speed internet infrastructure and modern telecommunication has created a thriving online environment. Safaricom, Kenya's largest mobile telecommunications company, has leveraged Chinese expertise to launch an innovative mobile money transfer system. This has further integrated digital solutions into the daily lives of Kenyans. High-quality smart devices and high-speed infrastructure have empowered Kenyans to engage in business not only within the country but also on an international scale.

Konza Technopolis, also known as the African Silicon Valley, is a technology hub under construction by the Kenyan government located 64 kilometers south of Nairobi. This project is being developed for $14.5 billion [all figures are in US dollars] and will soon be Kenya’s future hub for business process outsourcing, software development, data centers, disaster recovery centers, and call centers as well as light assembly manufacturing industries. The Konza Technopolis aims to have more Chinese investors in order to facilitate further this project as emphasized by its Development Authority.

Lastly, China's partnership with Kenya has extended into the agricultural sector, recognizing its pivotal role in bringing economic growth and ensuring food security as 65-70% of the labor force is employed in agriculture making it a key focus for development. So far there have been no reports on China’s participation in land grabbing as the Chinese have extended their presence in this sector. The BRI has aided in the exchange of knowledge and technology which has enhanced the modernization of Kenya’s agriculture. Moreover, Chinese institutions have collaborated with Kenyan research centers to develop high-yielding seed varieties and combat diseases. The Sino-Africa Joint Research Center hosted at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture Technology exemplifies the collaborative efforts to boost agricultural productivity. China’s expertise has been instrumental in adapting agricultural technologies to local conditions as well as addressing important challenges such as drought.

According to Kenyan authorities, involvement in the BRI is aimed at accelerating the implementation of its national development strategies. Launched in 2008, the Kenya ‘Vision 2030 Program’ aims to make Kenya a newly industrialized country by 2030 based on economic, social, and political pillars. The economic component is focused on creating several special economic zones such as the free port of Dongo Kundu bypass whose construction began in 2018. The vision is complemented by the Big Four agenda which refers to President Kenyatt’s legacy projects launched in 2017 in the following sectors:

Affordable Housing: To deepen affordable housing and thus find solutions to urbanization issues (500,000 housing units to be built by 2023). The aim is to provide decent and affordable housing to low-income earners. This includes initiatives to streamline the process of acquiring land, incentivize private sector investment in housing projects, and promote innovative financing mechanisms for home ownership.

Universal Healthcare: The aim is to achieve universal healthcare coverage for all Kenyans, ensuring equal access to quality healthcare services without financial hardship. This involves reforming the healthcare system, strengthening primary healthcare services, as well as expanding healthcare services and health insurance coverage in order to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for medical treatment.

Enhancing Manufacturing: Boosting the manufacturing sector to Kenya’s GDP equally propels local production and promotes industrialization. This involves having initiatives to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), improve infrastructure, as well as increase access to credit, and attract both domestic and foreign investment.

Developing Agriculture to Attain Food Security to Combat Malnutrition:  The goal is to enhance food security and improve nutrition outcomes by increasing agricultural productivity. This is by promoting agribusiness and value addition as well as addressing the challenges of post-harvest losses and food wastage. This pillar is focused on sustainable agriculture practices, irrigation schemes, and support for smallholder farmers.

In order for Kenya to achieve these priorities, the BRI is an especially feasible mechanism for significant resources and the modernization of the country's infrastructure.

China sees Kenya’s role in leading the opportunities in East Africa. Kenya can play a vital role in becoming a manufacturing and assembly hub for all sorts of Chinese products that could be exported across Africa. Additionally, China’s deepening economic ties further China's national security interest as they are also able to secure maritime safety from pirates along the major sea lanes connecting East Africa to Chinese ports. Moreover, China’s involvement in the area can be a way to counter Western influence.  

Benefits for Kenyans and some complains

A recent report released by the Africa Policy Institute highlights the significant impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on Kenya's development landscape. With the installation of the SGR, there has been a revealing case study of both the positive impacts and challenges associated with the BRI. The most significant effect of the SGR was connecting the largest port city Mombasa to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. This infrastructure upgrade has led to improved transportation and created 30,000 jobs which has led to exponential economic growth. Moreover, this project has shown an increase in trade, investment, and employment opportunities for the East African community which is in alignment with Kenya’s development goals. The BRI has enabled the development of infrastructure projects spanning 172 countries which include Kenya’s SGR which boasts Africa’s second largest underground tunnel and has become a tourist attraction. This initiative has fostered closer ties between China and Kenya, exemplified by educational opportunities such as scholarships and training programs, benefiting thousands of Kenyan students.

Kenya’s relationship with China has proven beneficial for the country’s economy and strengthened its power within East Africa. Kenyan political views have changed concerning its relation to the Chinese as the country’s infrastructural development continues to build a powerful economy. Kenya has benefited from a large amount of infrastructural projects which include: 13 grant projects amounting to around $102 million, four preferential loan projects of approximately $292 million, fourteen commercial projects amounting to commercial projects amounting to $8.545 billion, along with other investment projects approximating $564 million.

Despite this economic and infrastructural development, there are still challenges raising concerns about debt sustainability and equitable distribution of benefits. The initial optimism of the SGR project has faced economic challenges such as deficient planning, overestimation of profitability, and inflated construction. The Export-Import Bank of China provided loans worth $3.2 billion for the construction which increased Kenya’s debt to China. The assumption of the SGR was that it would generate enough revenue to cover operating expenses and loan repayments. The Kenyan government has struggled to get businesses to use the SGR as it costs more than the equivalent journey by truck.

Furthermore, the SGR project raises concerns about Kenya’s ability to repay loans. While the SGR has created jobs, complaints have arisen about the quality and nature of employment with many positions being unskilled and low-paying. There have been protests and riots due to Chinese infrastructure projects due to their lack of human capital growth. A common complaint is that there is not enough transparency when it comes to giving Kenyan jobs. There is a growing perception that the interests of the Kenyan elite and China’s economic gains are at odds with the well-being of Kenya as issues such as corruption, governance gaps, and weak financial foundations contribute to a sense of inequality. Kenyan workers face discrimination by Chinese corporations as evidenced by segregation policies and underpayment.

Chinese migrants in Kenya have also experienced xenophobia, thus highlighting the tensions between the local population and foreign workers. There have been various reports of physical and verbal abuse from Chinese administrative workers towards Kenyan workers on the SGR. As the Chinese presence in Kenya has grown so has racism and xenophobia leading to the promotion of polarization between the Kenyan and Chinese people. For instance, towards the end of 2019, it was discovered that an estimated 180,000 Chinese workers were working in Chinese state-owned companies in Kenya. Moreover, many Kenyan workers experience discrimination, poor work conditions alongside poor pay. Additionally, in 2018, the international press published an article about a relationship between a Chinese boss and his employees at a Chinese motorcycle company in Kenya, where a worker reported that their boss would frequently refer to them as “monkeys”. This resulted in the deportation of the Chinese boss back to China.

In Nairobi, young workers in their twenties and thirties share experiences of racism or discrimination they have observed. For example, one recounted witnessing a Chinese manager slap her Kenyan female colleague for a minor error. Additionally, Kenyan employees revealed that office bathrooms were segregated by race, with one designated for Chinese workers and the other for Kenyans. Another worker shared how a Chinese manager instructed Kenyan employees to clear a urinal of cigarette butts, despite only Chinese staff smoking inside. As the Chinese presence in Kenya has grown so has racism and xenophobia leading to the promotion of polarization between the Kenyan and Chinese people, which can lead to further difficulty in having a mutually beneficial relationship between the two nations.

Survey data suggests that the US and China are both viewed positively within Kenya as, respectively, 89% and 75% of adults hold favorable views of one country over the other. However, Kenya’s sentiments towards the long-term and short-term impacts of the BRI are different. Fear of unemployment, debt, and displacement is typically associated with the short-term effects of BRI projects with 62% of Kenyans, fearing that an increase in Chinese workers will increase Kenya’s unemployment rate. Moreover, there are mixed sentiments that US involvement in Kenya is increasing. The positive sentiments concerning US involvement are related to increased security, a transfer of training and knowledge, and new advanced technology among others. However, there is hesitancy due to the fear of attracting enemies, general distrust, and reminiscence of colonialism.

As China and Kenya continue to deepen their relationship and further their diplomatic relations, the elements of transparency, fairness, adherence to environmental standards, and mutual respect between the two nations are paramount to ensure that the long-term benefits of the BRI are felt by both parties.


In summary, China’s investment in Africa through the Belt and Road initiative has, so far, proven to be a successful project in Kenya. The future of the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa has the potential for further infrastructure development, economic growth, and improved connectivity. However, it is essential that both China and African countries engage with the BRI in a way that ensures transparency, sustainability, and mutual benefit while also safeguarding their sovereignty and national interests. Continuing dialogue, strategic planning, and active collaboration will be crucial for maximizing the potential benefits of the BRI for Africa’s long-term development.