The Vision, the Superhighway, and the Local Poor

Buffalo Hills Ad (©Renard Teipelke)by Renard Teipelke

Kenya Vision 2030: “A national long-term development blue-print to create a globally competitive and prosperous nation with a high quality of life by 2030, that aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment.”

Sounds good, social, and sustainable. Let’s move on to the ‘Thika Superhighway’ – a formerly four-lane road between Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, and the industrial satellite town of Thika to the North, which was expanded to eight to twelve lanes for approximately 360 Mio. USD from 2009 to 2012:

Thika Highway Improvement Project:

Journalist: “It’s the best ever project for the country that will improve our transport system.”

Investor: “(…) it redefines the urban landscape of Nairobi.”

Researcher: “Thika Highway foremostly benefits Kenya as a nation. It is outward directed as a message that such a project can be realized.”

Kenya Vision 2030 (GoK)


Since 2008, the Kenyan government has been pursuing the implementation of its Vision 2030 through more than “120 transformational and cross-sector flagship projects” based on the vision’s economic, social, and political governance pillars. Thika Highway is one of the big flagships amongst all these projects, although the actual idea for the highway upgrade was already born decades before the government came up with its vision.

One could dig deeper into the development of Kenya Vision 2030 or the design of the Thika Highway Improvement Project, but I would like to look at the interrelation between these two and discuss the role of the ‘local poor’ vis-à-vis them.

From my in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in the Nairobi Metropolitan Region, I can say that Kenya Vision 2030 works (or better: performs) as a strong thought framework from which Kenya’s elite (politicians, investors, intellectuals, bureaucrats, etc.) views the development path and possible policies and projects for the country. Thika Highway is seen as the logical necessity for boosting all at once: the local socio-economic development, the hub function of the Nairobi Metropolitan Region, the nation’s economic growth, and the East African region’s trade interconnectivity.

Does this not sound perfect?! But practitioners as well as researchers know well from other cases that there is hardly ever a piece of the cake for every stakeholder. As supranational banking institutions like to admit: There are winners and losers.

Ruiru Gated Community (©Renard Teipelke)But in contrast to the assumptions of narrow-minded traditional economic theories, conscious decisions must be taken by those in power to make the way for some groups winning and other groups losing. Without any doubt, the Thika Highway Improvement Project has brought undeniable positive impacts to the peri-urban corridor area between Nairobi and Thika! But as one interviewee who studied this area for many years correctly pointed out: “None of that was depending on the highway. That was dependent more on land use and physical development planning. So you know, I think this idea that people have that you build a highway and all these things emerge from it is nonsense.”

Turning directly to losers that can be found along the Thika Highway corridor, I would like to just exemplify the impacts on the ‘local poor’ (and I apologize for this fuzzy category that will receive much more space for definition and discussion in the final master thesis for which I conducted this research):

Investor:Losers. (…) No. I think it benefits everybody.”

Researcher: “In lower rent places, the rents are going up, so now it’s becoming harder for poorer folks to go there.”

Government consultant:Like, right now, one of the things that you can be sure of is that the major part of the poor people are going to be thrown out very fast. (…) Usually when a road is done like that, it’s not supposed to go through built-up areas. But you find that we have done the road without the planning.”

Government official: “(…) Why they don’t take care for themselves? (…) I don’t know how (…) it’s the business of the Government to (…) compensate those people who have been hit otherwise by market forces?! (…) Government has better things to do, much more urgent things to do (…).”

Civil society representative: “We’ll find there very high-quality property or estates along the Superhighway, but of course the informal settlements along that corridor will not go away. They will still be there. So, I think they’re working hand in hand, because that is the practice in several parts, particularly in Nairobi.”

So is Kenya Vision 2030 a good undertaking? Is the Thika Highway Improvement Project catering both to the global and local needs of Kenya’s society and economy? …Those are complex questions. For now, I can conclude that decision makers in Kenya would be able to assess more precisely the impacts of large-scale investments, if they looked into the ‘dirty complexities’ of projects like this one.

Thika Highway (©Renard Teipelke)

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2 Responses to The Vision, the Superhighway, and the Local Poor

  1. Pingback: Infrastructure Projects Concern Not Only Engineers | Places.

  2. Pingback: Pick of the Day: African Cities and the Evil of Global City Development Paradigms « Places.

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