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The notion that modern day development is achievable purely through mega projects is perhaps misplaced as it ignores the place of technology and, for Africa, the contribution of ‘small’ industries at this stage in achieving sustainable industrialisation.

The fanfare accompanying the recent groundbreaking ceremony of the intended construction of a new port in Lamu and the wider Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) infrastructure development corridor could have easily concealed other equally important dimensions to it. That the ceremony was attended by the presidents of Ethiopia, Kenya and Southern Sudan confirmed its priority in development programming of the region.

In that respect, it’s hardly surprising that many reputable comparative studies long ago identified poor infrastructure and lukewarm intra-African trade as some of the biggest challenges to the continent’s competitiveness. It’s, therefore, on the face of it a plausible step that countries of the region break these historical barriers through joint infrastructure projects in which stakes are shared and political commitment guaranteed. Arguably, political dynamics in South Sudan with its rich oil deposits and Ethiopia’s protracted tension in the north presented that much needed incentive to commit.

Yet it’s the irony of development that projects like this potentially stagnate development itself. Apart from the realistic possibility of under-utilisation, which then means that economic returns to service applied funds is inadequate and possibly passed to the next generation, its environmental and domestic industry impact demand caution. Besides, as a signatory to the Convention on Biodiversity and related multilateral agreements, Kenya must exercise the utmost restraint on initiatives whose environmental damage is predictable.

The economic benefits of Lamu as a world heritage site and the natural habitats that this project will inevitably disrupt, if properly harnessed, far outweigh its projected revenue arising primarily from oil and unsustainable agricultural exports from Southern Sudan and Ethiopia respectively. In addition, we are yet to fully explore alternatives. The notion that modern day development is achievable purely through mega projects is perhaps misplaced as it ignores the place of technology and, for Africa, the contribution of “small” industries at this stage in achieving sustainable industrialisation. In any case, the problem for Kenya has never been really a question of infrastructure but rather their inefficiency to deliver in tandem with national economic planning due to institutional lethargy and blatant corruption.

To a degree, this is the problem with the port in Mombasa, which is consistently performing below par compared to even smaller ones, geographically speaking, like Hong Kong and Singapore. Unbelievable as it may sound, with technological modernization and the elimination of the multiplicity of vested players with narrow focus of the port’s utility, Mombasa port’s turnover can accommodate more than ten times the expectations of Lamu. Complimented with modernised and competitively managed railways, then you probably don’t need another transport corridor.

Assuming for a moment that the above environmental concerns are immaterial, it’s still difficult to ignore the impact of cheap imports always dumped in Africa’s markets. In fact, it’s indisputable that Africa’s path to sustainable development has largely been frustrated by unnecessary and cheap imports that prematurely harm local industries. Consequently, basic industries such as textile, manufacturing and other value-addition sectors, collapsed long ago, leading to unsustainable joblessness. Priority must thus be accorded by all African governments to supporting revival of these sectors, first, so that we have value-added products to export before allowing in competing imports. Unless this is done, the curse of exporting cheap, raw materials only to import them back in value-added form will be here to stay.

Toward this end, available statistics show that the East African Community (EAC) and other LAPSSET partners have simply not done enough to revive local industries that collapsed in the 1980s. A clear testimony to this is the number of dilapidated go-downs in Nairobi’s industrial area that used to be the embodiment of Kenya’s manufacturing sector. Farther west, Kisumu railway remains idle because sustainable industrial production long ceased in the region. As my recent experience revealed, the only active rail service is for exports to Uganda from Mombasa.

The real and rather weird risk is that unless these challenges are addressed strategically, Lamu port will just be another route for dumping products into our markets once Sudanese oil runs out. Much as Africa needs to improve her interconnectivity; local production support ought to take priority over economically incoherent projects. In any case, being a tropical zone project premised on oil exports to alternative clean energy sources might jeopardise sustainability of the region’s development.


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* Eric Komolo is an advocate and doctoral candidate at Hong Kong University.
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