May 22, 2017 04:48 PM

Made in China: Kenya's Next Generation of Railway Engineers

Kenyan students attend a counseling lecture before taking the midterm exam at Beijing Jiaotong University on April 26. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin
Kenyan students attend a counseling lecture before taking the midterm exam at Beijing Jiaotong University on April 26. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin

Kenya’s transportation system will get a shot in the arm when trains start rolling in June on the nation's first, new railway in more than a century.

And several young Kenyans are getting an educational boost closely tied to the Chinese-built, 480-kilometer Nairobi-Mombasa Railway.

New tracks laid by China Road and Bridge Corp. will take some of the traffic pressure off the existing, 116-year-old Uganda Railway, which for years has been the only rail link between the nation's capital Nairobi and its largest port, Mombasa. The new railway will be operated for five years by China Road and Bridge Corp.’s parent company, China Communications Construction Co., before being taken over by state-owned Kenya Railways Corp.

The cooperative relationship cultivated by the Chinese and Kenyan companies during the three-year rail-building project spawned the life-altering Railway Talents Cultivation Program, through which Kenyan students can obtain full scholarships to a Chinese university. The program is managed and financed by China Road and Bridge Corp.

A key goal is to teach Kenyans mechanical engineering and railroad management skills they can put to use back home on Chinese-built railways.

The program, which began last year, provides four years of study at in a railway-related major such as signaling engineering or rail vehicle engineering, leading to a bachelor's degree from Beijing Jiaotong University. After graduation, the students are to return home and work for Kenya Railways.

One student, 21-year-old Kimuyu Daniel Muoki, grew up poor in a town called Kibwezi between Nairobi and Mombasa. His childhood dream was to become an engineer, but it seemed unlikely he would ever realize this dream.

“My mother passed away when I was little, and my father couldn’t afford to send me to university,” Muoki told Caixin. “So when I graduated from high school in 2013, I started working immediately, saving up money to help my younger brother finish high school.”

Muoki learned about the rail talents program after his aunt saw it advertised in a newspaper and urged him to submit an application. “You never know, you might be lucky,” she said.

Muoki followed his aunt’s advice. And after a months-long candidate selection process, he was one of 25 picked from a pool of more than 500 applicants.

Muoki initially feared “it was all a dream” he told Caixin. But when his flight landed at Beijing's airport in April 2016 after a 16-hour journey from Nairobi "I knew for sure it was real.”

Another program participant is Ethuro Nakayo Ekwee, 20, who also learned about the program through a newspaper ad.

Ekwee applied even though she had already gained admission the University of Nairobi as a mechanical engineering major. She decided to try--and was approved--after deciding that studying abroad could be good for her resume.

Ekwee and her parents, civil servants in Nairobi, agonized over whether she should accept the offer. The parents worried about discrimination in China and wondered whether their daughter could overcome the language barrier.

But after attending a February 2016 briefing on China life organized by Kenya Railways, Ekwee decided to take the plunge and study in China.

Skills Training

Muoki, Ekwee and 23 other Kenyans are now in their second year at Beijing Jiaotong, with the goal of obtaining the technical and engineering skills they'll need on the job.

Work experience at home is a major part of the program. Kenya Railways thus arranges for each student to complete a one-month internship in Nairobi while at home during the university's winter break every December.

Muoki and Ekwee say they're happy to study in China but don't like Beijing's cold winters.

The program's curriculum is similar to a course plan developed about 45 years ago by Beijing Jiaotong for students from Tanzania and Zambia. Some 200 students from those countries were trained in railway engineering through a three-year program that ended in 1975.

The university developed teaching materials in English and published a Chinese-English dictionary of railroad terminology, Beijing Jiaotong’s international exchange director Liu Yanqing told Caixin. Moreover, Tanzanian and Zambian students were paired with Chinese study partners.

The 1970s program was aimed at training a generation of local railway experts to help operate the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, which the Chinese built to link a copper-mining region and a seaport.

The Chinese handed over operation of the completed railroad to local companies but the railway was eventually abandoned and the program's graduates lost out.

“A railway operation is a complex system, and training is only a small part of it," Tsinghua University international relations associate professor Tang Xiaoyang told Caixin. "If you don’t have the necessary facilities, funding, spare parts supplies, and so on, training alone will not produce sustained growth in the long run.”

Officials at China Road and Bridge and Kenya Railways are pinning hopes for the future of the Nairobi-Mombasa Railway on the students who are now in training--and who will one day run it.

The railroad is slated to reduce the cost of transporting cargo between Mombasa and Nairobi by 40%, said Liu Qitao, an executive for China Road and Bridge’s parent company China Communications Construction Co., who spoke at a news conference in May.

The railway is expected to expand over the next few years. Work began on a rail connection between Nairobi and Malabar, a city on the Kenyan-Ugandan border, last year.

Muoki says he and fellow students welcome the challenge. "We’ll do our best to play our roles well," he said. "We won’t let Kenya and China down.”

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