Construction Project: Unlocking Uganda’s Economic Potential
Roads have always told an important story in Africa’s history. In the colonial period that spanned much of the past century, all roads in Africa seemed to lead to the ocean. This was in part due to the fact that these roads were a means of transporting raw materials from the interior of the continent to ports where they could then be sent to the Western countries that extracted Africa’s resources. Thus, well-paved roads were not a symbol of infrastructure or a means of connectivity for African people, but instead a symbol of the parasitic nature of the colonial powers. However, such a history has left many African nations with a simple but sweeping problem in this century: Africa needs roads. And not simply roads, but well-paved roads that can withstand the rainy season and that will remain traversable for years to come, roads that can unlock Africa’s economic potential. Although this need seems simple enough, many nations that give aid to Africa do not invest in such basic infrastructure projects due to the fact that these projects are not very glamorous. It is much easier to convince nations or non-profits to give money to prevent deadly diseases like Ebola or Malaria than to build a 100 kilometer road that connects two towns. However, China has increasingly shown an interest in working with Africa to construct roads that do not simply go to the sea, but instead unlock African nations’ potential.
The United States typically gives aid to African nations through injecting cash and materials into specific sectors through international NGOs or government relief programs. However, China’s approach to aid, that is, not only how to give aid but more importantly what to give, is decidedly different. In the past decades China has helped construct basic infrastructure through concrete diplomacy. This much is clear in China’s latest partnership with the Ugandan government to build the Entebbe-Kampala Expressway. The China Communication Construction Company won the commission for the project in 2012. Presently, the estimated cost for the project is close to US$476 million, more than two thirds of which is covered by loans from the Exim Bank of China. This form of influence in East Africa has been a common strategy for China, that is, to secure Chinese corporations the opportunity to sell their materials and technologies to provide infrastructure to African nations – from roads to sustainable energy – but to have the loans for such projects come from Chinese banks.
The road will in total be 51.53 kilometers long with four lanes, reminiscent of the style of highway seen in many of China’s most populous cities. The road connects Kampala, the bustling capital of Uganda and a major East African city, with Entebbe a neighboring town that houses Uganda’s most trafficked airport, Entebbe International Airport. As of now, the road is made of dirt, which means that, like many of Uganda’s roads, it is highly susceptible to damage from the months of heavy rain that Uganda receives from March to June, and thus incredibly dangerous. The construction of the Entebbe-Kampala Expressway will ultimately make Entebbe much more easily accessible, making Uganda itself more accessible to visitors and investors, as well as making it easier for Ugandans to travel to and from the capital.
The expressway will unlock Uganda’s economic potential in part due to the fact that 95% of passengers use roads, making it by far the dominant form of transportation. In fact, although national roads make up only 25% of Uganda’s roads, they carry over 80% of traffic. And perhaps most startlingly, out of the 20,000 km of national roads, only 15% are paved. China’s partnership with Uganda has been incredibly beneficial: China sells construction equipment and vehicles to Uganda in exchange for a road that will fundamentally change the accessibility of the nation. In fact, the Entebbe-Kampala Expressway will not only make Uganda more accessible but will also make it easier to access other nations even farther into the interior of Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, which both border Western Uganda.
Although the Entebbe-Kampala expressway is arguably the most high profile example of China and Uganda’s partnership in the nation, China has previously partnered with the East African nation to build a road in western Uganda that links the western town of Fort Portal to Ntoroko, and ultimately to the Uganda-eastern DRC border. China has also developed a highway in Ethiopia that is a similar length to the Entebbe-Kampala Expressway. Ultimately it seems that the Entebbe-Kampala Expressway represents an aspect of China’s relationship with Africa that is pragmatic and beneficial for African nations. Although China clearly benefits from the partnership, the project is simply good business and not reminiscent of the invasive construction of roads that took place during Africa’s colonial history. China has in the past struggled with human rights violations in many construction projects, but not (so far) in the case of Entebbe-Kampala Expressway.
Zhao Yali, the Chinese ambassador to Uganda, made it clear that the critical nature of road development in Uganda is directly compatible with China’s conception of development, remarking, “According to a Chinese saying, people who want to be rich should build a road first.” Ultimately the success of the project comes down to two simple truths: Ugandans need roads, and China is more than happy to help.
Natalie Wyatt ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.