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Kenya, Ethiopia bet on technology transfer in their railway projects

Wang Xinjiang (C), a Chinese engineer, works with Kenyan workers at the T-beam factory on section six of Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway project, near Makueni, Kenya, on March 16, 2015 (Image: En.people.cn).

Wang Xinjiang (C), a Chinese engineer, works with Kenyan workers at the T-beam factory on section six of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway project, near Makueni, Kenya, on March 16, 2015 (Image: Xinhua/Pan Siwei).

This article was written by Kenyan journalist Allan Olingo Ogunah with a reporting grant provided by the China-Africa Reporting Project, and was first published in The East African.  

It’s a chilly Monday morning and Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is already bustling with life as commuters jostle to get to work. A new bus service has just launched in the city. Residents will for the second time, in a span of eight months, witness another improvement in the city’s mass transport.

The modern Sheger City buses are already out plying the city routes. Sleek, and fitted with global positioning systems (GPS) as well as security cameras, they are meant to supplement Africa’s first light electric railway network, which has been in operation in the southern part of the city for seven months now. The buses’ success or failure is a story waiting to be told.

As my cab comes to a halt at the Meskel square, I notice an orderly queue disembarking from one of the morning trains that has just arrived from Kality, 17km from the CBD. I am here to take my first ride.

Clean and orderly is how one can describe the train station. Schoolchildren, commuters in suits and others in casual dress wait in turn to disembark before a call to board the train comes through the loud speaker.

Then off we go. It takes 15 minutes between the two stations, but it takes five minutes for commuters to fill up the cabins. I part with $1.2 for the fare.

My attempt to have a word with the train driver proves unsuccessful, as I need authorisation to join him in the cabin. Fair enough. Later, I am guided into Belay Zeleke’s office. He is one of the project engineers of the $475 million Addis Ababa Light Railway Project.

‘Unique engineering feat’

A stout, serious man who barely cracks a smile, Zeleke is happy to share the success story of the light railway network, having worked on it in its various stages.

“This is a unique engineering feat. I wish we could replicate it beyond the 34 kilometres length it was designed as it has played a significant role in efficient transportation and technology transfer in our country,” Mr Zeleke said.

In September last year, Ethiopia became the first sub-Saharan African country to have a light railway system, when it unveiled the Addis Ababa electrified light railway network. With this, the country joined the likes of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.

The Addis Ababa metro light rail system, capable of transporting 60,000 people per hour, was completed in January 2015 before it underwent stress tests on its performance, safety and right of way logistics.

According to Mr Zeleke, the project’s benefits go beyond ease of transportation within the city to knowledge acquisition for the engineers and workers from their Chinese counterparts.

“This project as executed by China Railway Group is a first in sub-Saharan Africa. It means that most of the technology used here is foreign and we all had to learn. It is a proud feeling knowing that I am among the few Africans who got this knowledge here in Addis Ababa,” Mr Zeleke said, adding that he had to spend more than a year in China as part of the learning process.

“This is my fifth year on the project and I am still learning. You have to learn the operations from the bottom to the technical level. We now have the build and operation knowhow. We have all had our share of knowledge transfer from our Chinese colleagues,” he says.

Technology swap

Part of the agreement involved a technology swap that saw 10 Ethiopians head to China for training. Some of the train masters and project engineers spent between 10 and 15 months in China on training before coming back to take charge of the project under the supervision of the Chinese engineers.

As of February, more than 250 Ethiopians had been trained in China, with some now back home to contribute to the country’s railway network revamp.

According to Getachew Betru, head of the Ethiopia Railways Corporation (ERC), the project has enabled a great deal of technology and knowledge transfer.

“The Chinese contractor has kept their end of the bargain. We are impressed with how this transfer has taken place. We now pride ourselves as having a team that understands the new technology,” Mr Betru said.

Meanwhile, Kenya is looking to revamp its railway transport to boost the country’s economy through the $3.27 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) it is currently building.

In March, Nairobi sent 60 students to China to study railway engineering for four years. Under the programme, the students will undertake a bachelor’s degree course in railway engineering at Beijing Jiatong University.

Kenya Railways Corporation managing director Atanas Maina said the programme is part of the contractual obligations that require knowledge transfer and capacity building for locals. It is funded by SGR contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC).

“This was an understanding between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the contractor. The students will be trained at a cost of $50,000 per student. The course will entail specialising in design and construction, signalling and communication and operation and maintenance,” Mr Maina said, adding that the Railway Training Institute has recently introduced railway track construction and maintenance in its curriculum to boost the skillset of employees in the infrastructure sector.

Employee’s training

Kenya will also be expecting its engineers to take on a more prominent role in the second phase of the SGR project between Nairobi and Naivasha, after having learnt from the Chinese in the first phase. Construction work on the first phase is more than 75 per cent complete and is expected to end next June.

“We have had our engineers take part in all stages of construction in the first phase. They have acquired the skills and knowledge from their Chinese counterparts. It is my hope that in the coming phase, they will play a more prominent role, possibly even take the lead. I am confident that once we start building offshoots from the main line, we will have the technical capacity to do it on our own,” Mr Maina said.

CRBC last July opened a railway technology transfer training facility in Voi to improve the capacity of its Kenyan employees. The CRBC Technology Transfer Competence Training Centre, located at the SGR section 2 campsite in Voi, is currently being used to equip Kenyan workers already engaged in the construction of the railway with new skill-sets needed for the railway project.

“We are using the employees trained in this centre in various sections of the SGR construction. So far, we have trained more than 500. It is my hope that once we are done with this phase, they will be very upfront in the next phase and even offer sustainable running of the new railway after it is completed,” CRBC external relations boss Julius Li said, adding that the training takes a maximum of three months.

At the training centre, the curriculum involves two segments: Physical operation training and theoretical studies for employees, which mainly dwell on technology transfer.

Modernised railway

One of the SGR project managers at the Voi Section 2, Han Feng said that it is important for locals to understand the railway technology for sustainability of the project in the long term.

“Our main aim is to provide a comprehensive path for technology transfer, improve local technical skills as well as maintain skilled manpower for the project. Here we have a lab, where we teach the employees about quality control, electrical engineers who share the knowledge as a major part of our project involves machine technology,” Mr Feng said.

The construction of the first phase has been divided into sections and camps, where there is a head of the section who is shadowed by an engineer from Kenya Railways. Through this arrangement, there is an exchange of knowledge and skills among the engineers that is replicated as the chain moves to the workers.

Philip Muriuki, one of the Kenya Railway engineers at this section, said his experience at the SGR project so far has been enriching in terms of exposure to railway technology.

“I have interacted with modern technology through visits to other countries in Europe but this has been different mostly because it has enabled me to improve my skills in a practical manner. It is different to be shown how stuff works as compared with doing it in practice. I am proud to be part of the team seeking to modernise the country’s railway transport through building it,” Mr Muriuki said, adding that prior to his posting, he was involved in routine maintenance of the old railway before the Rift Valley Railways concession.

Sarah Mumo, one of the laboratory analysts at a section in Emali is one of the beneficiaries of the technology transfer training. At this section, the casting of T-beams and railway sleepers is being done.

A fresh graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Ms Mumo handles the testing and analysis of cement used in the concrete sleepers.

“There is a particular standard of cement required by the project engineers and at the lab in the concrete sleeper factory here in Emali, I have to do random checks on the cement delivered to ensure that it meets the standard. I am happy that I got this training as it now puts me at an advantage,” Ms Mumo said, adding that at one point her training took her to China.

Paul Olukoye, an assistant engineer with Taec, one of the sub-contractors working on the project, said that railway technology is relatively new in Kenya but thanks to experience at the SGR project, he is now acquiring a new skill set, which he intends to apply in future.

“I have interacted with technology at various stages from the sleeper factories, assembly of T-beams, and the operations of the track laying machines, and construction of the rail sleepers. It is a good practical experience that has given me a great head start,” Mr Olukoye said.

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