Photo Essays | Economy

The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Chinese-financed transport infrastructure projects are fundamentally changing connectivity in East Africa.

By Nicholas Muller for
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

A man stands on the platform of one of the light rail stations in Addis Ababa. The two-year-old light-rail system was built in the Ethiopian capital for a cost of $475 million, largely funded by Chinese loans.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

The two-year-old light-rail system in Addis Ababa is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa and its extensive network has alleviated traffic and commute times for commuters in the capital.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Outside the entrance of the new Furi Lebu railway station in Addis Ababa. The new transportation corridor has drastically reduced travel times between Djibouti’s Red Sea port and Addis Ababa, from three days by road to 12 hours. When it first opened in late 2016, the trains were exclusively freight but it was opened to passenger traffic in the beginning of 2018.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Passengers at the new Addis Ababa railway station — Furi Lebu — which is located an hour outside of the city. The train takes passengers early in the morning to the city of Dire Dawa and also to Djibouti. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway is electrified and the first of its kind in Africa. It cost Ethiopia $3.4 billion. The entire trip takes 12 hours to Djibouti and runs through farmland; it is often delayed by animals on the track.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Inside the new Furi Lebu railway station the Chinese government has put up posters detailing the feats of the railway project and outlining its future planned construction projects.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

An Ethiopian train attendant waits outside the train to greet passengers boarding in Addis Ababa. This May will mark the railway’s second anniversary. The train is often quickly booked up. Prices were increased last year to keep the train afloat under mounting debt. In its first year, about $100 million in revenue was lost.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Aboard the train in the restaurant car, a man sits on his way to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, which takes 5-6 hours.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

A local passenger tries on the Chinese train conductor’s cap. The conductor came from Chongqing, China to work on this train. Chinese staff operate the trains and have promised that they will eventually hand over their positions to locals once they are trained.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

The Chinese train conductor socializes with passengers on the way to Djibouti. He shares stories of his time on the train and arm-wrestles for fun with a passenger.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

The train passes through hundreds of kilometers of farmland and is often delayed by animals on the track. Pictured here is a shepherd herding his goats.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

After 5-6 hours, the train stops in the large city of Dire Dawa where many passengers disembark. The majority Muslim area is mixed with descendants of Arab traders.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

The new highway on the way to the Mombasa railway station, built an hour away from the coastal Kenyan city. Locals must pay extra to get to the station early in the morning to catch the train.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

At the other end of the line, passengers arrive at the new Nairobi railway station.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Chinese workers overlook a site of Kenyan construction workers building a road toward the port of Shimoni. Pipelines, rail lines, highways, airports, and ports are in the plans for future development.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Chinese workers on the platform at the Nairobi terminus. Chinese staff operate the trains.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

An old sign for Kenyan Railways in Mombasa in front of the old train station, which was built during British colonial rule.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
The Chinese Railways Remolding East Africa

Locals wait at the old port of Lamu to cross by speedboat to the island. A Chinese-financed port under construction will connect to the rest of the highway and railway network that will transform the area in the future.

Credit: Nicholas Muller

Just a year ago, Ethiopia and Kenya were mired in political crises on the brink of potential civil war from inter-tribal conflict.  Since then, major changes have taken place in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has enacted numerous reforms and brokered a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea. After a highly disputed election, Uhuru Kenyatta is once again the president of Kenya. As two of the largest economies on the continent, the two East African powerhouses are at the center of China’s largest transport infrastructure investments on the continent.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has financed more than 3,000 strategic infrastructure projects in Africa and provided tens of billions of dollars more in the form of loans. A decade ago, China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. Ethiopia and Kenya account for a substantial portion of Chinese lending in Africa, along with Djibouti; their debt obligations to China are high and growing. China is now Kenya’s largest bilateral debt lender and Kenya’s debt to China has increased tenfold in just five years. China has invested approximately $14 billion in Djibouti, much to do with its geostrategic location and hosting of China’s first overseas military base.  

China’s most significant railway projects in East Africa are the diesel-powered Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway built in Kenya, and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which is the first electrified railway of its kind in Africa. Both railway projects, costing $3.4 billion for Ethiopia and $3.2 billion for Kenya, are standard gauge railway projects paid for by Chinese loans. The two-year-old light-rail system in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, was financed by China as well to the tune of $475 million.

Ethiopia asked this year for its debt connected with the railway to be restructured over a longer period of time (30 years) after acquiring significant debt to built its light rail system in the capital and a train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti.

The new lines run much faster and carry  millions of tons of cargo per year, which is intended to improve regional trade and reduce road congestion. The new train line cuts the travel time to Djibouti to just 12 hours; the same trip by road could take days. The system is operated by Chinese conductors but Beijing has promised operations would be turned over to local workers after five years.

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The two projects have been mired in controversy over their costs. In August 2018, Kenyan authorities arrested two top officials for suspected corruption over the new $3 billion Mombasa-Nairobi  railway. Last week, according to a VOA report, the Kenyan government faced a major backlash after the details of its contract with China Exim Bank was released.  There are fears that Kenya could potentially lose the Port of Mombasa to the Chinese government if the government-owned Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) defaults on a substantial payment owed to Exim Bank. Also still in question is the real cost and whether Kenya overpaid for the railway project.

Some countries have pulled out of infrastructure projects with China for this exact concern. The Kenyan railway project has also been criticized for running through Tsavo National Park and Nairobi National Park. On the Addis-Djibouti line, Ethiopian farmers often block the tracks and demand large sums if their animals are killed by the train.

The increasing debt from these projects has many concerned over Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s rapidly growing trade imbalance with China and what this means for the future of the region.

Nicholas Muller is an American photojournalist and writer. He has a double MA degree in Chinese foreign policy and European Affairs from Sciences Po-Paris and Fudan University-Shanghai.