The Construction by Chinese Players of Roads and Housing in Nairobi: The Transfer of Town Planning Practices between China and Kenya

By Bénazéraf, David | China Perspectives, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Construction by Chinese Players of Roads and Housing in Nairobi: The Transfer of Town Planning Practices between China and Kenya


Bénazéraf, David, China Perspectives


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Since the 2000s, the presence of Chinese players, both public and private, has been growing rapidly over the entire African continent, and in a highly varied range of sectors. Relations between the Chinese state and its African partners have been strengthened with the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation,(1) and China now occupies a leading position in many African countries. Consolidating its presence there has often been described as a way of safeguarding its supply of raw materials to feed domestic demand. Natural resources have been regarded as playing a structuring role in Chinese-African relations, (2) which helps explain the fundamentally North-South structure of commercial relations between the two continents, with African countries exporting natural or agricultural resources and importing manufactured goods, accordingly limiting the development of local industry and fostering a rentier mentality. (3)

The acceleration in Chinese-African relations has exacerbated the confrontation between donors on a global scale. China is described as an emerging outside player that has come to interfere in relations between old colonised peoples and old colonial empires (4) despite its long-established policy of cooperation on the continent. (5) The "Chinafrica" concept (6) sustains a certain number of myths, for example that of the mass importation of a cheap Chinese workforce. However, China's presence takes on a diverse range of forms that require different combinations of tools and strategies (aid, trade, investment) depending on the specific context of each country. (7)The Chinese are not merely buyers of raw materials; increasingly, they occupy the position of investors. (8) Despite certain constants, their actions vary in the 49 African countries with which China maintains diplomatic relations.

Within the general approach to Chinese-African relations, it is therefore obvious that there should be slight differences in terms of the specific relationships fostered by the Chinese state and the various Chinese players, whether public or private, with the players in African countries. China became the number one bilateral donor to Kenya in 2011, and since 2013 has been the main source of direct foreign investment there. Within the space of a decade, it has become a major player, competing with the country's historical partners and donors. (9) In its role as the economic centre of the region with a generally stable political situation, Kenya is, according to Patrick Mutua Kioko, a secondary headquarters for Chinese economic players in East Africa. (10) The two countries maintain relations in a variety of fields, including agriculture, health, tourism, the media, geothermal energy and electricity distribution, road infrastructure, and city services. Compared with 2002, when there were very few Chinese people in Kenya, approximately 10,000 live there now. (11)

In Nairobi, various types of Chinese companies and companies of Chinese origin, both public and private, contribute to urban development by constructing buildings (housing and offices), roads, and water conveyance infrastructure, and modernising Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The aim of this article is to analyse the ways in which Chinese players contribute to urban production in the metropolis of Nairobi. Within the general context of studies on China- Africa relations, it will adopt a micro approach by studying the players that support these relations, based on the results of a field study. Two aspects of urban development have been considered: the creation of major road infrastructure and the building of housing for the solvent middle classes.

As far as urban analysis is concerned, we have attempted, in the tradition of James Ferguson(12) and Jennifer Robinson,(13) to adopt a postcolonial reading that steers clear of the differences between Western cities and Third World cities. …

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