A huge red-and-white motivational banner that says “Unskilled worker today, engineer tomorrow” stands on a wall at the Mtitu Rail Girders and Sleepers factory at Kilometer 253 from Mombasa on the standard gauge railway route.
By the time President Uhuru Kenyatta rides on a train from Mombasa to Nairobi, probably in June next year, when construction of the railway is complete, some 600 bridges and at least 12,000 track sections will have been produced at the expansive factory.
As machines compete to out-roar each other, drowning instructions from the Chinese supervisors, Mr Fredrick Musau carefully studies some graphs and numbers on a computer screen.
Whatever decision he makes from his work station moves production from one stage to another through the complex conveyor system.
“The system is synchronised and each person has to do whatever they are supposed to do within the specified time and do it perfectly otherwise the whole railway project slows down,” he says.
The Sunday Nation recently drove around the eight counties where the railway will pass through: Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Kajiado, Machakos and Nairobi.
Every so often motorists would stop to take pictures of the spectacular piece of engineering that was taking shape.
About 120 years since the British colonialists imported some 30,000 Indians to build the “Lunatic Express” — as some nicknamed the Kenya-Uganda railway — hundreds of Kenyans are at the centre of the country’s most ambitious infrastructure project since independence.
But unlike the Indians who in 1896 were brought in because of their experience in similar projects elsewhere, the Kenyans in the process of rewriting history are learning on the job.
Conceived as a flagship project under the Kenya Vision 2030 development agenda in October 2009, the Sh400 billion first phase — Mombasa to Nairobi — has been flaunted by the government as critical to the local and regional growth.
When complete, the railway is expected to reduce passenger travel time and allow more cargo to be transported.
Going hand in hand with the work, through its “train first and deploy later” policy, the China Road and Bridge Corporation, which is constructing the line, is turning out to be an interface for knowledge transfer between the world’s second largest economy and East Africa’s largest economy.
“We have an elaborate training programme for Kenyan employees after which they are awarded a certificate to enable them remain relevant even after the project is complete. This is part of the key objectives of the contract we signed with the government of Kenya,” says Julius Li, external resources manager of China Bridge.
Before joining the railway construction as a conveyor belt operator, Mr Musau, who is among those learning on the job, had worked in a number of construction sites in Nairobi as a mason and later as a supervisor.
“I had some basic computer and site supervision knowledge which was necessary for this position but the Chinese standard of doing things is very different, technical and advanced,” he told the Sunday Nation.
Mr Musau says he is impressed by the attention to detail.
Like all employees, he had to undergo a three-month training at a facility in Voi for up-skilling the practical aspects of his job and to advance theoretical knowledge.
However, others like Mr Jacob Mutua, 26, despite having a degree in mining and processing engineering from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, still had to undergo further training in Shanghai, China, before being deployed as an aggregate ballast lab technician in Voi. It is his first job since he graduated in 2013.
While in China, Mr Mutua also took some time to learn the Chinese language beyond learning how to test the strength and suitability of ballast.
Ballast is one of the main materials used in rail construction since the lines lie on it and the young engineer’s role is to ascertain the level at which it would succumb if subjected to weight or chemicals.
This is just one of the numerous tests and procedures being used by China Bridge to ensure the railway will last at least 200 years.
Every material used during construction including water, sand, cement, steel beams and even the soil and composition of the air where the railway or its bridges would pass is subjected to several tests to ascertain suitability.
According to the builders, some 98 bridges forming 28.2km and 967 culverts will be on the stretch between Mombasa and Nairobi.
This includes the 1.6km bridge at Tsavo set to be among the longest in Africa when complete.
Ms Isabella Khaemba, whom the Sunday Nation found testing cement to be used on this particular section of the railway, is thrilled to be part of history.
“This thing (the railway) is changing the face of Kenya, and for a young person who came all the way from Bungoma to be part of this historical piece of infrastructure it is thrilling,” she says.
Mr Joseph Githuku, firm’s deputy spokesperson, says maintaining a high skill level among employees is key to delivering a high quality railway line.
“We recognise the uniqueness of this project. Most importantly, we recognise that for us to discharge our mandate, all components, including our workforce at all our 33 sites, have to work at optimal levels,” says Mr Githuku.
He says Kenyans who speak Chinese have also been hired to act as interpreters and teach others the language.
Some like Mr Caleb Bisonga, a senior lab technician now on his third project with Chinese companies, have mastered a bit of the language, something that has come in handy since most of the machines used are made in China.
“I can easily work using most machines even without them being calibrated to English,” he says.
Mr Bisonga was part of the construction of Thika Road, Limuru-Ndumberi Road and the Voi-Mwatate Road.