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Of bullet trains and delusions of mega techno-cities

Friday September 12 2014

Passengers alight from a commuter train at Syokimau Railway Station on November 14, 2012. PHOTO | FILE  |

Passengers alight from a commuter train at Syokimau Railway Station on November 14, 2012. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP.

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During World War Two, the erstwhile isolated, poor South Pacific Islanders of Vanuatu (then known as New Herbrides) enjoyed a brief episode of prosperity.

This was on account of the Western Allies establishing military bases there.

With the bases came bounty beyond belief, as well as jobs. Ships and aircraft brought supplies regularly. Western goods became commonplace.

Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the prosperity vanished. The war had ended. The soldiers left. The ships and aircraft stopped coming.

This episode gave rise to the most famous of what anthropologists call cargo cults—religions that have sometimes emerged when hitherto isolated people are suddenly exposed to western consumer culture.

Charismatic religious entrepreneurs took to promising the villagers that they could restore the flow of cargo, which they claimed was actually sent to them by their ancestors.


They devised cargo summoning rituals that involved imitating military practices such as marching and building symbolic life-size replicas of aircraft, control towers and even airstrips.


The cargo did not come, and many of the cults soon died out. The most prominent survivor is the John Frum movement practised in the island of Tanna.

Its adherents believe that John Frum, a messianic figure usually depicted as an American soldier, will return and bring back the wealth and prosperity of the good old days.

Asked by a western reporter how the movement has survived so long, one of its leaders quipped: “We’ve only been waiting for our prophet for only 60 years. You’ve been waiting for 2000.”

The term cargo cult has become a metaphor for misguided modernisation ventures that confuse form for substance. There is no shortage of such delusions in recent history, perhaps none more deluded than Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

Mao believed that industrialisation could be speeded up by producing more grain and steel, so the Chinese government seized all the resources it could marshal to produce them.

Agriculture was collective by force. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s steel production in 15 years.

Villagers were instructed to set up backyard furnaces to produce iron. People’s pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized to provide scrap metal for the furnaces to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. It did not work, but it claimed between 20 and 40 million lives.

In his irreverent classic The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe attributes underdevelopment to a cargo cult mentality of ruling elites.

“One of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations. This is the cargo cult mentality that anthropologists sometimes speak about — a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their own part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing,” he wrote.

This country, and much of the continent, is in the grip of a cargo cult. It is now an article of faith that grand infrastructure is the fairy ship that will deliver all the goodies we have ever dreamed of possessing. What else are we to make of this?:

“Bullet trains flashing from capital to capital in just a few minutes. Happy passengers waving goodbye to their relatives on the platform… The vision is one of techno-modernity: even you Africans can jump into the modern world. Fast passenger trains! Even fast goods trains!”

You will probably have guessed correctly what this is about, but I doubt very much whether you can guess where the quote is from. It is not from a letter to the editor of one of those weekly tabloids.


It is an excerpt from the report of the Parliamentary Transport Committee in defence of the standard gauge railway. I will leave it to you to contemplate what evidence and analysis the committee considered to arrive at this conclusion, although perhaps the better question would be what herbal product they had with their lunch.

Here are the sober facts. The underperformance of our railway service has nothing to do with the gauge of the track. Neither is it on account of the low speed or load capacity. The single most important reason for its underperformance is lack of trains. Where did the trains go? We “ate” them.

Nothing remarkable. I mean Kenya Railways was “eaten” like many other state corporations such as the defunct Kenya National Assurance Company, among others.

Another red herring is that the railway lost business to the road because trucks are faster—the argument being that faster trains will shift freight back to the railway.

Ha! A 2010 study put the truck travel time from Nairobi to Mombasa at 30 hours, a stately 16km per hour. To be fair, this includes 21 hours of stops comprising of nine hours of weigh bridge and police checks and another 11 hours referred to as “other driver delays.”

This leaves nine hours of travel time which works out only 55km per hour if the trucks travelled non-stop. But since there have to be some stops, let us assume a best case scenario of cutting the stops by two thirds to seven hours. This still works out to a leisurely 33km per hour.

So how is it that trucks which are more expensive and not any faster stole the business of the railway? Simple. Railway public. Trucks private. In one case I know about, Kenya Railways won a tender to transport government imports. Immediately, the permanent secretary concerned got a call from very high up directing him to give half the business to a trucking company. Simply put, road haulage is part of the eating of the railway.

The SGR is not the only lunacy in town. I’m told of a mad rush to install 5000MW of electric power generation within the next two years.

Here’s the math. Over the last decade, the economy has expanded by about 60 per cent. Electricity consumption has increased by about the same. These figures are based on the current GDP, which we expect to be revised upwards shortly. Once that happens, we will find that the economy has become less electricity intensive.


If the GDP is revised upwards by 20 percent as I expect, this will mean that we are using 10 per cent less electricity to produce one unit of GDP as we did a decade ago. This should not be at all surprising. Everyone is trying to be more energy-efficient. Our economy is also increasingly becoming service-driven and services are not very power-hungry. How long will it take us to double the size of the economy? Best case scenario, growing at 7.5 per cent per year, 10 years. This translates to a requirement of at most 2700MW five years from now.

So where did this 5000MW target come from? What is the economic rationale? I have not heard a single one that makes sense. The one I hear most often is that we will need a lot of power to electrify trains. Amazingly, many smart people believe this crap.

Not too long ago, these contraptions ran on firewood. What kind of technological progress would it be that they now require a whole power station to run? Just sizing up a diesel locomotive will tell you that it is no bigger than the stand-by generator that you find in a normal office building.

For the record, a regular electric train needs the equivalent of three litres of diesel to move a tonne of cargo from Mombasa to Nairobi, or as much power per passenger as a light bulb.


The long and short of it is that the belief that 5000MW will bring investors in droves is as fantastic as John Frum’s second coming. If we achieve it, which I doubt, it will steeply raise the cost of electricity as the installed but unused capacity will have to be paid for.

Why do we need these sensational targets? What is wrong with normal, sober, scientific planning for the capacity that we actually need? Who are we trying to impress?

Do we need infrastructure? Yes. Lots of it. There is not a single city or town in Kenya, and East Africa for that matter, with adequate sewerage. We lose a quarter of our meagre harvests to poor rural roads and lack of proper storage.

Before London built its iconic underground, it first built the world’s first modern sewerage system. Before Japan industrialised, it reformed governance and modernised and massively expanded education. The East Asian Tiger economies industrialisation was preceded by the Green Revolution. What is wrong with our leaders?

Franz Fanon: “In the colonial countries, the spirit of indulgence is dominant at the core of the bourgeoisie; and this is because the national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons. It follows the Western bourgeoisie along its path of negation and decadence without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention, stages which are an acquisition of that Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances.

“In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness or the will to succeed of youth.”

Enough said.

Dr Ndii is the Managing Director of Africa Economics. ([email protected])