Roads are a pivotal enabler of economic development and poverty reduction in any country. Other than facilitating seamless movement of people and goods, road infrastructure contributes to improved agricultural productivity, trade and access to services. Roads are also crucial in fostering a viable environment for business, investment and employment creation.
As of 2020, Kenya had close to 200,000 kilometers of roads but only about 17,000 of which was paved. However, the country continues to invest heavily in this mode of transport with Ksh 212 billion set aside for construction, maintenance and repair of the road infrastructure in the current financial year (2021/22).
The Kenya Roads Act 2007 establishes various institutions with specific roles in relation to the development and management of the road network namely Kenya National Highway Authority (class A, B and C roads), Kenya Urban Roads Authority (roads in cities and municipalities), Kenya Rural Roads Authority (rural roads) and Kenya Wildlife Service (roads in national parks and game reserves). The Kenya Roads Board manages the Kenya Roads Board Fund and oversees evaluation of road works.
Roads in Kenya are classified into two major classes: national trunk roads and county roads. The Constitution provides that the development and maintenance of the country’s road infrastructure is a shared function between the two levels of government.
Whereas the national government has responsibility for construction and operation of national trunk roads, counties are tasked with the building and maintaining roads within their jurisdictions. The national government is also in charge of developing roads standards at national and county levels.
In a Gazette Notice dated January 14, 2022, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport and Infrastructure appointed a 16-member technical taskforce to oversee the review and updating of road design manuals and standard specification. It is expected that the taskforce will undertake a comprehensive audit of our road construction standards but more importantly, integrate global best practice to enable Kenya develop and sustain a modern road infrastructure.
In addition, the taskforce should come up with a framework for standardizing the cost of road construction and maintenance. The problems bedeviling the roads sub-sector are well known. They range from corruption to poor project oversight, use of sub-standard materials and conflict of interest.
Way back in 2006, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (now defunct) conducted a review of systems, policies, procedures and practices at the Ministry of Roads and Public Works with a view to unearthing unethical practices in the road sub-sector. The anti-graft agency noted the peculiar nature of road projects made them vulnerable to corruption owing to the size, complexity and huge cost involved.
“Corruption in road projects thrives due to weaknesses and loopholes that exist in the entire project cycle from planning and design, tendering and implementation process,” noted KACC at the time. Other key challenges noted include poor project planning and implementation, breach of standards, fraud, bribery and theft.
Under and over-specification to provide opportunities for contract variation or discourage potential contractors from bidding was also identified as a major problem contributing to poor quality of roads and even failure to complete projects.
Use of sub-standard construction materials was enumerated as a factor reducing the life span of roads as was the lack of adequate specifications at the time of negotiating such projects. Diversion of project materials was said to be a rampant practice among shady contractors.
The taskforce appointed by the CS should zero in on the entire process of road development to eliminate loopholes that allow unscrupulous contractors and public officials to compromise standards so as to steal from taxpayers. Failure or lack of capacity to abide by standards has seen many local contractors excluded from lucrative road projects.
There is also urgent need to operationalize the proposed Public Roads Standards Board with a clear mandate of developing standards for road construction, maintenance and performance levels as well as developing a monitoring system to ensure adherence to set standards. In fact, if the standards board were in place, there would be no need to appoint a taskforce. Instead, we should have a permanent body supervising road standards. Kenya Roads Board should be left to manage the roads fund.
Overall, it is important that Kenyans get value for money by ensuring that roads meet the appropriate standards and that the monies allocated for building them are spent optimally. High quality roads are also crucial in promoting safety. More than 3,000 people die on Kenyan roads each year hence the need to revamp our road network as part of road safety campaigns.
Roads are also critical in maintaining security and ensuring citizens especially in remote areas can access essential services like health and emergency medical care. In addition, an efficient road system is of great necessity in national disaster response including famine relief and floods rescue.
However, in addressing all these dynamics, we need to improve joint planning and coordination at the devolved level with county governments working closely with various roads agencies to ensure strict adherence with established road standards. In the spirit of inter-governmental relations and cooperation, as provided for in our Constitution, the national and county agencies involved in managing our roads should synergize their efforts since they are working for all Kenyans anyway.
The Ethic and Anti-Corruption Commission should also have a specific unit monitoring road projects in collaboration with the relevant agencies. Eliminating corruption in road construction will save the country loads of money. A study by a local NGO revealed that taxpayers were cheated out of Ksh 49 billion in inflated costs of building roads between 2013-2017.
Mr. Murumba is the CEO, Impulso Kenya Limited. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org