Chinese construction works pass vital skills to Kenyans

Chinese firms have offered local contractors Sh129bn road deals

In Summary

• The Chinese do not bring people from China for services that can be offered by locals

• Beneficiaries of projects contracted to the Chinese attest to the fact of skills transfer

Chinese constructions.
Chinese constructions.

It was a day like no other in Ahero, Kisumu county, when Philip Odhiambo landed a contract with a Chinese firm in 2013.

With a diploma in electronic engineering from Eldoret Polytechnic, class of 2002, Odhiambo had hunted for a job for some time.

"They were in our area installing the transmission line from Olesos to Kibos, in Kisumu," he told the Star of how he came across the firm.

At first, Odhiambo, 50, was hesitant to grab the opportunity. He felt it would be difficult to work with the Chinese people due to language barrier.

But the need to eke out a living to sustain his family superseded all his fears. He tried his luck. He got the job.

"We were working with about 10 other locals and with one translator, so it was quite challenging. However, I was shocked at how I learnt to do things that I did not imagine," he said.

Role of China in the Market./HILLARY BETT
Role of China in the Market./HILLARY BETT

For the five years that he worked with the Chinese firm, Odhiambo gained lots of new skills and knowledge on emerging technology in his profession.

What was known to him as a job opportunity to earn living offered him a school of sorts to acquire new knowledge and skills.

"Generally, technology with the Chinese changes a lot. Previously, we were working with British standards for those electronics, including the spares. So there was a small challenge when the Chinese came with different electronics, like maybe sockets that you do not understand," he says.

"But this challenge opened my eyes that technology is not static but changes every now and then. I could now compare the Chinese and British technology to clients who wanted my services."

Ahero interchange highway.
Ahero interchange highway.

After his contract with the Chinese firm ended, Odhiambo narrated that he was skilled and exposed enough to get contract offers.

“In the Chinese company, I got exposure, people could see how hard-working I was. I started getting calls and that is how I have sustained myself," he says.

"Some electricians are facing the challenge of exposure. For you to be exposed or land a big contract, you must be seen and heard. You must have been seen somewhere doing a nice thing. It's when you can climb to that level and get other bigger clients. And in my case, it was the Chinese firm."

Armed with skills in new technology in the electrical field thanks to the Chinese firm, Odhiambo was the go-to guy for a governor who wanted his home fixed with electricity.

"This was the biggest project I have done since my career began. I received a call from an unknown number and they wanted me to help them," he says.

"The work was not easy but I performed well. I was given the responsibility to connect a three-phase power line in a home. It was a very big home. It was quite challenging but I thank God I made it."

The highway at Ahero in Kisumu
The highway at Ahero in Kisumu
When they see potential in you, they work with you well and teach you more things that can help increase your skills
Maxwell Otieno


Maxwell Otieno, 33, is a civil surveyor who has worked with Chinese construction company Sinohydro Corporation Limited in Bomet county, where he has gained five years of experience.

Surveying entails road setting out, calvert setting and ground levelling.

"We were working in Bomet at the survey house there. I found working with the Chinese company a good experience. They give you room to learn more things out of your work," he says.

Maxwell, who is married with two children, said it's from the firm that he learnt how to operate an excavator.

"I can also drive a roller machine. They give you room to learn more things. They're friendly when they realise you know what you're doing," he said.

"When they see potential in you, they work with you well and teach you more things that can help increase your skills."

Otieno says during his years of learning, the Chinese hired a lot of local talents.

"There were a lot of skilled labourers. We had surveyors, drivers and lab technicians, and we communicated directly with the Chinese. They knew Kiswahili, which was a plus for us," he says.

He says having worked with the Chinese has made him make new friends.

"After all, these people are human. I have a particular Chinese who became my friend and we understand each other. We speak English and Kiswahili. But he has vowed to teach me Chinese," he said.

Signboard in Ahero
Signboard in Ahero


Beverlyn Kosome, 26, is another beneficiary of Chinese ventures in the country.

"I do construction of roads and demolition using an excavator machine. I have had a passion for the machine for a while now," she says.

Having studied at National Youth Service, Kosome says the Chinese job was her first. Since then, she says life has never been the same.

"With my skills in excavations, I can land any local and international job because I know that the Chinese standards are also top-notch," she says.

The Chinese firm gave her skills that enabled her to manoeuvre the job market with ease.

She remembers how one day, a local contractor was looking for a man who could help with demolition.

Section of the highway
Section of the highway
Chinese companies like Huawei are working with local universities to introduce young students to their technologies
Adhere Cavince

"When they came across me, they could not believe in my abilities. When I said I would take up the challenge, they looked at me suspiciously," she says.

Kosome says they did not allow her to sign the contract until she could demonstrate her capabilities.

"You know the Chinese love fast workers, and being in the industry for six years made them realise how valuable I was. After like 10 minutes of demonstration, they did not think twice about giving me the job," she says.

Apart from experience, Kosome is also hands-on in undertaking mechanical work. All these she attributes to her time working with the Chinese firm.

"I can do a minor repair on the machine in the unfortunate event it breaks down when I'm alone. If it needs major repair, I call the mechanic. I never did mechanics, only plant operation."

According to the Kenya National Highway Authority, as of 2018, nine Chinese firms had offered local contractors an equivalent of 9.5 per cent of the Sh129.68 billion worth of road construction deals.

During that time, the World Bank and the AfDB financed Kenyan projects to the tune of Sh1.3 trillion, with a huge share of the funds being spent on roads.

Dickson Ochieng' during the interview.
Dickson Ochieng' during the interview.


Dickson Ochieng', the director of Electrical and Constructors Limited in Ahero, says the coming in of the Chinese boosts local workers.

"It is better than having a big local contractor. The Chinese will not bring people from China for services that can be offered by the locals," he says.

"This is because they have conditions. They'll be required to have work permits. No one is willing to do this when they have the opportunity to use local manpower."

Ochieng' says engineers can share the professional floor and explore how they do it in China.

"It's like what is happening there is brought before you. There's so much you can learn from them if you're willing to," he says.

"With the Chinese, they have no fear we will overpower them if we gain some knowledge. We can look at the Chinese work as an opportunity to take advantage of the different techniques that are used elsewhere."

Adhere Cavince, a scholar of international relations with a focus on China-Africa cooperation, says because of the presence of Chinese firms in Kenya, many young people in the country have had a chance to acquire some skills and knowledge in diverse areas.

"As a result of the construction of the SGR, Kenya is today home to highly qualified engineers on rail technology. Such skills are transferrable and should readily find application in other sectors of the economy," he says.

"Chinese companies like Huawei are working with local universities to introduce young students to their technologies. Upon graduation, such students can use the acquired skills to power Kenya’s digital transformation."

Cavince says more opportunities for intercultural exchanges among Kenyans and Chinese nationals are highly needed.

"This can help break down certain stereotypes, prejudices and fallacies that continue to define relations between the two countries," he says.

He says improved communication on expectations and the extent of cooperation on various projects should also be clearly stated to shun some stereotypes.

"Clear observation of domestic laws by Chinese firms and nationals operating in Kenya should also be recommended," he adds.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star