The railway that caused so much debt

Kenya’s Debt Cycle is a documentary about Kenya’s growing public debt and how it is affecting ordinary Kenyans.

Created by journalists Maurice Oniang’o, Sam Munia and Ashley Ojak of Kenya’s investigative media house, Africa Uncensored, the documentary breaks down how the country’s debt to China for financing infrastructure affects different sectors. It also explains the relationship between the two countries, and how it impacts the daily lives of ordinary Kenyan citizens.

Ashley Ojak.

The journalists reveal the facts largely through telling people’s stories, among them truck drivers who lost their jobs as a result of the 578.8km Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), built with a loan from China and under management of the  China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC).

In a bid to raise funds to pay back the loan, the Kenyan government issued a directive for all containers or cargo being transported between Mombasa and Nairobi to be sent via the SGR, rendering thousands of truck owners and drivers jobless. An interview with a food kiosk owner also highlighted how the directive has affected other small businesses in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa.

The investigation came at the back of several stories about Kenya’s ballooning debt, which the journalists felt had not explained it in a way that people could understand in terms of how it related to their own livelihood. To the ordinary person, Kenya’s debt was an abstract subject involving the government. The journalists wanted the audience to understand the impact Kenya’s public debt to China had on their lives and how the debt is being serviced.

Maurice Oniang’o.

The research and filming took several months. Even though the cargo truck business is one of the most affected sectors, especially in Mombasa, the journalists had problems in getting people to speak on camera as many feared reprisal. Some people cancelled interviews at the last minute, while others who had agreed never showed up at the agreed location or never answered calls again.

“One time we were promised an interview by a leading transporter in Kenya. We left Nairobi for Mombasa, but upon our arrival, he refused to meet us. He referred us to his son, who referred us to someone else, who also referred us to another person who declined to be interviewed but referred us again,” said Oniang’o.

Sam Munia.

The story was broadcast on NTV, Kenya’s general entertainment channel, which has an audience of over five million. This served as a catalyst to initiate important conversations on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, including follow-up discussions on local TV stations including KTN, Kenya’s 24-hour news and current affairs channel.

Above and beyond being a conversation starter, the documentary ensured Kenyans were informed about some of the corruption and embezzlement that had happened during the construction of the SGR and that had left Kenyan citizens with significant debt.

And it helped connect two of the now unemployed interviewees, a truck driver and a warehouse worker, with a company that offered them jobs.  

The documentary won the 2021 Development TV Reporting award at Kenya’s Annual Media Excellence Awards.


Watch Kenya’s Debt Cycle: