February 11, 2009

The challenges facing roads projects

By Jackson Okoth

Delays by Treasury to clear imported equipment by contractors engaged in donor-funded projects, shortage of building materials, frequent breakdown of equipment and inadequate personnel account for the slow completion rates for various road projects in the country.

Officials at the Ministry of Roads and Public Works say that in cases where spares and specialized equipment is needed, especially in donor-funded projects, the Treasury, which is headed by Acting minister John Michuki also needs to issue tax exemptions to enable the equipment come into the country duty-free.

"We have since established that delays to issue these exemptions are part of the reasons for the delays in road projects in the country."

Given the prevailing boom in the country’s overall construction industry, the domestic market has been hit by a tight supply situation, with contractors queuing for cement at various outlets in the country.

Apart from shortage of cement, which forms a significant component of road construction, contractors have also been hit by shortage of bitumen.


Road contractors depend on cement for construction of bridges, culverts, mixes the gravel.

They are also unable to procure enough bitumen the market, says an official at the roads ministry.

Acting Finance Minister John Michuki. With a lot of progress made in repairing vital road links in the country, another critical challenge is lack of adequate funding. [PHOTO: Tom maruko/standard]

Frequent breakdown of equipment and lack of spares is also taking its toll on various road projects in the country. A case in point is the repair work along Thika Road.

Work on this road has been delayed as the contractor on site awaits the importation of vital spares for equipment used in milling and overlaying work on the road. Investing in equipment for road construction is a highly expensive venture, running into hundreds of millions of shillings, which simply means that most of them are not stocked locally.

For instance, a grader costs an estimated Sh25 million, while a standard bulldozer costs Sh100 million.

A contractor doing any roadwork may be required to have as many as six bulldozers, 10 graders and 40 tippers when executing works. This is a very expensive venture.

These machines sometimes break down, causing delays.

The long procurement procedures have also been cited by the roads ministry as one of the reasons for the delays in completing road projects. Combined with guidelines from the Treasury, the Procurement Act is seen as a major barrier.

long procedures

"What we are saying is that these procedures, while they are transparent, can be shortened," official at the ministry say.

The ministry further reckons that the main reason why most roads are collapsing overloading by trucks. In a bid to sort out this problem, it is now putting up computerized weighbridges, with read-only memory, able to capture all the details of the vehicle. One such bridge is being put up in Mariakani.

It has also been established that while supervision and design of roads used to be done in-house by the ministry, private consultants and firms now undertake this work.

Presently, the ministry is experiencing a shortage of adequate personnel, especially consultants and contractors.

This scenario has been attributed to the flurry of road projects ongoing in various parts of the country. Majority of contractors are now engaged in these projects, creating a shortage. In the past, many bidders would respond to a tender floated by the Government. But this is no longer the case, with mostly one or two bidders turning up in any one project.

There is now no sufficient capacity, because almost all the available contractors are fully engaged in other projects.

This has been cited as one of the critical challenges facing the Government in its efforts to bring the road network back to shape, after almost a decade of neglect.

Over the past three years, the Government has floated various road construction and repair tenders in a bid to bring the state of vital links to the required standards, to be able to cope with a rapidly expanding economy, witnessed in recent years.

unlock funding

With a lot of progress made in repairing vital road links in the country, another critical challenge is lack of adequate funding.

While the World Bank and the IMF has already given their seal of approval to progress made, these institutions are yet to unlock the funding required to complement Government efforts.

"We are still hoping to get more disbursements from the WB to deal with critical works on our road networks that are pending," says a Transport ministry official.

The country’s economic ranking has improved to 3.7 points, qualifying the country for more funding from the donor agencies," says an official.

Available figures indicate that the Government’s expenditure on road construction has increased from the allocated Sh10 billion budgeted for the 2006/07 financial years to Sh17 billion.

Funding for the road sector is from the exchequer, donors and fuel levy. Already, the Ministry of Roads has a budget of Sh100 billion, a huge bulk of it coming from the donors.

In a bid to bridge the financing gap, the Government is also opening tenders for the construction of various bypasses, which will be on a concession basis.

The process involves public- private sector participation, on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis. The Government is also looking at floating bonds, to raise funds for road construction - one of the many aspects of bringing in private sector participation.

Bitumen Scandal

In June last year The Standard reported a scandal involving senior Ministry of Roads officials over the procurement of bitumen used in road maintenance works.

It was reported that the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) had taken up the issue and, as members of the public, we thought the culprits would finally be apprehended and brought to book without delay.

Nonetheless, nothing has been forthcoming ever since.

Were the KACC officers assigned the task unable to get to the bottom of this scandal or were there compromises or some form of secret amnesty?

Clearly the public procurement and disposal act guidelines were disregarded and this was done with absolute impunity.

Formed syndicate

It is alleged that these officers had formed a syndicate of allocating their companies, which are normally registered under other people's names tenders to supply bitumen to the ministry usually at grossly inflated prices.

This being a matter of public interest the taxpayers need to know what became of these investigations.

We need to know whether the officers were found to be innocent or guilty of flouting procurements and if so, what disciplinary actions were preferred?

Besides the maize importation and Triton fuel scandals, we should also deal with all other cases of corruption, if at all we are serious about the fight against the vice.