Infrastructure: Uganda’s great Chinese expectations

Uganda has signed an agreement with a Chinese company to supply equipment for road repairs, as the quality of rural roads has become a cause for concern. But the delivery of the equipment has not been without controversy, as some think it is substandard, however the government is sticking to its guns, saying the material is good enough.

By Fredrick Mugira, 22 October 2013, published in The Africa Report

The roads are particularly worse during the rainy season and this could affect agriculture in the agrarian East African nation. The rainy season brings hope to the many unemployed youths in rural Kinyara, a village in Kabuyanda, southwestern Uganda.

They move up and down the muddy Kinyara-Rwangunga road, the only route to the village, offering to help extract stuck vehicles. Rural roads are usually characterised by mud, potholes and a network of small streams weaving paths across eroding cracks.

But unlike the youth, it is an entirely different story for farmers. Beebwa Charles, a banana and coffee farmer in the village is at his wits’ end during the rainy season.

“It’s very hard to get buyers for my produce because vehicles cannot come here,” he laments.

Kinyara village, situated about 340 kilometres from Uganda’s capital Kampala and just 9 kilometres to the Uganda-Tanzania border, is neither a place for vehicles nor the famously intrepid commuter motorcycles – Boda Bodas.

The Kinyara-Rwangunga road forms part of Uganda’s 33,000km of rough, community access roads. Statistics from Uganda’s works ministry indicate that the country has an estimated 800,000km of road infrastructure.

About 20,000km of the country’s total road network is maintained by the central government via the Uganda National Roads Authority; 22,000km by the district local governments; and community access roads amounting to 33,000Km maintained by sub-county local governments.

The remaining 5,000km belong to local urban centres. Approximately 3,400km [17%] out of the 20,000km central government roads are paved. As much as 80% of urban roads remain unpaved.

The state of Uganda’s roads is a bane to the mostly agrarian East Africa country where the road network comprises the most used form of transport, carrying about 95 percent of the country’s goods and 99 percent of traffic.

And for farmers like Charles, the state of roads does not help business.

Efforts

In recent years, Uganda’s government has accorded significant importance to the provision of an improved transportation system since 1986.

In June 2012, China provided road equipment – of about US $106 million – to the Ugandan government as part of a 40 year soft loan between the two countries. The terms of the loan agreement stipulates repayment in 40 years with a 10 year grace period. China, according to the agreement, is the preferential source of goods, technologies and services.

The equipment is pegged to facilitate development in 111 districts and 22 municipalities to ensure that roads in rural areas are transport worthy.

Despite the efforts, most local governments have continued struggling with bad roads after officials told Forum for African Investigative Journalists (FAIR) that some of the road-building equipment [the 112 Changlin 713 model graders] received as part the loan agreement with China often broke-down and were not cost-effective.

Lamentations from Local Government

FAIR’s two-month investigation concentrated on five districts in south western Uganda; an area with some of the poorest road networks (Isingiro, Mbarara, Sheema, Bushenyi and Buhweju).

The graders, according to most of the people interviewed, have not offered the promise of functional roads. In many cases the equipment only worked for a few kilometres before breaking down.

Kiiza Joseph, a trained mechanical engineer, said the Changlin 713 model grader received by his district, was “weak and lacking capacity to handle Isingiro district’s rough roads”.

Joseph is the chairperson for the works committee in Isingiro, where Kinyara, village is situated.

He said the situation had resulted in the district overspending on simple repairs of the grader “every time it breaks down”.

“The funds we are spending on this grader are much more than we would ordinarily spend if we were left to hire a strong grader” he said. “When we were constructing Kabuyanda road, the grader broke its shear pin six times. Each shear pin cost the district 250,000 shillings [$100]. This cost us 1.5 million shillings [$600] – in one week.”

Although the graders came with a three-year guarantee, it was not clear why small repairs and replacements of spare parts, such as shear pins and hydraulic pipes that undergo frequent wear and tear, were not covered.

“For this grader to finish various roads in one Su-County, it broke about four hydraulic pipes,” Kiiza lamented.

When the hydraulic pipes break “the machine [grader] consumes 75 liters of hydraulic fuel. This costs us 2.8 million shillings [$1120]. We have lost millions of shillings since we received this machine”.

The graders, according to the terms of guarantee, can only be repaired by specified suppliers. The same applies to spare parts.

The Changlin 713 model graders were supplied and are maintained by China FAW Group, a Chinese firm with offices in Namanve, Mukono district, close to the capital, Kampala.

“Every time it [grader] has a mechanical problem, we have to wait for over two weeks for mechanics to travel from Kampala and work on it.”

Light grading

Mwesigwa Silver, speaker for Isingiro district’s local government council, has no kind words for the Changlin grader in his district: “There is the challenge of the quality of the tractor. In Isingiro, the tractor cannot work in places like Nyakitunda, or Kabuyanda or Ruborogota, where the roads are stony and hilly. It breaks down every 10 kilometres.”

“We still have the bad roads that we had before these road units came.”

Silver says it is unlikely the tractor would last “the next five years”.

According to Byaruhanga Ignatius, Isingiro district’s chairperson, while the equipment was proving to be costly to his district, if used for light grading, “it does perfect work”.

Like Isingiro, Mbarara district has not benefited much from the provision of the equipment.

Kyamadidi Vincent Mujuni, Member of Parliament for Rwampara Constituency, said: “we are shocked that this equipment, which we thought now was going to give us some breathing space did not do what everyone expected.”

Rwampara Constituency has the worst roads in Mbarara district. “You cannot have such equipment there. It has actually not solved any problems,” says Mujuni. “If you moved to Rwampara now, you would find that 80 percent of the road network is not worked on.”

Muhangi Asaph, Mbarara district’s former Secretary of Works also insists the grader only works on “soft soils.”

Sheema, a newly created district, hoped to benefit from the Chinese grader to upgrade its roads, but Kamukama David, Works Committee chairperson for the district says those efforts have been futile. “The first time we used the Chinese grader, it broke down after grading only one kilometer of the road from the district headquarters to Kitagata.”

The district finds itself between a rock and a hard place with equipment that could not be used or equipment that was too expensive. “We pay 260,000 shillings ($104) per hour for the hired grader. We put in fuel and use it for eight hours a day.

The same story of underperforming Changlin graders has enfolded in the mountainous district of Buhweju, which has resorted to engaging bulldozers from the regional works department in Mbarara.

Monimpa Kiiza Barnabus, district engineer in Bushenyi, complains that blades for the Changlin grader “do not turn both sides. They only turn one side. This makes us unable to cut the back slopes properly. Other graders turn two sides.”

Good Deals Gone Bad?

Officials at FAW, the firm that supplied and maintains the Changlin graders, have so far remained tight-lipped and instead redirected all enquiries to the Ugandan government. And despite the widespread complaints of a somewhat substandard equipment, John Byabagambi, Uganda’s State Minister for Works has blamed “inexperienced operators” for the frequent breakdown of the graders.

Byabagambi explained that when Uganda received the graders, local governments were invited to select operators for a two-week training course. “Districts which had experienced operators are doing very well,” he said. “Kiruhura district sent us a pickup driver and we refused him.”

For him, other than the damage caused by inexperienced drivers, the machines are doing a “tremendous job” all over the country. He said suppliers were expected to open regional offices in the country for easy access by the local governments.

As to why only one firm [FAW] is allowed to supply spares parts, Byabagambi, also an engineer, argued that the government wanted to control corrupt local officials, who might raise prices for the spare parts.

Biraro Ephraim, Chairperson of Uganda’s Parliament’s Physical Infrastructure Committee, which supervises the activities of the Ministry of Works, backs his colleague’s arguments. “The machines were not supposed to break ground or uproot stones. They are supposed to grade where there are potholes.”

While he claims the complaints have been noted and followed up, the problem, he insists, lies with workmanship.

Three operators of Changlin graders who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, however, refuted claims of poor workmanship by the minister and the legislator. “We have operated them for a year now. We know them better” one of them said.

The equipment, they noted, have had problems with large potholes, which characterise much of Uganda’s rural roads.

For Isingiro district speaker Silver Mwesigye, “the next purchase by government must ensure quality and quantity of the machines. What people want is not just seeing the machines. They want the roads done”.

* The author, Frederick Mugira, is a member of the Forum For African Investigative Reporters (FAIR). This article was co-funded by SIDA and WITS China-Africa.

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