Workers on Kenya’s Chinese railway © Reuters
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The eight-lane motorway stretching north for 45km from the heart of Nairobi to the industrial town of Thika was hailed as a marvel of Chinese engineering when it opened in 2012 after taking less than four years to build.

“People liked what they saw because of the speed at which it was built,” says Moses Ikaria, the managing director of the Kenya Investment Authority. “The perception here was that roads took a long time to build but the Chinese changed that.”

In the middle of last year Nairobi’s southern bypass, also built by the Chinese, opened to similar fanfare. While less than 30km and only two lanes in each direction, the road is a definite improvement on the wider Thika highway — not least because the speed bumps are signposted.

Sandwiched between the two was the 2013 opening of the “Kileleshwa bypass”, a Japanese road cutting through the Kenyan capital. It is “of an infinitely higher standard than of any other road to be found in Nairobi,” according to Aly-Khan Satchu, an investment analyst in the city.

The three roads encapsulate the nature of the two Asian countries’ investment in Kenya, and Africa more broadly. Japanese investment is usually regarded as reliable and of excellent quality whereas that from China, while more prevalent, is seen as inferior in quality but improving.

Although neither side openly admits they are engaged in an “anything you can do, I can do better” competition, the evidence can suggest otherwise. In a speech at the official reception for the Japanese emperor’s birthday, Tatsushi Terada, ambassador to Kenya, said: “A Japanese project might cost more but the life cycle cost in the end is much better because it requires less maintenance.” He did not need to name names for everyone present to know where his comment was directed.

Meanwhile, on a recent visit to Nairobi, Ji Peiding, a member of the Chinese government’s Commission for Africa, said Beijing wanted to “transform” its relationship with the continent. “We want to see value come back to Africa,” he said, adding: “I’m happy now that in Africa people are talking about being partners rather than still having begging bowls for aid that keep making everyone poorer.”

This shifting strategy in part reflects China’s slowing trade with Africa, which grew at an average of 42 per cent a year in 2003-08, but fell to an annual 14 per cent in 2009-14, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. In 2014, bilateral trade in goods between Japan and Africa was $27.5bn, compared with $200bn of business done that year with China, Africa’s biggest trading partner.

The sense of competition extends to investment conferences. In December, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, attended the sixth triennial Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, in South Africa, where he promised $60bn in financial support to the whole continent. This included $35bn in preferential loans and export credit lines, $5bn in grants, $15bn to two China-Africa funds and $5bn in loans to smaller companies. Japan’s own equivalent, the Tokyo International Conference of African Development (Ticad), began in 1993 with the first five held every five years. The sixth, and the first in Africa, will be held later this year in Nairobi — only three years after the previous one.

The deals signed at Ticad VI will almost certainly be worth a fraction of the sum announced by President Xi. Yet analysts say the Chinese investment numbers should be treated with caution: it was unclear over which period the money would be available, or how much of the $60bn was new money and how much of it would actually be invested.

“Many people overestimate what the Chinese are doing in Africa,” said Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “There are a lot fewer of those big investments than people think. For example many oil investments are just exploration while some announced deals never get to the size that companies expected they might.”

Japanese investment has its critics too, particularly over the pace at which decisions are taken. “There’s a joke here that they do a feasibility study of a feasibility study of a feasibility study before investing while the Chinese are quick on their feet,” says Mr Ikaria.

Dennis Awori, the Toyota chairman in Kenya, “would like to see a little more speed” in decision-making from all quarters. “To be cautious is the right thing but when you do it so slowly it’s almost as if you’re reinventing the wheel,” he said.

Some of the caution may stem from what Kenyan interviewees identified as a natural Japanese reticence combined with a lack of knowledge about how to maximise the potential of diving into the continent. “Africa is seen by investors as one of the large geographical areas where there’s a lot of opportunities to grow and have high returns,” said Marc Fevre, a partner at law firm Baker & McKenzie.

Chinese engagement rests on a combination of the state and private sector to support various infrastructure schemes, including Kenya’s biggest project, a $5bn standard gauge railway. Yet Japanese companies are increasing their presence too — with agriculture a new favourite. As Mr Ikaria put it: “People are looking for new and innovative ways to compete with China [and that is] creating a competitive space.”

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