Infrastructure is key to any country’s economic development. But, as with many African states, Zambia has found itself lacking in this regard. When British colonial rule ended in 1964, there was sufficient infrastructure to support the southern African nation’s population of approximately 3.1 million people. Today, Zambia is home to about 19 million people , this has jumped from about 10 million when the country conducted its fifth and most recent census in 2010.
The population has grown but infrastructure development has been limited. Zambia’s road network, both within towns and on intercity routes, is under-developed. Other infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and public offices, among many others, dates back to the colonial era or was constructed during the 27 years of President Kenneth Kaunda’s rule from 1964 to 1991.
China initially came on board to support the former President Levy Mwanawasa’s drive to improve infrastructure from 2002 until 2008. Rupiah Banda, who became president after Mwanawasa’s death, continued to work with the Chinese government on various infrastructure projects such as the construction of roads, dams and bridges. In 2006 Michael Chilufya Sata, then the leader of the official opposition, vowed to cut ties with China if he became president. He rescinded that statement before the 2011 general elections that saw him become Zambia’s fifth president. The country’s relationship with China continued – and China continued to build infrastructure in Zambia.
One of the biggest Zambian projects China has spearheaded in recent years is the construction of the Kafue Gorge Lower Hydropower Station in the southern district of Chikankata. One 150-megawatt turbine has been commissioned; four more are set to follow. When the project is completed it will add 750 megawatts to the country’s electrical grid and has been touted as a partial solution to Zambia’s power shortages.The Kafue Gorge Lower Hydro power plant is being built by the Sino-Hydro Corporation, at a cost of more than $US 2 billion. It has reportedly created about 3000 jobs and supported the establishment of auxiliary businesses. Another major project is the Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital. Its first phase was completed in 2014, with a capacity of 120 beds. The hospital, located on Lusaka’s Great East Road, was constructed with a grant in excess of USD $8 million. China later expanded the hospital, making it the second largest health institution in Zambia. (The University Teaching Hospital is the largest.) China committed $90 million towards the expansion. Today the hospital has a capacity of 1000 beds and is fully equipped to offer specialised treatment.
China has also funded two state-of-the-art international airports in Zambia: Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola and a modern terminal at Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. The latter included a hotel, cargo terminal, air traffic control building, and a rescue and fire station. It is hoped this facility will increase passenger numbers from two million to four million annually. The construction of the Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport saw Ndola Airport being handed over to the Zambian Air Force and renamed the Zuze Air Force Base. This means the copper-rich Copperbelt province now has two major airports of international standard. Zambia has also turned to China for help in raising its profile as preferred destination for international travelers, global conferences and conventions. It will push this agenda in July when it hosts the African Union’s Heads of State and Government Summit in Lusaka. The Chinese government paid $US 60 million to build the Kenneth Kaunda Conference Hall as a host venue. China could help Zambia’s ambition of creating strategic roads between itself and its neighbors. Speaking recently when he met with a delegation from the South West Chinese Business Association of Zambia , Infrastructure and Urban Development Minister Charles Milupi said the government was seriously considering putting up a dual carriageway between the capital, Lusaka and Livingstone. When completed, this will facilitate easy and fast transportation to four countries: Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The country is also anxious to improve connectivity to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. Zambia is looking at China once again to play a role in this regard. China has already opened links between Zambia and Tanzania through the construction of the railway line from the Port of Dar es Salaam to Kapiri-Mposhi, a district in Zambia’s Central province. The Zambian government has already indicated that it needs partners to implement infrastructure projects through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model – and China, its all-weather friend, looks likely to step up.
Notwithstanding, questions continue to arise from locals and Zambians in diaspora alike regarding reasons behind China’s infrastructural development in Zambia. Skeptics argue that there are ulterior motives behind China’s economic interventions in the country. Simultaneously, there are some who argue that China’s intervention and investment in infrastructural development are genuine, these efforts are altering Zambia’s infrastructure to the better and are enabling the government to realise its development agenda.
About the author
Chileshe Conrad Mwango is an Associate Research Fellow at Africa Asia Dialogues and a multi-award-winning journalist. He is a senior news reporter at the Phoenix Radio station, a popular radio station in Lusaka, Zambia.