- Taro Mitamura
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Africa is often called the last frontier due to its potential for economic growth. Other parts of the world are seeking opportunities to invest in the continent, but China has an overwhelming share.
China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative to create a giant economic zone has sights set on Africa as well as the Eurasian Continent. It has recently built a new railway system in Kenya.
"This inaugural journey on our new Madaraka Express marks a transformative moment for Kenya and also for the great continent of Africa," announced Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
That "transformative moment" was the opening of a new railway line in Kenya.
It is the largest public works project since Kenya gained independence in 1963. It links the capital Nairobi with Mombasa, a port city on the Indian Ocean 470 kilometers away.
The price tag was over 3 billion US dollars -- most of which was paid by China. The tracks were laid by Chinese companies, and the train cars that run on them are Chinese.
"The railway is the product of China and Kenya's cooperation. It's an achievement founded on the friendship between the 2 countries," says Chinese State Councilor Wang Yong.
The train has been running for almost 2 months and has been fully booked every day. Passengers enjoy the vast scenery of Africa, including elephants.
Attendants are in every car to see to any problems passengers may have.
"They enjoy very much," says an attendant.
"Awesome! It's nice. I'm telling you, I'm telling every Kenyan to test this," says a passenger.
The common means of transport between Nairobi and Mombasa used to be a bus ride lasting over 10 hours.
The railway has cut that time by more than half, down to 4-and-a-half hours.
"On the bus, you take a whole day there, so at the end of the day you are tired," says a passenger.
"Even in terms of opening up the tourism potential of this country, and also improving even the movement of people. So already, we are seeing positive fruits of this investment in this country," says Ben Nyanchoga of the University of Nairobi.
China has increased its presence in Africa over the past 2 decades.
Beijing's interest has been on developing resources, as well as building infrastructure, such as ports and roads. Its most recent emphasis is on rail networks.
Another project with Chinese financing is an 800-kilometer route completed last year. It links Djibouti on the Red Sea and the inland country of Ethiopia.
China plans to invest in more such railways, stretching from coastal areas in Kenya to landlocked countries like Uganda and Rwanda. The railways will become a major distribution network.
Chinese companies are also eyeing new markets in Africa. One month after the railway in Kenya opened, a major trade fair was held in Nairobi.
Chinese manufacturers showcased their electrical appliances and interior goods for Kenya's growing middle class.
Beijing expects that the heavy investment in Africa could act as an engine in the region, and also benefit its own economy.
"It has great potential. Kenya is an important country for the Silk Road," says a Chinese manufacturer.
China's many infrastructure projects in Africa are giving it accents to its growing markets.
NHK World's Taro Mitamura joins Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya live from Johannesburg.
Nakayama: How do you see China's presence on the continent?
Mitamura: While covering Africa, I strongly felt the overwhelming scale of China's economic advances. Chinese companies are involved in infrastructure development projects in various parts of Africa. African markets abound with Chinese products.
The latest report from a major consulting firm reveals that China's foray into Africa has become much deeper than previously thought.
Trade between China and Africa has increased 14-fold over the last 2 decades, and is believed to have reached around 180 billion dollars. The figure is overwhelming -- more than 3 times the amount of Africa's trade with its second largest trade partner, India.
Shibuya: People in Kenya seem to welcome China's investment. But is there another side to this?
Mitamura: In Kenya, many people expect the new railway line to bring major economic benefits. But some people are worried that the railway project will lead to more Chinese influence in the country.
Some people also voiced concerns over safety. In Kenya last month, a bridge that was being built by a Chinese company suddenly collapsed. Reports said 27 people were injured in the accident.
The bridge was near completion. Just 2 weeks before the accident, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had inspected the construction site and expressed high hopes for the project.
The accident came as a great shock to Kenyans, and some became worried about the Chinese company doing the construction.
An official of the Chinese company said they had taken all necessary safety measures.
Nakayama: What direction do you think Chinese engagement in Africa will go from here?
Mitamura: I think China will accelerate its economic expansion into Africa, eyeing the continent's huge market. At the same time, China may get more involved in Africa's security.
In recent years, China has been actively sending its troops to join UN peacekeeping missions in African nations.
China has set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, in East Africa. Vessels carrying troops who will be stationed at the base are now on their way to Djibouti. Djibouti, with its strategic location, is also home to military bases of the United States and France. Japan's Self-Defense Forces also have a base in Djibouti to support anti-piracy operations off Somalia.
China has explained that the new base will support its anti-piracy missions. But military officials in the United States and European countries are closely watching China's moves