NAIROBI — Concilia Owire grew up in a rural hamlet in western Kenya at a time when young girls had to surmount harmful cultural beliefs, patriarchy and financial constraints in their quest to realize their career dreams.
The electrical engineering major in her late 20s earned celebrity status in her native village and beyond when in 2017 joined the growing ranks of female locomotive drivers at the newly launched China-built Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).
Prior to becoming a locomotive driver, Owire underwent rigorous training locally and in China to prepare her for the arduous task of shuttling a modern train service whose launch set the pace for Kenya’s gradual transformation.
The thoughtful but jolly youth said being among the pioneer group of female locomotive drivers is an honour that she has cherished.
“I can say am very happy and honoured to be among the first batch of female locomotive drivers in Kenya and I have been able to learn so much from the company and from my Chinese teachers,” said Owire.
In 2017, she participated in a 50 days training in China to learn about railway operations and maintenance, paving the way for her recruitment at the modern train service where meritocracy is greatly valued.
Owire’s competence in shuttling locomotives along the 480 kilometres Mombasa-Nairobi SGR corridor has earned her accolades at the workplace besides inspiring young girls.
Of late, her career path has been on an upward trajectory thanks to focus, dedication and passion and her duties have expanded to include training upcoming Kenyan locomotive drivers and handling management tasks.
Owire’s rapid transition from a shy village girl to an urbane and skilled young woman is a testimony of transformation that the SGR has unleashed in Kenya.
The Chinese-built modern railway has safely operated more than four years even as it emerges as a key player in revolutionizing mobility, connectivity and commerce in the East Africa’s largest economy.
“The SGR transportation indicators and its increasingly important social significance have also earned the approval of freight owners and passengers,” said Africa Star Railway Operation Company Limited (AfriStar) which operates the SGR.
Statistics from the SGR operator indicates it had ferried over 6.4 million passengers between Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and the coastal city of Mombasa from its launch in 2017 to Oct. 31, 2021, even as it targets 2 million commuters this year, a record high.
Currently, there are on average six passenger trains and 17 freight trains operating along the Mombasa-Nairobi corridor on a daily basis, which have reduced journey time while guaranteeing safety of commuters and bulk cargo.
The operator said in 2021 alone, the freight train has transported 382,000 TEUs as of October 31, adding that enhancing safety of cargo, passengers and protecting pristine habitats along the corridor has been the defining feature of SGR’s corporate culture.
Kenyans from all walks of life who have used the Mombasa-Nairobi commuter train service that was launched in 2017 have spoken glowingly about how it has transformed their lives in many aspects.
George Agutu, a middle aged civil servant who works in Mombasa said the modern train service has guaranteed him seamless travel to Nairobi every weekend for a reunion with his family.
“I now conveniently take the Standard Gauge Railway night train to Nairobi on Friday night to be with my family and back to work on Sunday,” Agutu said.
He said the modern commuter train has been a popular choice for civil servants, entrepreneurs and tourists plying along the Mombasa-Nairobi route amid cheaper fare, enhanced safety and punctuality.
Eliud Muraya, a 44-year-old Nairobi based entrepreneur said the SGR freight service has been delivering his merchandise imported from abroad at dizzying speed besides affordable charges and enhanced safety compared to trucks.
The father of two said it used to take 30 days to ferry cargo from the port of Mombasa to his premises amid clearance hurdles but thanks to SGR freight service, it now takes less than one week for it to be delivered.
Erastus Mwencha, former deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission noted the SGR has eased congestion at the port of Mombasa to the benefit of local and foreign investors.
He noted a large number of trucks have been removed from Kenyan highways courtesy of the modern train service, amid ecological benefits to the country.