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Africa shifts into top gear

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Africa shifts into top gearOur continent has become a popular investment destination over the past few years, so the role of transport and logistics has taken on greater significance. Africa’s future growth and development will depend on the quality of its infrastructure and the efficiency of its transport networks. CLAIRE RENCKEN reports.

In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted a study focusing on ten African transportation and logistics “hotspots”, namely Algeria, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania.

According to the report, based on the findings taken as a whole, Africa’s infrastructure lags well behind that of the rest of the world. However, between the regions, there are significant differences.

While none of the African countries analysed comes close to the United States, and China still has an edge too, South Africa’s overall transport infrastructure has an almost identical score to that of India, and scores better than Indonesia. Egypt and Kenya score lower, but they’re still ranked higher than Vietnam.

In fact, when it comes to roads, ports and air transport infrastructure, South Africa actually scores better than China, but the People’s Republic has a clear edge when it comes to rail. Transport and logistics companies entering the market need to understand local constraints and plan accordingly.

Getting around local markets

Most freight in Africa gets transported via road, yet most of the continent’s roads are still unpaved, and many paved roads are in poor condition. Quality tends to deteriorate significantly once you leave international trunk roads.

The situation is particularly dire in the DRC and Angola – and even in Kenya, which scored just below South Africa in road quality among the countries studied. Only 14 percent of roads are paved in Kenya and its capital city, Nairobi, suffers from massive congestion too.

Where roads are currently adequate, road maintenance is looming as a potential problem. For example, Nigeria’s roads carry more than 90 percent of domestic passengers and freight. However, capital expenditures there aren’t keeping up with the need for preventive maintenance – just three quarters of federal roads are in good or fair condition, and regional roads are in worse shape. The situation is similar in other African countries.

Africa’s rail networks are generally in even worse shape than its roads. In many countries, most rail lines are still left over from the colonial period. They are in poor state of repair and are out of date.

There are some notable bright spots, however – between 2006 and 2011, South Africa invested more than US$ 5 billion (about R56 billion) in railways. That’s had a profound impact – but investments are set to increase further in the coming years, as South Africa still lags well behind China and India in rail infrastructure. Mozambique also has major plans to improve its rail network; start-up difficulties notwithstanding.

Connecting within and across Africa

One of the most important factors in Africa’s future development will be increasing cross-border trade, both within Africa and with the rest of the world. That means solid road and rail networks that span regions and, indeed, the continent will be required.

There are already a number of trans-African highways, and several, like the Lagos-Abidjan highway through West Africa, already include expansion plans. A quick look at the map suggests that the highway network provides good access for road travel all across the continent.

Sadly, appearances can be deceiving. Road quality is very patchy on these highways. While some offer a good transport route, others are in such a bad state of repair that they are essentially unusable.

One example is the Beira-Lobito corridor. According to experts, this stretch of road isn’t an available freight route at present, with some sections unfinished and others frequently subject to floods. However, in the future it could develop into a viable corridor.

What about rail? Regional integration with new rail lines and the extension of existing tracks has started in southern and eastern Africa. South Africa is collaborating with Swaziland on a joint rail project. In the east, Tanzania is working with neighbours Rwanda and Burundi on plans to link the gateway city of Dar es Salaam with Kigali in Rwanda and Musongati in Burundi. And Kenya is already connected to neighbouring Uganda via rail. Rail integration in the west is, however, almost non-existent.

Gateways to the rest of the world

While transport within Africa is important, so is getting the continent connected to the rest of the world. That’s where gateways – ports and airports – come in. Ports are by far the most important entry point to the African continent with most goods travelling by ship, but there aren’t enough ports to handle existing traffic, much less to allow for growth.

That’s set to change. There are currently plans to build, or significantly expand, five ports – in the west at Barra do Dande (north of Luanda); at Lobito in Angola; at Lekki in Nigeria; in the east at Lamu in Kenya; and Musoma in Tanzania. While these projects will be a big step in the right direction, demand is rising even faster and congestion will remain.

In the south, Durban is indisputably the number one port – not only in southern Africa, but the whole of the continent. In the north of Africa, by far the most important shipping route is the Suez Canal in Egypt. The transhipment centre of Port of Said has emerged as a state-of-the-art facility since it began operations in 2004, serving the Mediterranean as well as the entrance of the Suez Canal.

While there are a number of competing ports in both eastern and western Africa, there are big issues with capacity and efficiency.

Africa has a number of international airports for passenger traffic across the continent. The busiest ones are O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa (with a capacity of almost 21 million passengers annually) and Cairo International Airport in Egypt (which processes 13 million passengers annually).

So, Africa certainly has what it takes to be the next land (or rather continent) of economic opportunity. Here’s hoping we get it right!


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