A look at Africa’s bumpy roads and rails

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the second largest country in Africa. Fifty-four years after independence, the DRC has few roads connecting one end of the country to the other. In fact, the only way to travel between two distant points is by air and canoes. Many Congolese cannot afford air travel, and most feel as if their country is made up of different countries.

But imagine multi-lane tarred roads linking Kinshasa in western DRC to Goma in the east, or roads and railway lines from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt, and from Dakar, Senegal to Nairobi, Kenya. Just imagine the endless possibilities that would bring.

Improving road and rail systems in Africa will boost the transportation of goods and raw materials, facilitate transactions and negotiations, especially when face-to-face meetings are required, boost tourism and positively impact ordinary lives in diverse ways such as ensuring that people get to the hospital quickly during emergencies, for example. Countless other activities depend on reliable roads and rails.

Most of Africa’s railway lines and roads are in bad condition and need huge investments, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB). The proportion of paved roads on the continent today is five times less than those in developed countries, notes the Bank. As a result, transport costs alone are 63% higher in Africa than in developed countries, hampering its competitiveness in the international and local markets.

The AfDB further points out that transport costs represent between 30% and 50% of total export value in Africa. These costs are even higher in 16 landlocked countries, including Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Mali and Niger, and constitute up to three-quarters of their total export value.

Poor roads and railways also have a negative impact on intra-African trade, which is currently just 11% of total trade. Development experts believe this figure might have been higher with better roads and railway lines. Trade among Southeast Asia’s 10 countries, at 37%, is much higher than in Africa, for example.

Railway lines in most African countries were built during colonial times to connect mines and other natural resources to ports. In fact, most of the lines were constructed by mining companies. Even now, passenger services account for no more than 20% of rail traffic, says the AfDB. Over the years, passenger business has been shrinking steadily, viable only when road networks are inadequate or non-existent, it says. According to the bank, the costs of maintaining rail tracks and signalling systems, and the level of spending needed to reach passenger speeds, run into billions of dollars and, if not subsidised, passengers would be unable to afford to pay for operating costs alone.

Programme for infrastructure development

With Africa’s economy growing at 5% a year on average, African leaders worry that without a good road and rail network, such impressive economic growth may not translate into real socio-economic development for Africans. In order to turn the situation around, they established the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) in July 2010. An initiative of the AfDB, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union, PIDA is an ambitious effort to boost African infrastructure, including rails and roads.

Ibrahim Mayaki, the CEO of NEPAD, says PIDA was designed to transform Africa and bridge its massive infrastructure gap. “At the moment,” he noted, “Africa is the least integrated continent in the world, with low levels of intra-regional economic exchange and the smallest share of global trade.”

One of PIDA’s remarkable projects is the construction of the 4,500km Algiers-Lagos highway. Also known as the Trans-Sahara highway, the project is already 85% finished and the remainder is expected to be completed this year, according to PIDA. Upon completion, the highway will create a corridor through the desert that will facilitate trade between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. This means countries such as Nigeria, Algeria and Niger will be able to conduct trade by road transport easily. Historically, the Sahara Desert has hindered trade between the two sub-regions.