African seaports: Upgrade or drown

If the aviation industry has been a significant player in Africa’s economy, the shipping industry has been indispensable to its development. But relatively little has changed over the past decade in Africa’s seaport infrastructure and administration.

A World Bank study, Africa’s Infrastructure: A Time for Transformation, grimly noted that while many ports can handle the increasing traffic from the booming commodity trade, only a few are world class.

None of the five main trans-shipment centres (Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Port of Djibouti, Djibouti Republic; Durban, South Africa; and Mombasa, Kenya) is a major hub on the main international routes, says the study. Several ports suffer from low capacity, particularly in terminal storage and maintenance. Hubs attract big shipping lines and help lower transport costs. Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa are among the few African countries to show progress in developing their ports.

In addition to capacity constraints, the most commonly cited reasons for bottlenecks at African ports are old and inefficient port infrastructure and administrative blockages. Port dwelling time is also a growing concern. A 2012 World Bank report found that, with the exception of Durban, cargo spent an average of 20 days in African ports, compared with three to four days at most other international ports. Other weaknesses include poor equipment, inefficient operations, weak security standards and substantially higher port charges for containers and general cargo.

Integrated rail and road links

One of the major shortcomings of shipping in Africa is the lack of integrated rail and road networks with links to service seaports. The Economist reported that it costs US$4,000 to ship a car from China to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean coast, but getting it from there to nearby Uganda can cost another $5,000. “To transport one container from China to Ethiopia is almost triple the cost of sending a container from China to Brazil,” Liu Jiang, a general manager with Lifan, a Chinese automobile manufacturer, told Africa in Fact, a publication of Good Governance Africa, an advocacy group. In general, shipping goods to Africa is not expensive; it’s the inland transport costs that send the bill skyrocketing.

This lack of integrated links means there is still relatively little containerised traffic into the hinterland, especially into the landlocked countries where most imports are transported as general cargo. Although still relatively low, container transport in sub-Saharan Africa is expanding, says the World Bank-led report.

Africa’s busiest port

Most ports in Africa are run by governments; they own and operate the infrastructure. However, some countries like Ghana and Nigeria are opting for the “landlord” model, which is the preferred option, under which governments own and maintain the port infrastructure and the private sector is left to handle cargo operations.

Africa will need huge investments in building new infrastructure, upgrading existing ones and maintaining them. The World Bank calculates the region needs an estimated $93bn per year, or about 15% of its GDP. Actual investment is currently running at $45bn.

This article was first published by Africa Renewal.