Trans-African Highway remains a road to nowhere

Driving from Cape Town to Cairo has long held a romantic allure for many adventurers. What about travelling from Dakar on Senegal’s Atlantic Ocean coast to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden, or from Mombasa, Kenya to Lagos, Nigeria?

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) conceived this dream more than 40 years ago and named it the Trans-African Highway (TAH). UNECA first proposed this roads network in 1971, when most of the continent’s countries were emerging from colonial rule. They were looking for ways to boost regional trade and integrate their economies. But nearly half a century later those aims remain unfulfilled and progress on this roads system is agonisingly slow.

The plan was always ambitious. UNECA envisioned nine roads linking cities as far apart as Tripoli on the Mediterranean, Windhoek in Namibia and Cape Town in South Africa. Together those networks would measure almost 60,000km, more than enough to span the earth’s circumference.

“It was designed in such a way that it constituted the backbone of the continent and all the countries would be linked by these highways,” explains Marie Therese Guiebo, economic affairs officer in UNECA’s regional integration, infrastructure and trade division. “You would take one from Algiers to Cape Town, one from Dakar to Djibouti. They wanted to make it the basis of regional integration in Africa.”

Building the road network has been worryingly slow: 21% of the TAH is still unconstructed, according to UNECA’s most recent assessment in 2011. In landlocked, underdeveloped central Africa only 3,891km of a planned 11,246km of roads have been paved, meaning that after more than four decades 65% remains unconstructed in that region.

The story is similar, though less extreme, in most other parts of Africa. Only one of the nine original roads, a 4,400km stretch across the Sahel, connecting Dakar, Senegal to Ndjamena, Chad, is completed. All eight of the other routes are missing significant links. Standards for construction are not harmonised, meaning that road quality varies widely. In some cases completed roads are degrading because they are not maintained.

The African Development Bank cites difficult terrain and climatic conditions as partially responsible for the crumbling Tripoli-Windhoek highway. It also blames inadequate funding for maintenance or upgrades. Civil conflicts in countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have damaged roads that now require reconstruction.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an African Union economic development programme, is responsible for finishing the TAH network. Its broader Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) has absorbed the project. As a result, NEPAD does not offer newer figures for the highway’s implementation. The rollout of planned roads has progressed at a snail’s pace.

The huge dearth of African infrastructure poses a major challenge to the continent’s development. As populations grow and investment increases, the pressure exerted on that infrastructure is increasing. African road networks carry hundreds of billions of dollars of goods every year, but tend to link cities to ports rather than connecting the continent’s many hinterlands. Road density varies widely: fewer than 40% of rural Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road, the lowest level of rural accessibility in the developing world, according to the World Bank.

That puts a huge drag on trade between African countries, which is only about 12% of the continent’s total, compared with over 40% between North American nations, according to 2012 UNECA estimates. Worryingly – though unsurprisingly, given the infrastructural constraints – that figure is not increasing.

High cost to investors

The state of the continent’s roads costs international investors, too. Transport prices are anywhere between 50% to 175% higher in Africa than global averages, consuming more than 20% of foreign export earnings, according to KPMG, a professional services firm.

Citadel Capital, a Cairo-based private-equity group, knows this first hand. Every time it transports a single container from the chronically congested Kenyan port of Mombasa to its agricultural project in South Sudan, it costs the company a dizzying US$25,000. In general, while it takes 19 days to ship a container from Singapore to Kenya, it takes 20 more days to truck it along the single-lane roads between Mombasa and Nairobi, the World Bank says.

“All told, the lack of adequate infrastructure is estimated to cut productivity across the continent by as much as 40%,” says Klaus Findt, chief operating officer of KPMG Global Infrastructure-Africa.