Feature by Liesl Venter - Freight News
While rail is without doubt the preferred long-term solution for sub-Saharan Africa’s cargo movement, the cost of investment remains prohibitive. According to Duncan Bonnett of Africa House, many countries have indicated their intention to shift cargo to rail – particularly along bulk freight routes – but few of the planned projects are off the ground. “There is no doubt a need to move to rail, especially if one takes into consideration the state of roads along the major bulk freight routes. Rail infrastructure is more expensive to build and justify. In most countries there is a requirement of some kind of guarantee in terms of bulk commodities to underpin the profitability of any rail investments,” he said. Talk of rail developments took centre stage some ten years ago during the commodity boom. Not only did governments focus on rail infrastructure delivery, but the private sector was also actively involved in the sector delivering infrastructure. “The Tete to Nacala rail line is one example of what was happening,” said Bonnett.
The subsequent commodity crash, however, saw the investment appetite plummet and road became the preferred method of transport again. According to Bonnett, the initial push for rail instead of road has disappeared. “There is a better understanding that it does not have to be either/or,” he told Freight News. “Rail is necessary but for longhaul heavy and bulk commodities. Road is as important to connect the continent – not just for the movement of people but for improved cargo transport and trade. ”He said the lack of road infrastructure was as challenging as the lack of rail infrastructure. “Without roads, the cost of basic commodities is out of reach for the world’s poorest people. In remote areas in Africa, a commodity as basic as cement, for example, is unaffordable as the price is up to 90% more than in the cities. ”Also, the cost of project development in these remote, rural and inaccessible areas drastically increases and becomes very difficult to find funding for.He said countries were increasingly looking at both road and rail infrastructure development. Another trend, according to Bonnett, was countries working together to deliver transport solutions.
Most recently, Kenya and Uganda announced they were joining forces to push the rehabilitation and seamless connection of the railway line between the two countries. Kenya is currently in the process of revamping its railway line from Naivasha to Malaba. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda are also set to work together to build 1200 km of roads linking these two countries. “These connections between countries are of critical importance as they allow for improved trade. It is estimated that once completed this road will allow Uganda to double its exports into the DRC,” said Bonnett. Another project to keep an eye on is the Lake Albert development where at least 700 km of roads will be constructed. In West Africa, where there’s a mining boom, several ambitious rail projects have been launched. Nigeria and Ghana both have published master plans for rail developments that exceed $15 billion each, linking the countries internally and reg iona lly.