Building an efficient road network

As far back as the 1960s, architects of African integration agreed that building infrastructure was vital to lubricate the wheels of intra-African trade and distribute its benefits regionally. The continent’s leaders embarked on ambitious projects such as the trans-African highways — segments of which would eventually stretch from Cairo to Dakar, Tripoli to Windhoek and Lagos to Mombasa. These would provide access to the sea to 15 landlocked countries and improve regional links.

“Unfortunately, like the economic integration process, regional infrastructure cooperation and integration has not been an outstanding success,” notes eminent Nigerian scholar and proponent of integration, Prof. Adebayo Adedeji. At the turn of the millennium a major drawback to trade among African countries remains the dire lack of infrastructure.

Africa lags behind the rest of the world in all aspects of infrastructure development — quantity, quality, cost and access. In 1997, Africa (excluding South Africa) had 171,000 kilometres of paved roads — about 18 per cent less than Poland, a country roughly the size of Zimbabwe. As efforts to complete the trans-African highways continue, the quality of existing roads is deteriorating. In 1992 about 17 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s primary roads were paved, but by 1998 the figure had fallen to 12 per cent, reports the World Bank. Today, more than 80 per cent of unpaved roads are only in fair condition and 85 per cent of rural feeder roads are in poor condition and cannot be used during the wet season. In Ethiopia, 70 per cent of the population has no access to all-weather roads.

In many countries, roads are concentrated in urban areas or around coastal ports — trade routes established during colonial times for the overseas shipment of commodities. Far fewer roads link neighbouring countries in regional networks.

Costly transport woes

Poor infrastructure makes the costs of transporting goods in Africa among the highest in the world, notes ECA Executive Secretary* K.Y. Amoako. African goods are therefore less competitive with those from other regions.

A poor transport system “acts as a non-tariff trade barrier,” concurs Prof. Kenneth Button, a public policy expert at George Mason University in the US, who has conducted transportation studies for the European Union.

World Bank studies show that a 10 per cent drop in transport costs could result in a 25 per cent increase in total African trade. The Bank also concludes that only about 25 per cent of the decline in Africa’s share of world exports can be attributed to poor prices, while the rest is due to non-price factors such as poor infrastructure and information services.

Bad roads, aged vehicles and lax regulations also cost lives. The continent’s road fatality share is three times as large as its share of motor vehicles. In a sample of African countries, 339 deaths per 10,000 vehicles were reported in 1996. In comparison, the average death rate in the world’s 10 most highly motorized countries was 2.3 per 10,000 motor vehicles that year, according to the Global Road Safety Partnership, a worldwide road safety organization.


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* – Please note: K. Y. Amoako is the former ECA Executive Secretary and the Founder and President for the African Center for Economic Transformation.

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