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Snapshot of African transport Infrastructure shows more shadows than lights

The State of Africa’s Infrastructure Report 2024 published by the Africa Finance Corporation is the first edition of a series of annual studies on the situation of Africa’s infrastructure which aims at assessing progress in the continent’s infrastructure landscape, spotlighting critical gaps and offering new insights into the core sectors of power, transport, logistics, digital communications, and commodity-based value chains. In fact, investments in these areas are crucial for driving the structural transformation of African economies, promote sustainable growth, empower people across the continent, and finally put Africa on a path to overcome the vicious cycle of boom-bust economies affected by volatility in global commodity prices. Unfortunately, in this regard, results achieved are not so exciting.

The conclusions of the report are draconian: despite decades of achievement, the pace of Africa’s infrastructure development has not kept up with the growing needs of African population. Core infrastructure is still today prevalently centered around a “pit-to-port” model, where commodities are sent in their raw status to ports for reaching international markets where they are processed. The report illustrates a case study of African copper, which is mostly exported in a semi-manufactured status (concentrates or cathodes), for being transformed overseas and reimported incorporated in finished products in Africa (e.g., machinery, cables, wire, cars or electronic appliances). The final losers are African citizens, that end up paying a disproportionated cost on products that (just to add insult to injury), are mostly made with materials extracted from the soils of their countries.

While good progress has been achieved in the development of ports, mainly thanks to the investments made by foreign investors, the rest of the value-chain remains fragmented and under-developed, the report states. Especially roads and railways remain under-funded, have a limited extension and are fragmented. African railways, in particular, struggle with underinvestment, low usage, and technological disparities, limiting their efficiency and connectivity. Still today, 12 African countries, especially in the Sahel strip, have no railways at all, while those countries that are more lucky, have a density of railways which is among the lowest on the planet.

On the other hand, air transport, which is particularly important in Africa - as distances from factory to market or farm to market are huge - compared to the other regions of the world is underdeveloped. The reason is that this modes of transport, apart from having a limited capacity (in terms of volumes of cargo it can transport), has costs that are considerably higher compared to the rest of the world. However, the report also notes that Africa has seen the emergence of air cargo hubs, especially in North, East and South Africa, where this mode of transport is being used for serving regional markets.

The consequence of this limited logistics infrastructure, and particularly of roads or railways, have caused the emergence of a cabotage traffic from port to port, where goods are increasingly transported via maritime from an African nation to another. This has caused a considerable growth in the demand for transshipment.

Considering this scenario, no wonder than why Africa high logistics costs are so high. But above all, it poses a big question mark on how effective are the efforts of African economies to reach higher rates of industrialization and economic diversification, considering that this lack of a transport infrastructure concretely acts as a missing link between production and consumption that sabotages any attempt of growth.

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