Transportation Infrastructure: On the Road to an African Economic Union

Nov. 24, 2020 6 min read

Over the years, many great African intellectuals and scholars have spoken of the great potential of a united Africa. Kwame Nkrumah once said:

“It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak; united, Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world.”

This is true on many levels, but one of the most concrete areas where the need for unity is clear is in transportation infrastructure. At present, Africa’s infrastructure is fragmented. Some valuable transportation framework was developed during the colonial period, but most of this was designed to move natural resources from inland areas to coastal ports for export.

Transport networks in other parts of the world, by contrast, form interconnected grids. This allows different subregions to work together better and form a single economic community.

With the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), Africa is closer to unity than ever before. The legal base is there. Now we need to build connectivity on other levels — especially transport.

Getting Africa Unstuck

In many parts of Africa, especially in rural areas during the rainy season, it’s common for cars and trucks to get stuck. This can actually be a metaphor for the situation of the whole continent. Limited transportation infrastructure slows down economic growth, and the lack of funding resulting from this situation limits how much infrastructure can be built.

Unlocking Africa’s potential in trade is without a doubt one of the best ways to break out of this cycle. There is so much untapped potential, and transport infrastructure is the key to unlocking it. Africa accounts for over 16% of the world’s population, but only 1% of the world GDP, and only 2% of world trade.

Africa has one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world. Trade between African countries accounts for just 18% of the continent’s total trade. By comparison, inter-regional trade accounts for 69% of total trade in Europe; 40% in North America, and 59% in Asia. The lack of trade connections is one of the major factors holding back the development of homegrown African industry, and keeping African economies dependent on the export of agricultural and mineral products.

In many cases, African countries are importing products from Europe, North America, or China that could be produced locally, or are already being produced in neighboring African countries. Increased trade between African countries can vitalize industry and create jobs, helping to eliminate debt. Lower transport costs and more access to locally produced goods can also mean lower prices for consumers, which translates to more purchasing power for the people. It can also decrease the emissions associated with importing products from distant locations.

So how can Africa actually achieve this vision? The key is to find ways to use available resources more efficiently.

Building Smarter

Deciding where to build a road or bridge can sometimes be as difficult as the construction itself. This is especially true when budgets are tight, which is the case in many parts of Africa. It’s worth putting more effort into this decision-making process. More informed, data-driven decisions about where to build transport infrastructure can greatly increase the economic benefits derived from roads and bridges.

There is a lot more to it than one might think. Obviously, you need to look at factors like soil conditions and topography to determine costs, but it is also important to consider the impact that new roads will have on people. For example, a road that increases access to education for children may support long-term goals, while a road that helps farmers get their produce to market can bring more immediate economic benefits.

This is why Engineer Africa developed a Road Impact Factor Aggregation methodology. This is a process whereby we systematically study the impact that different components of transport infrastructure would have if constructed. In this way, it is possible to quantify the effects of different road segments and prioritize them in line with national and international development goals.

As more Impact Factor studies are carried out, the overall data set will grow, providing a useful reference for governments, donors and investors. This can help to direct resources toward the highest-impact projects first, amplifying the short- and long-term impact of road segments.

Road Development Prioritization

This topic is covered on page 35 of a book we recently released. The book is available for download here.

Closing the Infrastructure Gap

Recent years have brought a lot of progress in Africa’s infrastructure development. In 2020, there were an estimated 68,000 miles (110,000 km) of roads, rail lines and bridges planned across the continent, representing investments of over $69 billion. Still, the African Development Bank estimates between $68 and $108 billion in additional annual investment is needed.

Applied engineering knowledge can help to close this gap by using resources more effectively and efficiently. This applies on the local level, but also on a larger scale. We need to consider what kind of trade opportunities will be opened by a certain road segment, and how many people this will benefit. The best outcomes will bring benefit to as many people as possible.

Bringing immediate economic benefits to people is one of the best ways to accelerate closing the infrastructure funding gap. If more people have access to economic opportunities, they will also have more income to spend, which will stimulate local economies and the development of local industry. With more money in local economies, there will be more budget available to finance more transport infrastructure without taking on debt obligations.

A Good Place to Start

Catalyzing Africa’s transformation into a leading world power will take a lot of effort in multiple sectors, including energy, education, health care and many others. Transport infrastructure is one of the best places to start, because it is essential to success in all other areas. Good transport infrastructure makes it easier for children to get to school, for farmers and artisans to get their products to market, and for people in need of medical care to get treatment. Progress in this area must be at the heart of efforts to realize Africa’s human potential, which is why it is one of our top priorities at Engineer Africa.

This, along with many other important topics, is discussed at greater length in a book we recently published. We welcome everyone to download it here and take a look.

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