Reuniting Africa: Infrastructure

It was delightful to hear news that Kenya in collaboration with the Chinese government will be investing $13.8 billion to build a railway line to link its port city of Mombasa with the capital Nairobi. It is hoped that the line will eventually extend to the landlocked countries of Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda. This is great news not only because of its Pan-African connotations, but also because it’s a step forward towards getting Africa’s infrastructure interconnected and closer to global standards ( for example to the level of the Eurotunnel).

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Whenever foreigners come to Africa to visit, they always exclaim how challenging and long it can take to get from one place to another in certain areas. It’s incredible how disconnected Africa remains. The same applies to movement of goods (a factor essential for commerce and business). Often and comparatively with say Asia, it takes longer (and costs a lot more) than must necessarily be to send goods, or receive goods from one African country to another, which is not desirable.

The vastness and distances may be a problem, and environmental degradation such projects cause is also a major consideration, but that doesn’t mean that there are no workable solutions to such challenges. Often the cause of inaction or lack of progress appears to be bad politics and selfish financial interests, which end up  frustrating well-meaning projects whose economic and social benefits could be significant for a country and its neighbours, and far outweigh the negative impacts.

Take Malawi for example. Mota Engil the Portuguese conglomerate was contracted by the government of Bingu Wa Mutharika to construct a port in Nsanje (see animation of the Nsanje Inland Port via YouTube), at great expense to the Malawian tax payer.

The  project was part of a project known as the Shire-Zambezi Water Way, and whose total cost was said to be US$6 billion would have reduced the cost of importing goods by 60%.

The Malawi section of the project took years to build, and costed the Malawian government €25 million dollars. Now, almost 2 years after the sudden death of Mutharika, the first ship is yet to sail to the port. There is little or no dialogue about the way forward, the current Malawian president is in no rush to resurrect the project, even when the Malawi Trade & Investors Quarterly Magazine in 2007 wrote that Malawi spends at least US$200 million annually to import or export goods via ports in Mozambique or Tanzania. My question is this: isn’t reducing the cost of imports for landlocked countries in Africa a priority to the whole of Africa? Shouldn’t it be a priority to all Africans? Think about it… look at the US, or for that matter the European Union, and their policy of free movement of goods.

How can the countries in Africa, let alone the continent ever develop when leaders do not collaborate or are only too willing to impede such meaningful projects before they even commence? Why can’t African leaders (including the chiefs of the African Union, SADC, COMESA and African Development bank) begin to practise continuity, and put pressure on the stakeholders to get to grips with the project? Of the countries who signed the memorandum of understanding of the Shire-Zambezi Water Way, why does it appear like no one is actively seeking to resurrect and resume the project ( Is the said feasibility study Mozambique was demanding underway? If so what is the progress on that front?), since it’s undeniable that there will be mutual benefits to the greater economy of Southern Africa?

Looking at half-hearted comments from those who think they have something to lose (other shallow comments from here), you will find that the Mozambicans have to shoulder part of the blame for the stalling of the project. Against all appearance of conventional wisdom, it seem they have been dragging their feet from throwing full support behind the project, with talk of environmental assessments, etc and greater emphasis of development of roads?? Can such a massive project have been commenced and physical construction at Nsanje began without first assessing or undertaking an environmental assessment?

I’m not convinced. Either there’s something about this project that ordinary folk like us have not been told, or there was a massive miscalculation on the part of Mutharika to begin building the port. Else, it was visionary (see YouTube marketing clip ‘overselling’ the idea here), a quality often lacking within leadership across Africa.

Having said that, it is more likely than not, that the reason some people in Mozambique are unwilling to fully support the project is to do with the alleged financial loss they expect if goods are able to go straight into Malawi or Zambia and Zimbabwe, and not via Beira or Nacala.

Such a selfish narrow viewpoint undermines any potential benefit a new transportation link may create for the region. Surely, a thoughtful and better-informed African leader would have recognised the overall impact (e.g. jobs, increased trade, tourism, easier flow of resources, cheaper import costs and societal advancement)  the port will have not only to the Mozambican towns near Nsanje, but also to the greater Southern African economy of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, or even to Rwanda and Burundi.

Very few African countries geographically formed themselves into the shape they currently take. In fact only Liberia and Ethiopia were never colonised, but even their national polity formation had a lot to do with regional colonial activity around and about them. Thus, most decisions that determined the geographical shape of African countries were made by colonialists, a figment of history most Pan Africanists would rather forget. This to me means that it is shortsighted, regressive, a deficiency in intellect and a great fallacy (most often perpetuated by ignorance), for leaders of African countries today to be fighting against each other, or indeed dashing each others economic fortunes – when there is every chance that had colonialism never occurred (as we understand it), Africa could have ended up as a vast continent of undivided Kingdoms, each with access to the sea. Something that would have looked like this:

What Africa may have looked like if colonisation hadn’t occured. What Africa may look like in the future, hundreds of years from now

That is precisely why Uhuru Kenyatta must be applauded for the visionary Mombasa Nairobi railway link.

Similar Links:

Peter Mutharika attacks Malawi govt. for ignoring ‘Ndata’ University, Nsanje port in budget

MALAWI: Dream fades for inland port project

The Shire Zambezi Waterway Project is still a priority says Sadc secretariat [August 2013]

Malawi, Mozambique agree deal on Nsanje World inland port [April 2013]

Nsanje Inland Port Mw


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While you’ll find several references to Infrastructure on this site, I think this time around I’ll leave it to the experts to do the convincing. Paja akulu anati mutu umodzi siwusenza denga

And if one takes time to browse through the cited references below (some of which are straight off page 1 + 2 of Google), it’s hard to argue against the fact that Infrastructure is one of the essential drivers of economic development. In this sense, and for the avoidance of doubt,  infrastructure is not limited to roads, railways, airports and buildings (for hotels, schools, Universities, hospitals, business centres, research facilities, etc), but also includes for example a good telecommunication network (internet, voice, data and the like) and power supply.

Infrastructure for sustainable development – European Commission

Intro reads: ” Good quality infrastructure is a key ingredient for sustainable development. All countries need efficient transport, sanitation, energy and communications systems if they are to prosper and provide a decent standard of living for their populations. Unfortunately, many developing countries possess poor infrastructure, which hampers their growth and ability to trade in the global economy. “

Infrastructure’s value to economic growth – Richard Lee, Partner, KPMG (via BBC)

which includes the statement : “…In fact, a recent KPMG International survey found that an overwhelming majority – 90% – of business executives said that the availability and quality of infrastructure affects where they locate their business operations…”

Needs For and Benefits of Infrastructure Connectivity – Asian Development Bank Institute
which includes the statement: “… The rapid economic and population growth of Asian economies in recent years has put huge pressure on its existing infrastructure, particularly in transport and energy, but also in communications. Asia’s infrastructure is world-class in parts, but is generally below the global average. This is a bottleneck to future growth, a threat to competitiveness, and an obstacle to poverty reduction.”
which includes the following statement: – “…An adequate infrastructure is a prerequisite to economic development. Transportation and communications are important in developing and strengthening social, political, and commercial ties. These ties must be developed before trade can be handled on a regular basis.”
Why Is Infrastructure Important – David Alan Aschauer, formerly Senior Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and now (at the date of writing/publication) Elmer W.Campbell Professor of Economics, Bates College
Infrastructure and Poverty – The Global Poverty Project
the Intro reads: “Infrastructure – physical resources like roads, telecommunication networks, schools and drains – is necessary for a society to function: people can’t access healthcare if there are no hospitals; trade can’t take place if there are no roads on which to transport goods to markets. Infrastructure facilitates the basic functions of a society that are necessary to transport resources and people, produce and trade goods, provide essential services and ultimately reduce poverty.”
it follows with ” Lack of infrastructure also leads to lack of employment by acting as a disincentive to investment. Companies who struggle to produce and sell goods in an area with inadequate roads, electricity or water supply do not want to set up the factories or businesses that could potentially generate employment, improve living standards and reduce poverty. “
and “Lack of infrastructure can also lead to poor health and high mortality. Where there are no clinics or hospitals available, or where lack of roads or bridges makes them inaccessible, people cannot access the medical services that they require to be healthy and productive. A villager in Mozambique explains “The most dangerous thing is that [cholera] has always appeared during the rainy season, and it is then that the river is in spate and boats cannot cross.”
The Broader Benefits of Transportation Infrastructure – Ian Sue Wing, William P. Anderson and T.R. Lakshmanan, Center for Transportation Studies and Dept. of Geography & Environment, Boston University [similar article here]
uses the term Meso-scale to describe their approach. A slide from their presentation is quite appropriate in summarising some of the developmental + ‘equilibrium’ impacts, and worth replication:-
Finance and Infrastructure: The Economic Benefits of Infrastructure Projects Procured with Private Finance –  Andrew W Morley, International Congress Washington, D.C. USA, April 19-26 2002.
Infrastructure – Engineers Against Poverty
Intro reads as follows: “Without significant progress in the provision of infrastructure services it will be impossible for many countries to significantly achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Globally, more than 1 billion people have no access to roads, 900 million do not have safe drinking water, 2.3 billion lack reliable sources of energy, 2.5 billion have no sanitation  facilities and 4 billion are without modern communication services.”
which contains the paragraph “When it comes to infrastructure development, Thailand has done very well compared with some other Southeast Asian neighbors. In fact, appropriate infrastructure, including access to power and water, has helped Thailand fuel rapid economic growth during the past three decades. Good infrastructure has made Thailand attractive to foreign investment, helped facilitate international trade, and improved the efficiency of everyday business activities. All of these led to more jobs, and more jobs led to more income for the poor. For some not-so-poor people, good infrastructure also helps them improve productivity or fulfill their lifestyles.”
RURAL INFRASTRUCTURE AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT –  Dr. Mohammad Tarique, Lecturer, University Dept. of Economics, B.R.Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur.
Abstract reads: “Infrastructure development has a key role to play in both economic growth and poverty reduction. Failure to accelerate investments in rural infrastructure will make a mockery of efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in poor developing countries while at the same time severely limit opportunities for these countries to benefit from trade liberalisation, international capital markets and other potential benefits offered by globalisation”
Private Sector Participation in Infrastructure:the case of Thailand – Deunden Nikomborirak – Asian Development Bank Institute Discussion Paper No. 19
Road Funding: Time for a Change :- Economic Growth Benefits of Transportation Infrastructure Investment – Dr. John C. Taylor,  Associate professor of marketing and logistics at Grand Valley State University and a senior policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.
which contains the statement “…No, the key benefit and reason for transportation investment is from helping to make businesses and individuals more productive, across the geographic landscape. We rely on our transportation investments to increase the economy’s overall productivity – both in terms of making individual travel (business and personal) faster and more reliable, and in terms of the productivity benefits of making freight flows faster and more reliable…”
World Bank — Malawi’s infrastructure: A continental perspective: Vivien Foster; Maria Shkaratan, ISSN: 1813-9450.

As you can see, the above papers + articles present a credible argument that a good and functional infrastructure is essential for economic development.
But that’s not to say that there are no credible counter arguments against infrastructure. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m sure one can cite the prevention of deforestation or preservation of natural habitats as factors against excessive infrastructure. Also, there is the issue of encouraging tourism which could probably mean encouraging greater biodiversity, creating / preserving forests  and wildlife reserves (but even in such circumstances, you still need a world-class airport for a good first impression (the kind of impression you get when you first land at Hong Kong International); functional roads (at least 3 lanes on each side between major cities) that minimises journey times; and world-class hotels and resorts. Why should you give tourists (who in large numbers can be the source of much-needed forex revenue) less than what they are accustomed to, and expect that they will return to your country, or recommend a visit to their friends?). Never mind recommendation, how can you compete on the global stage, when your facilities are substandard? Further, why shouldn’t it be possible to build modern factories with reduced carbon footprint (see Marks & Spencer’s ‘eco-factories’ initiative here) side by side with wildlife/forest reserves?
So, considering all this, I find it hard to imagine a credible setting in which arguments against infrastructure may find pre-eminence, over arguments for infrastructure; especially for a poor country whose majority infrastructure was built  50-year ago; whose roads are littered with pot-holes, with virtually no world-class business centres; that has old airports – with poor facilities including smelly badly looked after toilets; a country that experiences intermittent blackouts almost every week; that is struggling to attract significant investment from abroad; a country where 74% of the population live below the poverty line; which is heavily reliant on agriculture and dwindling tobacco exports + has negligible industrial output; has few natural resources; has a large relatively unskilled young population and suffers widespread corruption and cronyism, even in the upper echelons of its government.

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My question to you then is: why are the leaders of such countries not investing heavily (sooner than later) into major infrastructure projects, when it is in fact a determinant factor in economic development and a serious game changer? Is it because they are in fact not cut out for the job and would be better followers instead of leaders?