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Improving Africa’s Infrastructure

The African Air Cargo conference will take place in Johannesburg on the 21 – 23 February. Check it out –  https://aircargoafrica.aero/ . This comes as the new Kenyan President has just declared that Air Kenya will be sold. That made me think about the continuing challenges for logistics.  Last month I flew by Air Kenya to an AU meeting in Nairobi. It was my first visit since the vast highway which runs from the airport to the other side of the city was completed, within a year, in 2021. I was suitably impressed. My trip from the airport to the CBD took less than half an hour – whereas the same trip before the new causeway was likely to be up to 2hours. Then over the Christmas period I was in Maputo, where the Katembre Bridge of 2018 is also enormously impressive.  Building a large road or rail bridge is, of course, a major engineering and financial undertaking. Many cities around the world struggle to construct enough bridges to keep traffic moving. But Africa’s lack of investment in bridge infrastructure reflects the overall inadequacy of roads and railways on the continent.

According to a World Bank report from 2010, the continent has just over 200km of roads per 1,000 square km, around 20% of the global average. Only a handful of African cities boast a light rail network, while at least 13 countries in Africa have no rail infrastructure whatsoever. A major challenge for any large bridge project in Africa where private finance is required is to agree a financial structure that satisfies the government and the various institutions that may provide debt or equity. This is where public-private partnerships are so important – but also where the Chinese expertise and funding has taken a strong hold. Both the Maputo and Nairobi causeways were funded and constructed by Chinese entities.

Meanwhile, in December Tanzania announced it would be partnering with China to build the final section of the 2,102 km SGR railway extending to the DRC. This railway deal is currently set at $2.2bn and is expected to be completed in 2026. When completed, the SGR railway would be the most ambitious in Africa, standing as the longest stretch of the modern railway line on the continent. In 2014, Kenya signed a tripartite agreement with the governments of its East African neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda, to build a standard gauge railway from Mombasa through Kampala Uganda to Kigali Rwanda. However, this project was cut short, due to a last-minute fallout with its Chinese construction partners. Experts have noted that for Kenya to maintain its trade prominence on the East African Bloc, it must move to complete the last phase of this railway. Kenya has only built its section from Mombasa up to Naivasha. It is still not clear when the third phase connecting Kenya to Uganda will commence.

In Ugandan officials have confirmed switching from a Chinese to a Turkish company to build a proposed $2bn railway line linking the capital, Kampala, to the border with Kenya. But analysts say Chinese investors poured doubt on the viability of the project. Under the Chinese deal, the project was to cost Uganda $2.2bn with 85% funding to be sourced by the contractor. Officials at the Uganda standard gauge railway said they read between the lines when China’s ambassador to Uganda said that after the COVID pandemic, China had become more cautious on financing big infrastructure projects in Africa.

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Alastair Tempest

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