Africa’s costly missing rail links – by Gavin du Venage (The National – February 20, 2016)

CAPE TOWN // Transporters moving goods across Africa put up with a lot: bandits armed with AK-47s, elephants using a fender to ease an itch and thieves who run alongside slow moving vehicles to siphon diesel out of the tank into Coca Cola bottles.

Then there are border posts, police checkpoints and various other forms of bureaucracy that can hold up lorries for days. Often, bribes and spurious fines also need to be paid before cargo can move.

It is hardly surprising that according to the African Development Bank it costs twice as much to transport goods across many countries on the continent than it does anywhere else in the developing world.

Transport is a perpetual problem in Africa. Potholed roads and missing rail links get in the way of economic growth. Intra-regional trade accounts for just 13 per cent of total commerce, compared with 53 per cent in emerging Asia, according to The Economist.

Landlocked countries suffer the most. Transport costs can make up 50 to 75 per cent of the retail price of goods in Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda.

Shipping a car from China to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean coast costs US$4,000, but getting it from there to nearby Uganda can cost another $5,000.

The China-led surge in demand for commodities gave hope that Africa’s infrastructure deficit would be eroded.

Now, with the cost of minerals and other commodities on the floor, it is unclear whether the enthusiasm to build, build and build will continue. Especially hard hit are locations dependent on mining, which is in even worse shape than the oil and gas industry.

“Many good mineral deposits are in remote locations and getting them to market requires rail and port infrastructure – this can cost up to $3.5 billion alone to build, just for one operation,” says Haaris Zafar, the principal mining adviser for Africa at Johannesburg’s Nedbank. “I can’t see this happening in the current commodity climate.”

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