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    The first big development of railways and harbours in decades is connecting Africa to the global economy – and mining is set to be the main beneficiary.

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    Resources – especially minerals – have played a decisive role in determining the shape of Africa’s transport and harbour infrastructure.

    In the colonial era, railways and harbours were built to extract raw materials and ship them to manufacturing hubs in Europe. In many respects, this remains the pattern. Where mineral wealth exists in the ground, there is a good chance that a rail link to the coast and a harbour upgrade – or even the creation of a new one from scratch – will be planned.

    It is thus not coincidence that so much of current and planned infrastructure develop-ment is shaped around mineral resources – from the Indian Ocean coast’s burgeoning gas reserves to the minerals of Africa’s deep hinterland – copper and cobalt in the DRC; oil in South Sudan; coal in Botswana (Walvis Bay-Mmamabula) and Mozambique (Nacala Moatize/Benga); copper in Zambia; and iron ore in Congo (Zanaga), Guinea (Simandou), and southern Tanzania (Mtwara-Mchuchuma/Ligane). The difference this time around is that development is in African hands – and driven by African interests.

    According to some sources, rail projects in implementation total US$30 billion and span more than 11 000 km of track, equivalent to the straight-line distance between Johannesburg and Sydney, Australia. In tandem with the massive development of existing harbours (including efficiency improvements), and at least five projects to construct new harbours where little more than a fishing village has previously existed (Kribi, Cameroon; Forécariah, Guinea; Lamu, Kenya; Nacala, Mozambique; and Bagamoyo, Tanzania), these projects look set to transform the continent’s logistics.

    A hundred years separate the initial burst of infrastructure development, driven by the colonial powers, from the current era. The original Mombasa-Kampala (Uganda) railway was finished in 1901. The name coined at the time by radical opponents in Westminster – the ‘Lunatic Express’ – has stuck and was still being used by Kenyans a decade ago, in reference not to the raison d’être for such a link but to its notorious inefficiency. Freight trains were reported to take up to 36 hours to complete the 480 km trip from Nairobi to Mombasa.

    By the end of next year, the picture will have been transformed. An entirely new standard gauge rail (SGR) linking Mombasa and Nairobi has been under construction since late 2013. It is expected to be a game changer on this route, with cargo being transported at speeds of up to 80 km/h and passengers moving at up to 120 km/h. According to project projections, it will reduce the cost of cargo on this line from US$0.20/ton/km to US$0.08/ton/km.

    In April this year, it was announced that the US$3.8 billion project was ahead of schedule and expected to be completed by the latter half of 2017. The first locomotives arrived at Mombasa in September 2015.

    This is part of a rail project that is set to do far more than improve the link between Nairobi and the sea. The plan is that the link to Kampala is to be upgraded and extended to Kigali in Rwanda while a branch line links to Juba in South Sudan.

    Albeit the most advanced, however, this is only one of the projects designed to link the African hinterland to the Indian Ocean coast.

    Two of these truly qualify as mega-projects, with new harbours being built at Lamu, Kenya and Bagamoyo, Tanzania. In keeping with the current wisdom on development, these are conceived as corridor developments, with the initial harbour, road, rail and (possibly) pipeline infrastructure being intended to cram in further private sector investment.

    Lamu, a previously undeveloped deepwater harbour at Manda Bay near the Somali border, is to be the anchor of the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project. In 2015, the entire project was costed at US$2.1 trillion. It is intended to open up the whole of northern Kenya and its surrounds. But these are early days yet – the last partner, Ethiopia, only joined the initiative at the end of 2015.

    Ethiopia, however, isn’t putting all its eggs in the LAPSSET basket. The country has a parallel plan that is well advanced. This involves an SGR line between the capital, Addis Ababa, and the port of Djibouti on the Red Sea. The project, which started construction in 2011, is almost complete and Ethiopia took emergency deliveries of wheat, to feed its drought-affec-ted regions, via the more than 700 km line in November last year. The line, which replaces the original and now out-of-gauge Franco-Ethiopian rail (built in the early 1910s), will be fully electrified.

    This is part of a much wider programme that will see at least four other major lines built, linking this entire national market of around 90 million people to the capital.

    The second Indian Ocean mega-project is the planned development of Bagamoyo, a sleepy holiday town in Tanzania. An entirely Chinese funded and constructed project, the port is intended to be a massive US$10 billion transportation hub. However, it is controversial, as it’s located just 75 km from Tanzania’s main existing port, Dar es Salaam – a well-established yet underutilised harbour. ‘Dar’, as it is known, is also the rail and road head for existing links running to the Great Lakes, Zambia and Malawi.

    Some Tanzanians argue that it makes more sense to rehabilitate this infrastructure, especially the famous Tazara (previously Tan-Zam) rail link to the Zambian copper fields. That line was a prestigious turnkey project, built by the Chinese government and completed in 1975.

    Originally intended, among other purposes, to lessen Zambia’s dependence on minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, it is still one of sub-Saharan Africa’s longest railways. But it became notoriously rundown, especially after 1994 when Zambia resumed copper exports through South Africa. With Chinese government support, a rehabilitation programme has been running since 2012.

    A third big harbour project is well under way on the Atlantic side of the continent, at Kribi in Cameroon. The new harbour, which is now in the second phase of development, is intended to relieve congestion at the country’s other port, Douala.

    The latter is renowned as Africa’s least-efficient port due in part to depth limitations that mean freighters larger than 15 000 tons have to be unloaded by lighter. Dwell times – a measure of the length of time it takes for cargo to clear the port – are said to be 22 days. This is five times longer than the most recent figures from Durban, Africa’s most efficient major port, twice that of Mombasa and one-and-a-half times that of Dar es Salaam.

    The first phase of the Kribi project – with its container terminal and 300m general cargo berth – has been completed. It can accommodate all but the largest handymax (size) vessels (50 000 to 100 000 tons). The harbour is expected to provide a regional transport hub for Atlantic economies from Senegal to Gabon as well as land-locked inland countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. Illustrating the importance of mineral resources in sparking this sort of development, a 500 km line will link to the iron ore-producing area of Mbalam in the east of Cameroon.

    Observers have expressed reservations about the feasibility of the two Indian Ocean mega-projects. Development has been sluggish in both cases. In December 2015 it was confirmed that the construction of the first three berths at Lamu had been delayed due to the slow release of funds by the Kenyan government. Meanwhile, in January this year, the government of Tanzania had to deny that work on Bagamoyo had been suspended.

    Part of the reason for this uncertainty is the possibility that the scale of economic activity in East Africa and Central Africa doesn’t warrant two new mega-ports. Corridor developments behind and improved efficiencies in the operations of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam may fill most of the gap.

    There is certainly a sense among the strategic managers of these ports that they are competing with each other for business. Add to the mix massive refurbishment programmes and rail corridors in the gas-rich southern Tanzania (Mtwara)/northern Mozambique (Nacala) zone, and there may be more than enough capacity in the foreseeable future.

    Experienced port development engineer, Jeroen Overbeek of Aurecon, poses the essential question of whether infrastructure should be built in advance of economic growth or in tandem with it.

    He notes that in Asia, aggressive infrastructure investment has often been made at the expense of existing resources. But against those who urge caution are voices in the landlocked areas demanding better linkages to the global economy. The South Sudanese government has threatened to look north to potential rail links through Ethiopia if implementation of the Lamu corridor lags any further.

    These developments all have a logic that was absent in the era of colonial rail and harbour construction. They are designed with the interests of Africa – not the colonial powers – at their heart. Much has already been achieved, and the infrastructure planned and in implementation will make an enormous difference to the continent’s ability to do business with itself.

    By David Christianson
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages