Even as Africa is looking forward to the operationalisation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a lot needs to be done to make connectivity seamless.
For one, the continent’s rail network remains grossly underdeveloped limiting the potential of transporting goods in bulk and conveniently.
With most of the railway network remaining in the same state it was in before many African nations gained independence, the infrastructure underdevelopment has stymied growth in the transport sector since many goods have to be transported by road.
Few countries have made an effort of upgrading their rail systems even as talk of the AfCFTA gains momentum.
With the setback occasioned by the pandemic, delaying rolling out the trade agreement could be an opportunity for African nations to work on transport infrastructure upgrades which could make achieving the vision of the trade deal a reality, faster.
The AfCFTA is meant to accelerate intra-African trade and boost the continent’s trading position in the global market by strengthening Africa’s common voice and policy space in global trade negotiations. However, this is only possible if the transport infrastructure is upgraded by member countries to smooth logistical rough edges.
Africa’s rail network is one of the systems that the continent should focus on to easily move goods across borders and grow the continent’s economies as per the AfCFTA.
The trade agreement remains one of the best bets when it comes to growing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which are key to Africa’s economic growth. This economic sector accounts for around 80 per cent of the region’s businesses according to the African Union’s trade department.
While these businesses struggle—usually—to penetrate more advanced overseas markets, they are well-positioned to tap into regional export destinations which can help them remain sustainable. With the regional markets, it is easier for them to expand beyond the continent. Easier and convenient transportation like the rail system can see SMEs benefitting from the AfCFTA since supplying inputs to larger regional companies could be easier.
The AU acknowledges that railway development in Africa is key and there is an urgency to revitalize the continent’s railway network for a positive contribution to the operationalization of the AfCFTA.
Speaking at the 26th Annual Meetings of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) in Moscow last year, AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, said that Africa will have a robust railway network soon. The system, she said, is capable of advancing the competitiveness of Africa’s trade within the continent and globally.
Under the AU Agenda 2063, there are ongoing efforts to accelerate the development and implementation of the Integrated High-Speed Railway in Africa.
Currently, the entire African railway network is estimated at about 75,000 km going by AU data. This translates into a density of approximately 2.5 km for 1000 km², falling far below the coverage in other regions and the world average of 23 km for 1000 km².
Out of the 54 African nations, 16 do not have railway lines or sections of international lines. In addition, national railway networks in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly independent of each other except in some parts in eastern and southern Africa.
Countries which have interconnected systems include Burkina Faso-Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal-Mali and Ethiopia–Djibouti.
Noteworthy, too, is that most African railways are mostly single lines which connect the inland from the coastal seaports. These, however, have little interconnections, except for Southern Africa and some parts in North Africa.
On average, technical speeds range between 30 to 35 km/hr while commercial speeds are even lower.
As the traditional international relationships in Africa continue evolving, there is need to assist the continent’s economic development through sectoral and infrastructure investments. The AfCFTA is accelerating this and the railway system will play a pivotal role. Already, countries like Kenya have invested in their rail systems looping in their neighbours to make cross-boundary transportation easier.
Race to the top
Ethiopia is already enjoying the services of the region’s first electric train railway track 750 km long linking Addis Ababa to Djibouti, the port city at the Red Sea. The US$3.4 billion project cuts down travel time from days to hours with top speeds of 120km/h.
Previously, those travelling from Addis to the Djibouti seaport could spend three days travelling by road but this time has been reduced to just 12 hours.
And the neighbours have been watching with Tanzania now building a new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) track. This project cuts through the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). On completion, the railway line will considerably cut down cargo transportation cost.
Kenya, on the other hand, is caught between Scylla and Charybdis since its neighbour Uganda has not committed to extending the railway line from the seaport of Mombasa forcing East Africa’s economic hub to terminate the project in Naivasha.
Interestingly, most of the East African countries are either building new railway tracks or refurbishing old ones. In Tanzania’s case, the SGR will also be electric reaching speeds of 160Km/h. The train and railway network’s capacity can carry up to 35 tonnes per axle load.
Kenya’s SGR covers a much shorter distance than Ethiopia’s and Tanzania’s but cost considerably more. To make matters worse, Kenya could lose business it hoped for trading with landlocked countries. This is because many countries in the region that do not have a coastline rely on Kenya for their imports. South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) all rely on Kenya and Tanzania for their access to the Indian Ocean.
While Kenya has lost some business to Tanzania, the East African economic hub has been sweetening deals for the landlocked neighbours but like Uganda, the countries served through Kenya are not buying into the railway deal.
This shows how a continental railway plan could fail, hijacking a smooth flow of goods between countries.
In creating the railway infrastructure for the continent, much needs to be done to ensure that the AfCFTA is not derailed by squabbles between countries whose domino effect would stymie the rollout of the agreement.
The AU’s plan is for the high-speed rail network connecting the continent’s borders to be complete by 2063. This multibillion-dollar project seeks to ease the movement of goods and people within all the African countries’ borders.
With the potential to boost intra-African trade which is less than 15 per cent of total trade, a reliable rail network will not only boost integration but also the AfCFTA which could be a game-changer on the continent as a single market.