An African boom in building roads and railways should unclog economic bottlenecks, but is it sustainable?

March 2nd, 2015  |  Source: The Economist

ORANGE lights flash in the setting sun as Chinese workers lay train tracks on the dry edge of Tsavo national park in Kenya, lowering a 25-metre steel rail into place as gingerly as a dental filling. The men fret, with good reason: safety rules may protect them against falling sleepers but the African bush adheres to no regulations. Few workers dare to venture out of their sheet-metal camps at night for fear of big cats on the prowl: in January a watchman was mauled by a cheetah.

China Road and Bridge Corporation, the main contractor, has set up shop in territory made famous by the so-called man-eaters of Tsavo. When British colonial officials first built a railway line here in 1898, a notorious pair of maneless male lions killed about 30 mainly Indian labourers. “Perhaps we should have known better,” says Lao Ding, a shift supervisor.

The challenges of upgrading and expanding Africa’s transport network are manifold—but so are the rewards. The Kenyan government claims its new railway will boost economic growth by 1.5 percentage points annually, not least because it will reduce the costs of moving freight by 60%. The initial 609km (378-mile) section from the port in Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi, was started last month and is expected to be completed in 2017. It will then be continued inland to Congo, replacing a narrow-gauge track built a century ago.

Across the continent improved infrastructure of all sorts may increase economic growth by 2 percentage points a year, says the World Bank. The question many poor countries face, however, is whether to give priority to improving their roads or investing in other vital projects, such as hospitals, schools or power lines. Yet access to markets, schools and hospitals often depends on paved roads to distant towns and cities.

Improving transport is particularly pressing because the cost of moving goods in Africa is, on average, two or three times higher than in developed countries, according to the World Bank. And roads that are unsafe may be little better than none at all. Crashes on Uganda’s crumbling roads, for instance, are reckoned to cost it 2.7.% of GDP a year through lost lives and damage to property, the bank says.

Sub-Saharan Africa spends some $6.8 billion a year on paving roads, but it needs to spend closer to $10 billion. Fortunately decades of underinvestment are being reversed and money is now flooding into roads, railways and ports.

The continent’s road network has grown by an average of 7,500km a year over the past decade, a sharp increase from previous decades. Among those pouring tar fastest were Tanzania and Lesotho, with annual increases of about 15% and 24% respectively, according to the African Development Bank (ADB).

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