Experts cite urgent need to expand and improve Africa’s ports to meet rising demand

09/12/2015
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The competitiveness of Africa’s economies will depend on the efficiency of African ports, according to the African Development Bank’s first Transport Forum held at its headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in November 26-27, 2015.

Participants at a session on “Improving Ports: Gateways to Africa” discussed the inefficiency facing Africa’s ports, which they said was caused by poor infrastructure including old and unsuitable equipment and vessels, inadequate technology, congestion, and long waits, among other factors.

“Port capacity and logistics cannot handle the increasing traffic across most of Africa, causing congestion,” said Admou Saley Abdourahamane, the Secretary General of Union of African Shippers Council. His organization represents 18 countries in Central and West Africa.

He added that the congestion was due to factors such as deficient physical infrastructure (inadequate capacity particularly in terminal storage and maintenance), weak regulatory systems and poor management, all which amounted to poor port efficiency. This has led to high trading costs in Africa. “What this situation does is to contribute to the marginalization of the continent from international markets,” noted Abdourahamane.

Africa has 66 ports, 28 of them in West Africa.

The amount of time it takes to transport goods within the continent using ports came into question. Even though the state of roads in Africa is poor, it was noted that ports contribute in a big way to transport delays. “It takes 12-13 or sometimes more days to transport cargo in Côte d’Ivoire, while it takes much shorter time outside the continent,” said Drepoba Leandre Sery, a manager at the Autonomous Port of Abidjan.

Statistics from the World Bank indicate that cargo traveling from a port to a city in a landlocked Sub-Saharan African country generally spends more of its time (75 percent) at the port than on the road. It further estimates that cargo spends nearly three weeks on average in Sub-Saharan African ports, compared to less than a week in large ports in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

This, experts stress, harms Africa’s economy, deterring the promotion of value-added industries that rely on time-sensitive supply chains.

Countries have embarked on measures to address these challenges. For example, Côte d’Ivoire has set up a competitiveness commission to look into ways of improving the operations of its ports, including expansion, Sery pointed out.  

Private investment was cited as one way of boosting efficiency at ports, albeit with caution. “We have had situations where one or two companies dominate the markets and determine prices. This is not helpful to our economies because the same operators end up being the ones that benefit from the delays because they derive revenue from every delay,” said Abdourahamane. He called on port authorities to be vigilant in monitoring activities of private companies, as well as support from the African Development Bank.

The Bank has been supporting port expansion plans in order to provide the continent with sufficient port capacity to meet rising demand, noted Stefan Atchia, Transport Policy Specialist at the institution.