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Breaking up the enclave: transport in Guinea-Bissau

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By Yannis Arvanitis

On my first visit to Guinea-Bissau in 2013, I entered the country after landing at Osvaldo Vieira International Airport. The plane I flew in was a small jet, with no more than 50 seats. That year, I was one of just 30,317 passengers entering the country by plane. The sight of the deserted tarmac, as I landed, spoke much of a seldom-visited country: official statistics account for 305 international flights landing in the country’s only international airport in 2013 – less than one per day. For the sake of comparison – Lagos airport receives as many landing aircrafts every 10 days; Dubai Airport receives as many every 18 hours. To make things worse, air connectivity to the country further decreased as of December 2013, as the Portuguese carrier TAP suspended its flights to Bissau following an affair involving the boarding of Syrian refugees on a Bissau-Lisbon flight.
Reaching Guinea-Bissau by road is no easy task either. Major links to Guinea-Conakry, such as the Boké-Québo road, are missing. In the north of the country, although there is a good corridor to the city of Ziguinchor, in southwestern Senegal, the route to Mali via eastern Senegal includes a river crossing by boat and over 25 kilometres of unpaved road (between Farim in Guinea-Bissau and the town of Tanaff in Senegal) thus constituting an important bottleneck for regional integration. With such a network official customs statistics show that as much as 12% of trade is actually conducted via land. Considering the poor road network to neighbouring countries, this level of trade by road is more symptomatic of the equally challenging conditions in the country’s main port in Bissau which supports 88% of the country’s trade.
The Bissau port was initially designed to handle 5,000 containers a year. Today, it serves nearly five times as many. A consequence of its overstretched capacity is the high costs related to its operation. Costs are also driven by the lack of maintenance: Today, because of limited depth in the channel leading to the port (as they cross the Bijagos archipelago), the many shipwrecks and the lack of signals along the way, boats can only enter the port at high tide and during the day.
Table 1: Port Handling charges - comparative costs Dakar, Banjul & Bissau

Source: World Bank; AfDB Study on the transport sector in Guinea-Bissau (forthcoming)
But transport in and out of the country is only one part of the story. Moving people and goods within the country is also a challenge. With a road network spanning over 2,750 km, the network roughly compares to the average in West Africa. With a density of 7.6 km of road by 100 km2, it is slightly higher than the regional West African Economic and Monetary Union average of 4.7 km /100 km2, but it serves fewer people than in neighbouring countries (Figure 1). It is also in a rather dire state. Only 28% of the road network is paved, and some corners of the country are practically inaccessible, especially during the rainy season. According to the latest data available, over the 2007-2010 period, an average of 133 km out of the 2,750-km network were rehabilitated by the road fund each year. In many regards, underinvestment is the status quo.
Figure 1: Population served by Km of road

Source: AfDB study on the transport sector in Guinea-Bissau (forthcoming)
The local transportation network is also composed of river boats and sea connections to islands. Over the 1990s, Guinea-Bissau saw the rise and fall of a private company operating a boat network, which ceased its activities after the civil war. Later, another private company began similar activities, but only survived a few years, shutting down in 2013. Receiving no aid from the government (which might have been justified on the grounds of “territorial continuity”) and facing high fixed costs (fuel and personnel), the company went bankrupt, leaving only the occasional private pirogue service remote islands and corners of the country.
Transport infrastructure is at the heart of major challenges for the country’s development. On the economic side, a weak transport infrastructure is synonym to barriers to trade. Beyond the high imports and exports costs, it also makes internal trade significantly more difficult. What happens for instance when a region of the country suffers a shortfall in agricultural production if it is unable to receive supplies from another? On the social side, the current state of affairs is also worrisome. UNAIDS, for instance, estimated that more than half of the country's health centres were over 60 minutes away by foot from the average resident in the country. Fixing the roads can reduce this statistic and, simply put, save lives.
Investing in key backbone infrastructure is key if the country is to pursue an inclusive growth agenda, as it would help reduce economic and social marginalization. But transport infrastructure is expensive. In this respect, the new government should explore all possible financing avenues (use of concessional funding, public private partnerships, pooled funding from donors, guarantees, etc.), but also carefully consider which infrastructure projects would have the greatest economic return. The AfDB is committed to helping in this respect: it is currently conducting a study of the transport sector to pin down priorities in view of making funding available for specific projects using resources available for the country. This helps set the scene for the country’s forthcoming donor roundtable scheduled for next February. This event should discuss the state of affairs depicted above and coordinate with potential funding partners to ensure that planned investments have a transformative effect in the near future.


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