08.04.2009 Feature Article

Infrastructure investment: A Path to Africas Economic Independence

Infrastructure investment: A Path to Africas Economic Independence
08.04.2009 LISTEN

There are three major problems confronting Africans today. The first is leadership incompetence; the second is endemic corruption; the third and most deadly is the poor state of infrastructures. The health of every nations economy is strongly dependent on a reliable infrastructure system because infrastructures are the bedrock, life blood and the engines that drive the economy. The role play by infrastructures in the economy of a nation cannot be overemphasized especially its effect on sustainable development, foreign direct investment flow, GDP growth, inflation reduction, job creation, trade, agriculture, delivery of goods and services, lowering cost of business, improving health and standard of living and poverty reduction. Therefore, efficient and effective provision of infrastructure in a nation underlines all attempts to reduce poverty.

Lack of or inadequate infrastructures tend to slow down the growth potentials of the economy and weaken the sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and service which heavily depend on it. Without infrastructures such as ports and harbours, roads, rail lines it will be difficult to embark on any meaningful export driven policy. You cannot supply the industries with doctors, architects, bankers, lawyers, planners, engineers, teachers, nurses and technicians if there are no education infrastructure and the support system to deliver it; goods cannot be moved from centres of production to centres of consumption if there are no roads, rail lines, ports and inland water infrastructures to deliver it; food production cannot be increased if irrigation facilities, canals, silos, tractors and other accoutrements are not in place; tourists will not be motivated to come to a country if airports, hotels, roads and other infrastructures that go with it are absent; and you cannot run an efficient and vibrant economy if there are inadequate energy and telecommunication infrastructures.

The difference between the major economic powers and the developing world can be measured on the scale and quality of their social and economic infrastructures. A visit to any of these developed economies reveals efficient and well developed networks of surface and underground rail lines, roads, tunnels, trams, power plants, airports, harbours, telecommunication, health, education, housing, shopping malls, canals, inland water system, irrigation facilities, sewerage and sanitation infrastructures which are constantly been upgraded and maintained.

On the other hand, a careful look at the state of infrastructures in any single African country reveals serious discrepancies, deficiencies, decay and neglect. The poor state can be attributed to lack of concrete and coherence infrastructure development policies, lack of political commitment and inadequate funding. Public infrastructure development is often neglected because politicians in their short sightedness tend to focus on short term policies and programmes that win votes but that also retard development and keep the people in perpetual poverty. Long term policies such as infrastructure building are shunned because it is seen as expensive and takes time for benefits to be realised. This explains why the railway and water sectors and other major infrastructures are either none existing or are barely working.

South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, DRC, Somalia, and Kenya have been experiencing serious disruptions in the energy sector for years. The problem is that African countries have focused too much on building dams while ignoring other potential energy sources such as solar and wind. The Finnish president on a visit to Nigeria in March 2009 asked, Nigerian people have so much sun and wind, why dont they use it for the generation of light for cooking and every other thing? She queried, and added that we do it in Finland for our renewable energy. Source:, 12 March, 2009. The sad story is that Finland is locked up for most of the year by cold winter but take advantage of the short summer to convert the little sunshine they receive into solar energy while Africa nations have sunshine most of the year. Dwindling rainfall has limited the ability of these dams to produce the needed energy to support the economy. As a result investors are repelled and factories are folding up as the dams could hardly cope with the demand. Besides power distribution infrastructures such as transformers and power lines are outdated. According to a recent World Bank report, the price of electricity is a leading factor in making Africa uncompetitive, relative to emerging economies like India, Brazil, Russia and China.

In Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Senegal, Mali, Gabon, Congo, DRC, CAR comfortable high speed train service is still a dream due to the poor nature of rail tracks. Years of neglect and lack of investment has brought this vital transport sector to its needs. Whereas an express train in Japan takes about an hour to cover 280km, it takes an express train in Zambia 7 hours to cover the same distance. Most of the trains are locomotive, some of which are 50 years old, slow moving, worn out and run on single gauge tracks with a maximum speed of 70km/h. Despite the evidence that rail network development is the quickest, efficient and cheapest way to move people and goods, the sector has received little investment for modernisation. This is one major reason why cost of running business in African countries is higher compared to other regions.

The roads in our cities are limited in capacity; are poorly maintained; and are choked with cars, trucks, buses with no provision for bicycles, pedestrians and people with disabilities. Daily traffic jams are a common occurrence in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Accra, Lagos, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cairo, Kampala, Free Town, Yaound and Monrovia as there are few or no parking lanes and ring roads to direct traffic away from the central business district. This makes cost of running business very expensive as passengers and goods spend hours in traffic especially during the rush hours. Besides, inter and intra city multilane freeways and expressways are still in its infancy in many countries and this has adversely affected travel, business and trade.

About 60% of Africas total population live in rural areas. However, in these areas, infrastructures of every kind scarcely exist and those that exist barely function. There are few accessible roads in rural Africa and these few are poor, dirt and unpaved. As a result rickety buses, taxis and tractors dominate rural roads and accidents are high. Most rural communities become inaccessible during the rain season and harvested crops go wasted due to lack of transport. It is estimated that close to 40% of food produced in rural Africa get rotten due to lack of roads and poor bridges. The absence of electricity, water, sanitation, irrigation facilities, silos and other storage infrastructures limit the ability of the people to create wealth and do away with poverty. Currently 250 million Africans mostly in rural areas are cut of from existing power infrastructure and most of them resort to the use of expensive and hazardous fuels such as kerosene and firewood. Increasing access to affordable and clean lighting, water, sanitation, roads, improved seeds and irrigation infrastructures are essential to Africa's development for without them it will be impossible to reduce poverty and improve rural life.

Lack and poor quality of port and harbour infrastructures have poorly positioned the continent to take full advantage of globalisation. Few ports and harbours are able to handle the big oil tankers, cargo and passenger planes that dominate global shipping and air travel, making the continent one of the few places where cost of shipping and air travel are still provocatively expensive. The ports in Tema, Lagos, Durban, Richards Bay, Cape Town, Saldanha Bay, Port Elizabeth, and East London, Mombasa, Djibouti and Suez still struggle to berth some of the big ships due to weak capacity and lack of appropriate technology.

Lack of infrastructures have also affected the manufacturing and production of goods and services in Africa. The export sector is dominated by the export of crude oil, Cocoa, coffee, tobacco, tea which have the disadvantage of not bringing in enough revenue. The same is true for gold, diamond, which are exported to Switzerland, Belgium, Britain and Dubai before Africans go there to buy the wedding rings and bracelets to sell. The necessary infrastructures and technologies needed are often completely absent. There are no gold and diamond cutting firms in Africa because the infrastructures do not exist. As a result the millions of jobs that gold and diamond cutting create are found in Israel, Belgium, Britain, US even though they do not mine these minerals. In Nigeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Chad all major oil producing countries, it is sad to note that lack of infrastructure has hampered expansion in the oil sector, leading to shortages of petroleum products, higher prices and queue forming seen in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Malawi, Zambia. There are few petrochemical industries in the continent due to lack of infrastructures. As a result most oil exports are in the crude form which brings in limited revenues.

The telecommunication including ICT sector is still struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. Internet connection is absent in the rural parts of the continent and connection is very slow in cities where internet is available. In many areas there are no fixed telephone lines and mobile telephone infrastructure is still at the infancy stage. Absence of telecommunication infrastructure is part of the reason why cost of running business is expensive in the continent compared to other regions. Schools, hospitals, banking and security operations are hampered by the absence of these vital infrastructures.

The agricultural sector is no exception. Farmers have no access to credits, improved seeds, tractors, irrigation facilities, fertilisers and silos and other storage facilities, and receive no support from government. Farming in Africa is dominated by the use of cutlasses/machetes, hoes and other rudimentary equipments. Despite the presence of major rivers and lakes lack of irrigation infrastructure has deadly hampered the agriculture sector. Farmers still rely on nature for rain in order to plant and farming is still at the subsistence level. As a result the average farmer can only produce to feed himself with little or nothing to sell. The result is the food shortage, high cost of food, hunger and the extreme poverty seen in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Niger and Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

In most countries there are no proper housing infrastructures such as water, electricity and waste management not even in the capital cities. A visit to any village or town gives the same picture of poor and substandard housing and poor quality of public services and mortgage is a dream. They face constant barrage of water and energy disruptions with high utility bills as these sectors struggle to cope due to lack of infrastructure. The dwindling housing stock has forced people to live in slumps and engage in occupy-build-service instead of build-service-occupy. This explains why most residential areas lack running water, schools, electricity, clinics, toilets, playgrounds, car parks and access roads as there are no central planning authority to enforce building and zoning rules.

The education sector, the foundation of the continents development effort has its share of the infrastructure problems. The institutions lack modern facilities such as state of the art libraries, laboratory simulation facilities, studios, computers, books, staff bungalows, classrooms, students accommodation and electricity. In most institutions it is still chalk, paper, and blackboard and there are no internet connections. The infrastructure problem has affected the quality and delivery of education in the continent. Of about 9,760 Accredited Universities in the World that were ranked, only University of Cape Town and University of Witwatersrand managed to place 179 and 319 positions respectively in the top 500. (Source: Without the infrastructures the institutions are unable to produce the high quality of architects, engineers, planners, bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, technicians that Africa desperately need in this increasingly scientific and technological age. This explains why in most countries, major architectural and engineering works are undertaken by foreigners and foreign companies from USA, Japan, China and Europe. The Universities lack well trained lecturers and some of them are amateur in the use of computers, internet and podcasting all powerful tools essential to delivering quality education. In most universities students and lecturers have very limited access to electricity which limits their ability to conduct any meaningful academic work.

Whereas students in advanced countries get their hands on books immediately they are released those in Africa have to wait several years to get the same books due to poor funding. Very few of our universities can boast of a million volumes of books in their libraries. Even the few books that exist are so old that information contained in them are valueless. This explains why there are no breakthroughs in our universities. Our research institutions have achieved very little because they are underfunded and lack the supporting accoutrements to carry out any meaningful research. A case in point is Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) located at New Tafo in the Eastern Region. Despite decades of its existence Ghanaians still export raw cocoa beans for peanuts. This is state of Africas premier institutions and the little I say about the Polytechnics and secondary schools the better. The same can be said about research in coffee, tea and tobacco.

It is obvious that lack of infrastructures are the cause of the poor economic performance and poverty seen everywhere in Africa and there is no doubt that without heavy investment in infrastructures it will be very difficult for Africa to make any progress towards economic independence. Increasing access to water, sanitation, roads, electricity, railways, trams, inland water transport system, airports, harbours, telecommunication, canals, and providing improved seeds, credits, subsidies and irrigation infrastructures are essential to Africa's economic and social development, for without them it will be impossible to reduce poverty and improve both urban and rural lives. It is costly but the price is worth paying.

By Lord Aikins Adusei
The author is a Planning Consultant, Political Activist and Anti- Corruption Campaigner.

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