Just over a decade ago as he appeared on a panel at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Addis Ababa, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was asked by journalist Robyn Curnow about the minor level of private investment in African infrastructure.
“I am not surprised because the private sector can take risks up to a certain limit and they need sizable returns,” Meles responded. “Infrastructure is a high-risk business and therefore needs high returns. So it is very unlikely that the infrastructure gap in Africa is going to be filled by the private sector,” he said.
“I don’t think it will happen,” Meles added. “We’ve been waiting for it to happen for 30 years, we will wait another 30 years before the gap is filled. [The] public sector has to come in and fill the gaps that cannot be filled by the private sector,” he said.
By then, Meles had long established himself as a champion of robust infrastructure development, reasoning that such investments would spur economic growth and boost trade on the continent. And so it followed that in May 2013, a year after his death, African heads of state adopted Agenda 2063, a strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent over the next 50 years.
Where is the private sector?
Yet, this month as Tanzania prepares to complete an initial selection of its project, after which it will invite proposals for the design and construction of a bilateral electric railway line from its western region of Uvinza in Tabora to Burundi’s political capital of Gitega, it is just as Meles predicted – it’s not the private sector at work but concessional loans from the African Development Bank (AFDB).
While Tanzania had issued a call for tenders to be returned by 12 August, a re-advertisement was made in April after the AFDB offered to finance the project, sparking confusion among prospective bidders.
Officials in Dar es Salaam told The Africa Report that the call for tenders was to fulfil conditions of the new financing. “Before it was government-funded so now that we have secured funds, it’s a financing condition,” said Machibya Masanja, director of infrastructure at Tanzania Railways Corporation. “If somebody shows interest to finance, there is a procedure,” he said.
African Integrated High Speed Railway Network
Like many ongoing construction works across the continent, the Tanzanian railway lines are part of the African Integrated High Speed Railway Network (AIHSRN) that aims to connect Africa’s 16 landlocked countries to seaports, provide interconnections between different regions, establish trans-Africa beltways as well as filling infrastructure gaps in key transport corridors, thereby connecting all political and economic capitals.
The goal is to meet the first three objectives by 2033 and then connect all the capitals by 2043, according to an AU master plan.
Conceived for implementation in a phased manner, the AIHSRN hoped to have the two high-speed regional rail projects in place from 2013 to 2023 in the first phase as pilot lines, namely the Kigali-Dar es Salaam to Kampala-Bujumbura lines as well as Walvis Bay-Windhoek to Johannesburg-Gaborone route.
Additionally, Kampala-Nairobi and Ouagadougou-Abidjan were also considered for piloting under the AU plan, although these railway links were to be built by cooperative footprint states individually with the potential for future integration.
The Tanzania standard gauge railway has emerged to be the most advanced on the continent, according to a Canadian consultant who worked on scoping studies on Africa’s railways for the AU.
“There are a number of railway projects that could be very effective. The most advanced of these is the Tanzania standard gauge railway which will connect with Rwanda. It opens up a vast area of the country to development and provides much-needed rail connectivity. Plans are in place to also extend the network reach to Burundi and DRC,” George Kaulbeck, a partner and global director of transportation at CPCS, tells The Africa Report.
Of note is also the Cameroon-Chad line, where feasibility studies are underway, along with a rehabilitated Benguela Railway in Angola, and urban railways in cities like Dakar, Abidjan and Lagos, says Kaulbeck.
In total, the AU rail master plan entails the development of 75 railway links across Africa. About 70,000km of rail will be constructed, the longest link being Algiers-Abuja at 3,428km and the shortest Brazzaville-Kinshasa, at 19km.
Africa’s infrastructural development is hindered by a financial gap of $130bn-170bn annually, according to the continental body. In selecting piloting lines like Tanzania’s, the master planners viewed the two projects as having high potential to score early wins and therefore encourage the development of the massive rail network.
But, in a typical case of self-sabotage, members are barely adhering to their own plan.
“[The] plan was not adhered to as originally envisioned largely due to lack of individual government buy-in,” says Kaulbeck, before expressing scepticism about whether the 2034 targets will be met. “No, but there will be development and the overall scale and impact may be close to AIHSRN 2043 targets,” he says.
On average, Tanzania spends $6m per kilometre of railway constructed and electrified. At an annual growth rate of 4.5%, container traffic measured by weight was projected to grow from 2.7 million tonnes in 2019 to 18.1 million tonnes in 2063 and about 4.5 million passengers would use the line by 2050.
Although electrified, the railway falls in the semi-high speed category of 160km per hour for passenger trains and 120km per hour for freight cargo trains – a far cry from bullet trains and tubes. Together with a low rate of return, the AU’s own assessment found this line unfeasible.
Everyone wants in
Despite such obstacles, countries still want a piece of the iron snake.
“Africa is not connected at all, so wherever you start to connect one country to another is good progress because it’s a big problem we have,” Apollo Kashanku, a Ugandan government transport economist, tells The Africa Report. “We have studied the project. It’s a good project and we are also going to undertake studies to see how we can connect to that line,” Kashanku adds.
Uganda is also considering a connection to another standard gauge line, through Kenya, once its neighbour extends it all the way to the border. This regional approach to such undertakings inspires confidence among planners like Kashanku.
“Actually this railway project was an African Union approach, pushed by [Meles] Zenawi. This standard gauge idea was an idea of [Meles] Zenawi from Ethiopia, although at a regional level, there can be protocol at a presidential level to undertake railway connections,” Kashanku says.
“Also, practically speaking, you cannot undertake a railway project alone, that would be foolhardy. It’s not a small road; it has to be regionally undertaken,” he adds.
A ringing endorsement of the ways of Meles Zenawi and the African Union.
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