Infrastructure Investment: Key to Africa’s Economic Independence

Published on 7th April 2009

The health of every nation’s economy is strongly dependent on reliable infrastructure. Good infrastructure is the bedrock, life blood and engine that drives the economy. The role played by infrastructure on sustainable development, foreign direct investment flow, GDP growth, inflation reduction, job creation, trade, service delivery  and the cost of doing business cannot be ignored.  

Poor or inadequate infrastructure slows down the growth potential of any economy. The difference between the major economic powers and the developing world can be measured on the scale and quality of their social and economic infrastructure. A visit to developed economies reveals efficient, well developed and upgraded networks of surface and underground rail lines, roads, tunnels, trams, power plants, airports, harbours, telecommunication, health, education, housing, shopping malls, canals, inland water systems, irrigation facilities, sewerage and sanitation infrastructure.

On the other hand, a careful look at the state of infrastructure in any African country reveals serious decay and neglect occasioned by the short term thinking amongst politicians and planners. Long term policies are shunned as they are perceived to be expensive and take time for benefits to be realised.

South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, DRC, Somalia, and Kenya have experienced serious disruptions in the energy sector for years. They have focused too much on hydro-electricity at the expense of 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 don’t they use it for the generation of light for cooking and every other thing”? She added: “We do it in Finland for our renewable energy.” (Source:, 12 March, 2009.)

Finland is locked up for most of the year by cold winter but takes advantage of the short summer to convert the little sunshine they receive into solar energy while African 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 can hardly cope with the demand. 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 and 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 knees. 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 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.

The roads in our cities are limited in capacity; poorly maintained; and choked with cars, trucks and buses. They have no provision for bicycles, pedestrians and people with disabilities. Traffic jams are a common occurrence in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Accra, Lagos, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cairo, Kampala, FreeTown, Yaoundé and Monrovia as there are few or no parking lanes and ring roads to direct traffic away from the central business district. This makes the cost of running business very expensive as passengers and goods spend hours in traffic snarls. 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 Africa’s total population live in rural areas. 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 are wasted due to lack of transport. It is estimated that close to 40% of food produced in rural Africa rots due to lack of roads and poor bridges. The absence of electricity, water, sanitation, irrigation facilities and silos 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.

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 big oil tankers, cargo and passenger planes that dominate global shipping and air travel. Consequently, the cost of shipping and air travel are still provocatively expensive. The ports in Tema, Lagos, Durban, RichardsBay, Cape Town, SaldanhaBay, 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.

Africa’s export sector is dominated by crude oil, cocoa, coffee, tobacco and tea which don’t bring in enough revenue. Gold and diamond are exported to Switzerland, Belgium, Britain and Dubai before Africans go there to buy them as wedding rings and bracelets. There are no gold and diamond cutting firms in Africa because the infrastructure does not exist. As a result, millions of jobs that gold and diamond cutting create are found in Israel, Belgium, Britain and US even though they do not mine these minerals.

In all major oil producing countries in Africa, lack of infrastructure has hampered expansion in the oil sector, leading to shortages of  petroleum products, higher prices and long queues in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Malawi, and Zambia. There are few petrochemical industries in the continent due to lack of relevant infrastructure. As a result, most oil exports are in the crude form which brings in limited revenues.

The telecommunication and ICT sector is still struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. Internet connection is absent in the rural parts and connection is very slow in cities. In many areas, fixed telephone lines and mobile telephone infrastructure is still at the infancy stage. 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, fertiliser and storage facilities. Farming in Africa is dominated by the use of cutlasses/machetes, hoes and other rudimentary equipment. 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. As a result, the average farmer can only produce to feed himself but not sell. The result is food shortage, high cost of food, hunger and the extreme poverty seen in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Niger and Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

The dwindling and expensive housing stock has forced people to live in slums 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.

The education sector, the foundation of the continent’s development effort has its share of the infrastructure problems.The institutions lack state of the art libraries, laboratory simulation facilities, studios, computers, books and classrooms. In most institutions, it is still chalk, paper, and blackboard and there are no internet connections. This has severely hampered the quality and delivery of education in the continent. Of about 9,760 Accredited Universities in the World that were ranked, only the University of Cape Town  and University of Witwatersrand managed to place 179 and 319 positions respectively in the top 500. (Source: Some lecturers can’t use computers, internet and podcasting.

Without proper or adequate academic infrastructure, Africa can’t produce the high quality architects, engineers, planners, bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and nurses that she desperately  needs in this scientific and technological age. This explains why in most countries, major architectural and engineering works are undertaken by foreign companies from USA, Japan, China and Europe.

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. Very few of our universities can boast of a million volumes of books in their libraries. The few that exist are too old that information contained in them is outdated.

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 the 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 the state of Africa’s premier institutions. The same can be said about research in coffee, tea and tobacco. 

Without heavy investment in infrastructure, 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,

Planning Consultant, Political Activist and Anti- Corruption Campaigner.



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