Why is Africa not building enough bridges? | Daily News Byte


After decades of delay, the city of Onitsha, Nigeria was finally able to celebrate the opening of its second bridge over the River Niger on December 15. A new bridge has been on the drawing board since the 1970s, but successive administrations have proved unable to make progress on the scheme.

In the meantime, Onica’s traffic jam was getting worse and worse. Anyone crossing the only existing bridge, which carries only one lane of traffic in each direction between Onitsha and Asaba on Niger’s west coast, would often have to endure many hours of gridlock.

The opening of the new 1.6 kilometer bridge after four years of construction will offer much-needed respite to Onitsha residents, although the accompanying access road is yet to be completed. But there is a need for many more projects of this kind in Nigeria and across Africa. The new bridge at Onitsha is one of only a few crossings of the Niger in the whole of Nigeria.

Without enough bridges, river crossings become bottlenecks that worsen congestion and stifle trade. Investing in new bridges is therefore a key step towards lowering trade costs and boosting overall economic performance. As Nigeria’s Minister of Works Babatunde Fashola said at the opening of Onitsha’s new bridge: β€œTo spend two to three days trying to cross the bridge is poverty. This should only take a few minutes so you can do more productive things.”

Construction of bridges

There is no shortage of proposals and plans for new bridges in Africa – but making them a reality has often proved a painstaking process.

Embracing the mismatch between promise and delivery, Gambia’s eccentric former president, Yahya Jammeh, added the moniker ‘Babili Mansa’ – meaning ‘builder of bridges’ or ‘conqueror of rivers’ – to his name in 2015. Ironically, however, Jammeh failed to build bridge over the River Gambia during his more than two decades in power. The transition was only completed with funding from the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 2019 – two years after Jammeh was ousted from office.

Building a large road or rail bridge is, of course, a major engineering and financial undertaking. Many cities around the world, including developed countries, are struggling to build enough bridges to keep traffic flowing.

But Africa’s lack of investment in bridge infrastructure reflects the continent’s general inadequacy of roads and railways. According to a 2010 World Bank report, the continent has just over 200 km of roads per 1,000 square kilometers, about one-fifth of the world average. Only a few African cities have a light rail network, while at least 13 countries in Africa have no rail infrastructure at all.

“Africa has transport costs that, by some measures, are twice as high as other areas of the world,” says Patrick Kwame, chief investment officer at African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM). “It is a major obstacle to trade and competitiveness for African countries.”

Almost the Kinshasa-Brazzaville bridge

Nowhere in Africa is the need for a bridge more striking than on the Congo River between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Currently, the only way to travel between the two cities, which lie on opposite banks of the river, is by ferry. The nearest bridge – the only one over the Congo River – is about 260 km downstream at Matadi.

Now, finally, plans seem to be taking shape for a bridge between the two capitals. The governments of the two Congos signed an agreement to proceed with the construction of the road bridge, with a rail link that could follow in the future, in November 2019. Africa50, an infrastructure investment platform established by the AfDB and African governments, is to provide capital, prepare a public-private framework partnerships and take the lead in the preparation and development of the project. AfDB will act as debt provider.

“Such transport projects have taken on new significance with the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement,” said AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina when the intergovernmental agreement was signed. “The proposed 90 percent reduction in freight tariffs will have no effect if goods cannot cross borders quickly.”

Africa50 estimates that the bridge will allow passenger traffic between the cities to increase from 750,000 to four million a year and says that cargo volumes could increase almost tenfold.

However, it is surprising that the Kinshasa-Brazzaville bridge will not actually be built between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Instead, the bridge should be located 55 km upstream at Maluku. The project will therefore give the most direct benefit to traders who wish to bypass the two cities. Ferries, which often lose out when bridges are built, will continue to monopolize traffic between city centers.

The deadline for the construction of the bridge, which the latest estimates say will cost 713 million euros, remains to be determined. But it would be optimistic to believe that traffic could flow over the bridge by the end of the decade, given that the project’s design and financial structure have yet to be finalized. Progress will also depend on maintaining good relations between the two governments as technical details are ironed out.

“When it comes to a cross-border bridge like Kinshasa-Brazzaville, the additional problem is that it’s a border crossing, so there are other elements to consider,” says Paromita Chatterjee, director of investments at the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund (EAIF). , a Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG) company. Despite the need to address immigration and customs issues, the bridge represents “low-hanging fruit,” says Chatterjee. “You could immediately see how it would affect cross-border trade in these two countries.”

Finding finance

The main challenge for any major bridge project in Africa requiring private financing is to agree a financing structure that satisfies the government and the various institutions that can provide debt or equity. Chatterjee says the two main models for private sector investment involve the operator either charging a toll to offset the cost of the investment or receiving regular payments from the government.

Even where tolls are charged, the government almost always needs to provide some form of subsidy. Operators generally need regulatory approval to change tolls.

“Depending on how close you are to the election, it’s a very sensitive subject and the authorities are very reluctant to increase tolls,” says Chatterjee.

“As investors, we also feel that things have to reflect costs,” she adds. “It’s fine to have grants and subsidies, but for the demonstration effect and for private sector investment to accumulate … we have to show that the business model works, so there’s a balance to be struck.”

Chatterjee expects the build-operate-transfer model to become more common as traffic and trade continue to increase. Where investors are confident that road schemes will receive large and predictable volumes of traffic, they are much more likely to take the risk of collecting toll revenue.

An alternative model is for investors to recoup their investment by receiving government payments over a long-term contract. In Kenya, AIIM recently agreed to provide financing for the country’s roads program, in which contractors are responsible for building and maintaining roads, in exchange for regular annuity payments.

“It’s an innovative structure – and I think we need to see more of it,” says Kouame. “Governments are beginning to realize that they cannot continue to operate alone, and therefore need to come up with innovative ways to attract private investors into the sector.”

“To attract people to invest in roads, you need to come up with a risk allocation matrix that makes sense to international investors and gives investors adequate certainty in terms of predicting revenue and returns.”

Making cities livable

There is no doubt that new bridges, along with road and rail infrastructure more broadly, will have to be an increasing priority for African governments in the coming years. “Enough capital is available to deploy on the continent, it’s the lack of banking structures where risk allocation is where it should be,” says Chatterjee. “That change is happening now, so we’re actually quite optimistic.”

Indeed, there is a growing list of recent bridge projects that demonstrate that the engineering and financial challenges of construction can be overcome. Along with the new bridge in Onitsha, a bridge over the Nile in Juba opened in 2022, easing South Sudan’s capital’s reliance on prefabricated construction.

Meanwhile, the Maputo-Katembe Bridge – Africa’s longest suspension bridge – has helped transform the far south of Mozambique since opening in 2018. As well as enabling rapid urban development on the southern coast of Maputo Bay, the bridge and accompanying roads have significantly reduced travel times between Maputo and the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The construction of the bridge should now be further accelerated. The UN expects the population of sub-Saharan Africa to grow from 1.2 billion today to 2.1 billion by 2050. The continent will also continue its rapid urbanization during this time period. Building bridges and closing transport bottlenecks will be vital steps towards easing traffic hell and making African cities more livable.


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