**The Exchange** Trans-African infrastructure: a vital tool to ignite tourism and trade

Op-Ed by me, originally published in The Exchange 2023-06-19

Article in The Exchange

The Trans-African Highway network, a bold blueprint conceived to foster economic integration on the African continent, has been a captivating vision since its inception in 1971. Initiated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the project aims to integrate the continent through an expansive road network.

Despite political obstacles and inconsistent collaboration between countries, renewed momentum from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is rejuvenating this grand vision. In recent years, the UNECA, the African Union (AU), and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have worked jointly to promote this ambition that could set Africa on an unprecedented economic trajectory.

Understanding the Trans-African Highway Network

The Trans-African Highway Network envisioned as a web of nine highways lacing the continent, would be nothing short of an economic revolution if and when built. These arteries, including the Cairo-Cape Town (TAH 4, 10,228 km), Dakar–Lagos (TAH 7, 4,560 km), and Lagos-Mombasa (TAH 8, 6,259 km), would transform transportation, reduce road transport costs, and ignite a surge of commercial and tourism activity.


AfCFTA and the Promise of Enhanced Trade

AfCFTA heralds a pivotal shift in intra-African trade, leveling the playing field for producers and service providers by abolishing most tariffs and non-tariff barriers. This opens up an enormous potential market of 1.4 billion consumers and a combined GDP of US$8.9 trillion (PPP). An integrated African single market of such magnitude could draw substantial investments into production capacity, spawn millions of jobs, and bring down prices, dramatically improving living conditions across the continent.

Infrastructure: The Ultimate Enabler of Trade

Nevertheless, trade demands more than mere elimination of tariffs. Current infrastructural deficiencies, including high long-distance transportation costs and cumbersome border crossings, persist in impeding continental trade. A fully realized Trans-African Highway Network could significantly mitigate these limitations. Efficient transportation links spanning the continent could trigger a tide of trade and economic expansion.

Trans-African Highways: Igniting Transformation

The Trans-African Highway Network, while over half of its 56,863 kilometers are paved, still contends with sections in poor states and others awaiting construction. An ambitious US$15 billion project, financed by the AfDB, aims to transform the 965-kilometer Lagos-Abidjan Highway Corridor into a six-lane, transnational highway. This endeavor, planned for launch in 2025, represents roughly 21% of the Lagos-Dakar TAH 7 (4,560 km).

An overhaul on similar lines across the entire TAH network would cost US$850 billion if the cost per km were the same as Lagos-Abidjan. Since only parts of the distance would be six lanes, and the costs of land would be lower in less densely populated areas, we would however be looking at a considerably more modest price tag. An ambition of this magnitude would nevertheless be a generational project for Africa, but at the same time, one of the greatest transformations in the history of the continent.

While the cost would be shared between most countries in Africa, it is also safe to assume that international institutions and donors would foot a significant part of the bill. After all, it would be a better investment than all the development aid from the world community over the past six decades combined.

Over time, the returns would almost certainly outweigh the expenses. These highways would form a nexus of trade and business, bridging key economic regions, nurturing competition, and reducing production costs. In addition, the improved infrastructure would revitalize the tourism industry, transforming regional cross-border itineraries into a standard offering for tour operators, resulting in a more diverse value proposition. Picturesque road trips across the continent, currently a venture for the most intrepid and seasoned travelers, could become a coveted experience for adventure tourists worldwide.

Beyond Roads: The Potential of Railways

While roads are crucial, railways constitute an equally vital component of the broader infrastructure landscape. They provide a considerable advantage over roads for cargo transport and could catalyze trans-African trade. In the East African Railway Masterplan, Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) was envisaged to go all the way to Kisangani in DRC. As funding to extend the line to Kampala in Uganda finally seems to be coming through, the economic value of this flagship piece of infrastructure is about to increase significantly.

On that note, President William Ruto’s initiative to take the project several steps further by extending the line to the Indian Ocean through the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is an inspiring example of the kind of visionary audacity that this continent needs. While the exact details of the proposed route past Kisangani remain undisclosed, there is little doubt that a modern railway transport axis connecting the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean via the two Congos, Uganda, and Kenya, would considerably impact the region’s economy. This could also inaugurate an era of industrialization and economic expansion for the DRC.

If the four countries can successfully fund and build a modern railway between the two oceans, there is also potential to further the ambition, incorporating Cameroon and Nigeria to extend the railway northwestwards to Lagos in Nigeria. The TAH 8 (6,259 km) route already envisages a highway connection between Mombasa and Lagos, partially passing through the Central African Republic, but due to the enduring instability of that country, a different trajectory might make more sense for the foreseeable future.

Gateway to Global Economic Leadership

Such an endeavor would link six countries, encompassing a total population of more than 470 million and a GDP of US$2.2 trillion (PPP). With trade barriers dismantled, the Kenya-DRC-Nigeria axis could drive a major upswing in intra-African trade. Owing to its pivotal role and strategic position, Kenya in particular would stand to gain substantial benefits from such an expansion.

With the gradual removal of barriers to internal trade, Africa stands on the brink of a historic opportunity to enhance trade, tourism, and growth, potentially elevating millions out of poverty. The construction of trans-continental infrastructure could reshape the 21st-century narrative of Africa, unlocking its economic potential and positioning the continent as the forthcoming engine of global economic growth.


The author, Håvar Bauck, is a prominent travel technology entrepreneur with a 20-year track record in business development, entrepreneurship, technology, and tourism in African markets. He is the founder and Co-CEO of HotelOnline, the leading digital marketing and e-commerce partner for hotels in Africa.

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