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At the conclusion of the AU heads of state and governments ordinary session in February, African leaders called for a united approach to accelerate  successful implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

Outside the political process for member countries’ engagement towards full enforcement of the AfCFTA, a variety of studies make a favourable case for the cause. A 2022 Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) study projected that AfCFTA would in effect increase intra-African trade in transport services by close to 50% in 2030 compared to the 2019 level.

According to findings of the study, “Implications of the African Continental Free Trade Area for demand for transport, infrastructure and services”, AfCFTA would require 1,844-miilion trucks for bulk cargo and 248,000 trucks for container cargo by 2030. If planned road projects are completed by then, these numbers rise to 1,945-million and 268,000 trucks respectively. In addition, full implementation of the AfCFTA is projected to double road freight from 201-million tonnes in 2019 to 403-million tonnes by 2030. 

Notwithstanding these projections, the general state of Africa’s road infrastructure is lagging this ambition, not to mention the goal of ensuring seamless and efficient movement at border posts. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (USA) reports that most of the continent’s roads are unpaved, with Sub-Saharan Africa covered by only 31% of total kilometres of paved road per 100km² of land, the lowest percentage globally. 

This reality puts the role of Africa’s national and subregional road authorities at the heart of AfCFTA’s aim for a single continental market for goods and services, which must be backed by quality, reliable and broadened road transport infrastructure continent-wide.  

The SA National Roads Agency (Sanral), together with our counterpart road agencies in other African countries, is forging strong partnerships that  leverage expertise through a shared vision that can be used to drive not only AfCFTA’s but the continent’s broader road infrastructure agenda, particularly on big projects such as the Trans-African Highways. 

The road infrastructure projects in Africa are encouraging, with at least nine Trans-African Highways in scope, spearheaded and funded by important regional bodies such as the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Development Bank and the AU, together with regional economic communities. Noting the ebbs and flows, there is some traction with regard to exploring private finance options and reconfiguration of road authorities as they adapt to current realities.  

Initially launched in 1971 by the UNECA, the Trans-African Highway project is a network of nine highways, which when completed have the potential to link Africa’s northern, eastern, western, central and southern corridors, covering a combined total of nearly 60,000kmacross the continent. The planned highways cover thousands of kilometres between subregions, with the stretch from Cairo to Dakar, Senegal, covering about 8,000kms while the planned highway between Cairo and Cape Town stretches another 8,000kms. The highway between West Africa (Lagos) and East Africa (Mombasa) would account for 6,000kms, while the route between Dakar and Lagos would cover 4,700kms.  

To date, only the Trans-Sahelian Highway, running close to 4,500kms between Dakar in Senegal and N’Djamena in Chad, has been completed. For the other highways, more than half of the network has been completed, though implementing a strict and disciplined preventive maintenance regime over the long term can be a challenge. While some of the Trans-African highways are reported to be at 80% completion, others are reported to have missing links in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. 

In addition to the Trans-African Highway projects, each of Africa’s regional economic blocs — the East African Community (EAC), Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) has a collection of road infrastructure projects that spans its  member countries.

The EAC is running with both the Horn of Africa Gateway Development Project as well as the East Africa Ring Road project. For ECOWAS, its present priority project is the Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Development Programme, covering more than 1,000km, as well as the Trans-Gambia Transport Corridor (137km). Sadc member states are involved in several regional projects including the Beitbridge (Zimbabwe) to Chirundu (Zambia) road upgrade (970kms), the already completed Maputo Corridor Logistics Initiative and the planned Western Corridor Road between Zambia and Angola. 

In addition to these regional infrastructure projects, all the individual member countries of the regional blocs have their own road projects, mostly consisting of upgrades, resurfacing and maintenance.  

• Malahleha is head of strategy at Sanral. 

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