subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Picture :123RF
Picture :123RF

Investors are increasingly focused on developing Africa’s ports sector, particularly amid growing global interest in the continent’s huge potential as an exporter of battery metals. However, investment in land-based logistics infrastructure must not be overlooked. It needs to be significantly improved to drive down the costs of shipping cargoes to global markets. 

Inefficiencies and bottlenecks in mine-to-port transport networks threaten to undermine the competitiveness of Africa’s vast reserves of battery metals, which could play a key role in international efforts to achieve carbon emission targets. Logistical obstacles could also frustrate SA’s ability to realise its agro-export ambitions. Investors in Africa’s ports should consider an integrated investment approach, giving them a degree of control and influence over export logistics corridors across the region.  

At the same time, the fragmentary nature of land-based logistics means investors must determine whether hinterland supply chains offer the quickest routes to the ports they plan to invest in. Africa is home to many of the potentially transformative battery metals. Similarly, African agriculture is seen by some observers as having the potential to become a net exporter of food.

To capitalise on growing international demand for African exports land-based logistics must be tackled. Logistical shortcomings mean, for instance, that getting copper cargo from southern Democratic Republic of Congo to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and the inefficiencies on the way, are the main cost of exports to China. As a result of similar issues, irrational logic frequently prevails, with a large volume of consignments travelling 1,000km further to the port of Durban on SA’s east coast.

The reason is that logistics involved in travelling south, as opposed to east, have tended to be slightly more efficient, particularly at the port side. In rational terms, cargo should normally travel the shortest distance to the largest seaport. But irrational logic will continue to play out unless corridor-specific bottlenecks are resolved.  

Investors exploring investment in African ports with an eye on the returns that battery metal and agricultural exports are likely to deliver must be cautious about engaging with portside projects that ignore the fundamental challenges of trucking and railing across borders. Some regional governments plan new ports or expand existing ones with little regard to their hinterland connectivity, resulting in underutilisation.

Others press ahead with prestige cross-country railway lines, which may be hard to fully amortise due to lack of demand, when they might be better off improving or building transport infrastructure linking areas with high-value commodities to their ports. Lack of strategic planning by political actors ignoring commercial dynamics in favour of projects at scale in part explains why logistics related to mineral and agricultural flows are often fragmentary. 

Investors must interrogate the overall transport links from the raw material sources right the way through to exporting ports, making sure these corridors are robust. They should then focus on how to improve their efficiency, for example, investing in projects that get more cargo onto rail, reduce delays and congestion at border posts and deal with empty-leg transportation — essentially ensuring that carriers of product to ports do not return empty. 

At the same time, it is critical to right-size these investments. At the outset, it is perhaps better to focus on modest enhancements to corridors, with further expansion over time, so that investment moves in lockstep with demand. Otherwise, there is a risk of corridors being underused and the ports operating well below capacity. 

There is intense competition in West African port markets. That’s not the case in southern and eastern Africa. Here, with the exception of Maputo, which is a private port, you see a mix of models often involving state-owned port authorities both collaborating and sometimes competing with private sector actors. That makes investment challenging as there is no level playing field, the state tending to favour its own operators. Investors may be better placed to consider small investments until they are afforded greater protection and clarity. 

But this rather restrictive environment is changing as capacity deficits and inefficiencies increase the urgency for private sector support. In SA there are moves to separate out the respective roles of the state so that the port authority becomes a separate, independent entity, while in a number of regional markets it is clear that private sector actors are increasingly being welcomed across container, multipurpose and bulk terminal operations.   

The reform is being brought about by underperformance. African terminals suffer from high average dwell times, 20 days compared with the international norms of three to four days. Governments are in effect acknowledging that partnerships are needed to tackle these issues. Notably, the Durban port authority’s recent decision to partner with a private terminal operator was driven by operational concerns — the facility was ranked among the three worst-performing ports in the world in a World Bank report. 

Critically for investors, the liberalisation we are beginning to see in the port environments of eastern and southern African is also extending to other elements of the logistics chains. So, for instance, governments are now selling slots on railway networks to allow private sector entities to run their own trains to the ports. This all bodes well for the adoption of a more integrated investment approach, with investors able to exercise a degree of influence and control over the various elements of their logistics chain, even if the port investment is of most interest to them.  

• Stumpf is investment director at African Infrastructure Investment Managers, a division of Old Mutual Alternative Investments.  

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.