Despite being over one-fifth of the world's land area, Africa possesses less than a tenth of its roads and railways.
Africa is a vast continent, only smaller than Asia in terms of land area. While the continent is nearly contiguous (Cape Verde, Sao Tomé and Príncipe, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, and Mauritius are the exceptions, being island countries), movement around the continent is notoriously tricky. There are a variety of reasons for this—poor transport infrastructure, geography, insecurity, hostile borders and uncooperative governments.
Possible reasons for poor transport systems
The size and physical makeup of Africa mean that the continent possesses wildly varying climate conditions and geographical features, sometimes within the same country. Assume Nigeria, for instance. The topography of the land changes from near-desert conditions in the north to hills in the middle belt and mangrove swamps in the south. The huge Niger Delta contains multiple rivers with confluences and estuaries. Soil and land types change frequently too.
This can be extrapolated out to the continent at large. Africa contains the world’s largest dry desert in the Sahara, the largest river system in the Nile–White Nile–Kagera–Nyabarongo–Mwogo–Rukarara, the second largest drainage basin in the Congo, and the East African Rift System. The challenges that this creates are those of engineering; difficult, but eminently solvable. Water bodies can be tackled by bridges or the use of water transport; highlands necessitate tunnels and hill passes. Difficult, expensive, but achievable. There are more intriguing reasons for Africa’s poor transport system.
In colonialist times, Africa was mainly exploited for its natural resources. Most transport infrastructure built by imperial countries on the continent was to transport minerals or agricultural products, not for connectivity of inland areas. Hence, roads often went from mines or farms to port cities. Railways were also largely built for this purpose—transportation of goods instead of people.
The fragmentation of the continent’s countries and even the segmentation of individual countries into states/provinces/regions also takes its toll, with each sub-division developing its transport system. An example is the separation of the previously integrated railway systems of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. Corruption is rife, with the extraction and export of raw materials more likely to be a major source of wealth for those who govern, rather than nation-building funds.
Africa’s transport infrastructure
The result of these is that despite having over 20 percent of the world’s total land, Africa possesses just 7.4 percent of its total road network and 6.9 percent of its railways. Compare this with Europe, which is interconnected by over 75,000 km of roads and over 200,000 km of railways. Africa’s poor road/rail-to-land area ratio suggests a poorly connected continent, with few direct routes for both inter and intra-state transport.
Transport on the continent is unsafe, with vehicles and infrastructure being poorly maintained. This calls back the issue of corruption, as there is a failure of governance in regulation enforcement. Insecurity also plagues the continent, with land transport systems often passing through conflict zones. Road transport is particularly treacherous: some roads are unpaved and undulating; poor maintenance or bad construction means roads quickly go bad.
Rail systems are underdeveloped, and built to both lower and uneven standards. This can be seen in railway gauges. Nearly all of Europe uses the standard 1435 mm railway gauge, with the exception of the Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal. In Africa, different countries and regions favour different gauges, from the 1067mm gauge to the 1000mm and 1435mm gauges.
Effects of Africa’s poor transport systems
It will be difficult for Africa to attain the levels of economic development it desires in this state. Its land transport infrastructure is insufficient in length and complexity. Inland transport systems are higher on the African continent than in any other region in the world. Moving goods around countries or from a source area to a port is an expensive process which raises the cost of doing business significantly.
The non-standardization of rail transport may lead to people and goods needing to change trains along a single journey, an expensive and time-consuming process. Rail transport is also slow and cumbersome; speed was not essential when the railways were put in place, so the rail systems were built to modest technical specifications. In a more time-sensitive climate, rail cannot compete with road transport.
Road systems are sparse and poorly maintained. The rundown nature of the roads leads to difficult interstate travel. This, and the poor road networks often lead to population concentrations; unable to move across distances easily, people want to live as close as possible to their jobs or businesses. Hence, Africa is home to megacities with high population densities such as Nairobi, Lagos, and Kinshasha.