Is Kazungula Bridge the future of Southern African trade?

The opening of the Kazungula Bridge linking Botswana and Zambia over the Zambezi River promises to boost trade and tourism in Southern Africa.


Image : Monirul BHUIYAN/AFP

Traders and transporters along Southern Africa’s North-South Corridor have long been dogged by decrepit infrastructure, border delays and traffic jams, heightening both the cost and time of trade.

But the opening in early May of the new $259m Kazungula Bridge linking Botswana and Zambia over the Zambezi River offers renewed hope to those travelling north from Beitbridge on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border.

The bridge, whose construction officially started in 2014, is seen as a showpiece example of the sort of cross-border cooperation and regional infrastructure development needed to facilitate intra-African trade in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

With its two one-stop border post facilities, one on each side of the Zambia-Botswana borders, the 923-metre bridge will handle an estimated 250 trucks per day, a huge improvement on the previous pontoon boat service that could carry only two trucks at a time.

Godfrey Songeya, the Kazungula Bridge Project manager, says that under the one-stop border post concept, commuters stop at the facility of the exit country in a move that significantly cuts the transit time spent by traders and freighters.

Botswana and Zambia collectively own the bridge, funded by toll fees and administered by the Kazungula Bridge Authority, which was created to operate and maintain the infrastructure on behalf of the two nations.

The project cost $259m, with finance provided by the two governments, the African Development Bank, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the European Union-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund.

Key driver for growth

Trade specialists say that trading infrastructure development is a key driver for the progress and sustainable economic growth of the African continent.

Carlos Lopez, economist and professor at the University of Cape Town, says the Kazungula Bridge will dramatically reduce the time and cost of moving freight, building on the example of the “game-changing” Senegambia Bridge between Senegal and Gambia.

“The Kazungula Bridge is situated in one of the hottest trade triangles in Africa with no less than five countries (Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana) reachable in less than 100km, all ingredients to spark trade and tourism,” he says.

“As for tourism, we are talking about the confluence of Victoria Falls, Chobe, and Zambia’s most famous national parks. The area is well served with two international airports and major hotel chains present. The potential to boost that type of eco-tourist offer is enormous and will benefit from a redirected demand to nature and conservation destinations.”

Talkmore Chidede, researcher at the Trade Law Centre for Southern Africa, says the completion of the Kazungula Bridge is a milestone for the SADC, regional integration efforts and the AfCFTA.

“For AfCFTA such a project will facilitate the efficient and seamless movement of goods and persons resulting in the promotion of industrialisation and the growth of regional value chains. It will also lead to ripple effects on tourism, competition and the cost of goods,” he says.

Chidede says the completion of the Kazungula Bridge is an indication that infrastructure development is possible where there is political will and commitment. Many of Southern Africa’s transport corridors, including Johannesburg to Maputo, Beira to Malawi, and the Trans-Kalahari Highway, require major improvements.

For whom the bridge tolls

Despite its grand entry, the opening of the Kazungula Bridge has been marred by concerns over what some trade bodies have described as exorbitant toll fees, which they say could seriously undermine trade unless reduced. The border authority is charging $6 for bikes, $15 for small cars, $65 for a bus with a trailer and $85 for a truck with a trailer.

Three regional bodies – the Centre for Trade Policy and Development, the Southern Africa Cross Border Traders Association and the Zambia Chamber of Commerce Trade and Industry, say that fees will cause increased supply-chain expenses for goods and services traded through the border as well as increased illegal trade through illicit routes.

Neither has the bridge enjoyed the unanimous backing of all of its neighbours. When the project was conceived a decade ago, three countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia – were involved. But Zimbabwe later pulled out of the project under former President Robert Mugabe, who feared it would reduce traffic through the country’s lucrative Beitbridge border post with South Africa.

A complement to Beitbridge?

But there are signs of an about-turn. Under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe has again decided it wants to participate. Presidential spokesman George Charamba says that a tripartite agreement has been reached for Zimbabwe to become part of the project once it pays an unspecified share of the cost of the bridge.

“Discussions are smoothly under way. Until that payment is done, Kazungula remains jointly owned by Zambia and Botswana,” he said on Twitter in May.

Chidede maintains that the Kazungula Bridge and Beitbridge border post are not competing but complementing each other.

“The diversion of some trucks from Beitbridge to the Kazungula Bridge is a welcome move as currently the infrastructure and resources at Beitbridge border post are limited and cannot cope with the current volumes of incoming and outgoing traffic,” he says.

Chidede says that Zimbabwe will only lose revenue associated with the clearance of transit cargo and toll fees, but argues that gains made through the decongestion of Beitbridge will outweigh the revenue earned through the clearance and movement of transit cargo through Zimbabwe.

Beitbridge is currently being overhauled through a private consortium agreement with Zimborders, a $300m upgrade expected to eradicate bottlenecks. Chidede says both projects can work harmoniously to contribute to a much-needed improvement in Southern African trade.

“Kazungula Bridge relieves pressure on Beitbridge, making it more efficient, and this development may lead to significant downstream benefits for local and regional industry. Trucks that were spending long hours at Beitbridge will now take less hours thereby increasing efficiency and productivity. Less time taken to clear cargo at Beitbridge will see a decrease in the overall import and export costs even to local industry.”

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