Why isn’t Africa building enough bridges?

Africa urgently needs more bridges to cope with rapid urbanisation and help to expand trade, so what is holding back investment?


Image : paul prescott / Adobe Stock

After decades of delay, the city of Onitsha in Nigeria was finally able to celebrate the opening of its second bridge over the Niger River on 15 December. A new bridge has been on the drawing board since the 1970s, but successive administrations proved unable to make progress on the scheme.

In the meantime, Onitsha’s traffic congestion became increasingly nightmarish. Anyone crossing the only existing bridge, which carries just one lane of traffic in each direction between Onitsha and Asaba on the western bank of the Niger, would often have to endure many hours of gridlock.

The opening of the new 1.6-kilometre bridge after four years of construction will offer much-needed respite to Onitsha’s residents, although an accompanying access road is still to be completed. But in Nigeria and across Africa, far more projects of this kind are needed. The new bridge at Onitsha is one of only a handful of crossings of the Niger throughout the whole of Nigeria.

Without sufficient bridges, river crossings become bottlenecks that exacerbate congestion and suffocate trade. Investing in new bridges is therefore a key step towards lowering the cost of trade and boosting overall economic performance. As Nigerian minister of works Babatunde Fashola said at the opening of Onitsha’s new bridge: “Spending two to three days trying to cross a bridge is poverty. This should take just a few minutes so you can go and do more productive things.”

Building bridges

There is no shortage of proposals and plans for new bridges in Africa – but turning these into reality has often proved to be a tortuous process.

Encapsulating the mismatch between promises and delivery, The Gambia’s eccentric former president, Yahya Jammeh, added the title “Babili Mansa” – meaning “bridge builder” or “conqueror of rivers” – to his name in 2015. Ironically, however, Jammeh failed to build a bridge over the Gambia River during his more than two decades in power. A crossing was only completed, with financing from the African Development Bank (AfDB), in 2019 – two years after Jammeh was ejected from office.

Building a large road or rail bridge is, of course, a major engineering and financial undertaking. Many cities around the world, including in developed countries, struggle to construct enough bridges to keep traffic moving.

But Africa’s lack of investment in bridge infrastructure reflects the overall inadequacy of roads and railways on the continent. According to a World Bank report from 2010, the continent has just over 200km of roads per 1,000 square km, around one-fifth of the global average. Only a handful of African cities boast a light rail network, while at least 13 countries in Africa have no rail infrastructure whatsoever.

“Africa has transport costs that, by some measures, are double other areas of the world,” says Patrick Kouamé, investment director at African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM). “That’s a big impediment to trade and competitiveness for African countries.”

Kinshasa-Brazzaville bridge takes shape

Nowhere in Africa is the need for a bridge more striking than on the Congo River between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. At present, the only way to travel between the two cities, which lie on opposite banks of river, is by ferry. The nearest bridge – the only one across the Congo River proper – is around 260km downstream at Matadi.

Now, at last, plans for a bridge between the two capitals seem to be taking shape. The governments of the two Congos signed an agreement to pursue construction of a road bridge, with a rail link to potentially follow in the future, in November 2019. Africa50, an infrastructure investment platform established by the AfDB and African governments, is to provide equity, prepare a public-private partnership framework and take the lead in the project’s preparation and development. The AfDB will act as a debt provider.

“Such transport projects have acquired a new significance with the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement,” Akinwumi Adesina, the AfDB’s president, stated when the inter-governmental agreement was penned. “The proposed 90% reduction in freight tariffs will have no effect if the goods cannot cross the borders quickly.”

Africa50 estimates that the bridge will enable passenger traffic between the cities to increase from 750,000 to 4m per year and says that freight volumes could increase almost tenfold.

Surprisingly, however, the Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bridge will not actually be built between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Instead, the bridge is set to be located 55km upstream at Maluku. The project will therefore hand the most direct benefit to traders seeking to bypass the two cities. Ferry operators, who often lose out when bridges are built, will continue to monopolise traffic between the city centres.

The timeline for construction of the bridge, which latest estimates suggest will cost €713m, remains to be determined. But it would be optimistic to believe that traffic could be flowing across the bridge by the end of the decade, given that the project’s design and financing structure are yet to be finalised. Progress will also depend on maintaining good relations between the two governments as technical details are ironed out.

“When it’s a cross-border bridge, like Kinshasa-Brazzaville, the added problem is it’s a border crossing so there are other elements that need to be looked at,” says Paromita Chatterjee, investment director at the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund (EAIF), a Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG) company. Despite the need to resolve immigration and customs issues, the bridge represents a “low-hanging fruit”, Chatterjee says. “You could immediately see how that would have an impact on cross-border trade across these two countries.”

Finding finance

A major challenge for any large bridge project in Africa where private finance is required is to agree a financial structure that satisfies the government and the various institutions that may provide debt or equity. Chatterjee says that the two main models for private sector investments involve the operator either collecting tolls to recoup the cost of the investment or receiving regular payments from the government.

Even where tolls are charged, the government nearly always needs to provide some form of subsidy. Operators generally need approval from regulators to vary toll charges.

“Depending on how close you are to elections, it’s a very sensitive topic and authorities are very reluctant to increase tolls,” says Chatterjee.

“As investors, we also take the view that things have to be cost reflective,” she adds. “It’s fine to have grants and subsidies in there, but for demonstration effect and for crowding-in private sector investment… we have to show that the business model works, so there is a balance that needs to be struck.”

Chatterjee expects the build-operate-transfer model to become more common as traffic and trade continue to increase. Where investors are assured that road schemes will receive high and predictable volumes of traffic, they are much more likely to take on the risk of collecting toll revenues.

An alternative model is for investors to recoup their investment through receiving government payments over the course of a long-term contract. In Kenya, AIIM recently agreed to provide financing for the country’s road programme, under which contractors are responsible for building and maintaining roads, in return for regular annuity payments.

“That’s an innovative structure – and I think we need to see more of those,” says Kouamé. “Governments are starting to realise that they cannot continue doing it all by themselves, and therefore they need to come up with innovative ways to attract private investors into this sector.”

“To attract people to road investment, you need to come up with a risk allocation matrix that makes sense to international investors, and which gives investors appropriate certainty with regards to forecast revenues and returns.”

Making cities liveable

There is no doubt that new bridges, along with road and rail infrastructure more broadly, will need to be an increasing priority for African governments in the coming years.

“Enough capital is available to deploy on the continent; it’s the lack of bankable structures where the risk allocation is as it should be,” says Chatterjee. “That change is happening now, so we are actually quite optimistic.”

Indeed, there is a growing list of recent bridge projects that demonstrate that the engineering and financial challenges of construction can be overcome. Along with the new bridge at Onitsha, 2022 also saw the opening of a bridge across the Nile in Juba, alleviating the South Sudanese capital’s reliance on a prefabricated structure.

Meanwhile, the Maputo-Katembe Bridge – the longest suspension bridge in Africa – has helped to transform the far south of Mozambique since opening in 2018. As well as enabling rapid urban development on the southern shore of Maputo Bay, the bridge and accompanying link roads have vastly reduced travel times between Maputo and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.

Bridge construction now needs to accelerate further. The UN expects the population of sub-Saharan Africa to grow from 1.2bn today to 2.1bn by 2050. The continent will also continue its rapid urbanisation over this timeframe. Building bridges and closing transport bottlenecks will be vital steps towards mitigating traffic hell and making Africa’s cities more liveable.

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