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East African waterways offer cheap and easy transport: the transport potential of East Africa's waterway systems, comprising lakes and rivers, has been neglected but could offer easy and cheap access to and from ocean ports. Neil Ford discusses the recent decision to revive inland waterway transport in the sub region.

Africa's inland waterways have long been mooted as part of the solution to the continent's transport woes. While road and rail networks require constant maintenance and upgrading, navigable rivers and lakes have need of far less investment and infrastructure.


Yet relatively little effort has been put into making the most of this African natural resource over the past 40 years, perhaps because it is only of great use when integrate d with road and rail transport links. Now, however, governments all over Africa are finally recognising the value of inland waterways, including on Lake Malawi and on the Zambezi and Shire river system.

It is often written that David Livingstone--one of the best known European Christian missionaries to travel in Africa in the 19th century--regarded the Zambezi as the ideal means of water transport in Central-Southern Africa. He hoped that promoting travel on the river would help to overcome the economic reach of the slave trade in the region. It is perhaps less well known that his vision of a waterborne trade network never really took off, partly because the whole length of the river was not easily navigable at that time.

However, great use can be made of this and other African rivers by integrating transport networks across the continent. Various forms of cargo and particularly containerised cargo can often be most easily moved from one point to another by using a variety of forms of transport. For instance, containers often arrive at the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam, where they are transferred on to rail for transport to the west, perhaps to the lake port of Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. They can then be shipped north to Burundi, west to Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) or south to Zambia and the final stage of their journey is often undertaken by road.


When the infrastructure and organisation is in place to enable the transfer of containers from one form of transport to another, this is a modern and efficient method of transporting goods and promoting trade.

It often requires inland container depots (ICDs) to be developed at the nexus of road, rail and water transport networks and this requires investment. A good example is the Bollore ICD at Kampala which serves the rest of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan and Eastern DR Congo.

However, with so many other calls on their financial resources, many African governments have neglected such infrastructure in favour of more high profile, although often less effective, projects. But lack of investment resources should not be a handicap as international private companies, particularly logistics organisations are willing to enter into public-private partnerships as long as they can show returns to their shareholders.

It is therefore encouraging that the governments of Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique have signed a memorandum of understanding to promote shipping on the Zambezi-Shire water system.

The initial plan is to focus on barge traffic between Nsanje in Malawi and Chinde in Mozambique, where barge transport was relatively common until the start of the Mozambique civil war in 1976. The agreement was drawn up on the back of proposals by the Community of East and Southern African States (Comesa) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to promote cross-border trade in the region.

Comesa and the European Development Fund have agreed to fund a full feasibility study of the project and a comprehensive hydrographic study of the state of the river. It is believed that dredging in selected areas would be sufficient to provide a waterway deep enough to serve medium sized ocean going vessels. Results from a pre-feasibility study funded by the UK government have already proved positive. It is hoped project finance can be provided by a consortium comprising donor agencies, governments of the participating states and the private sector but the likely price tag is unlikely to be calculated until after the feasibility study has been completed. The first vessels on the river system are likely to focus on carrying sugar and molasses but it is hoped that more varied cargo can be carried in the longer term. The Mozambican minister of transport, Antonio Munguambe, told journalists that his government would decide whether to invest in the water transport project once the feasibility study was complete. However, plans for a tobacco processing plant in the western Mozambican province of Tete may depend on the provision of water transport in the region.

Benefits for Malawi

At present, total national transport costs in Malawi are estimated to be 60% of national export revenues. The country suffers from relatively poor transport links with its neighbours, despite the fact that its landlocked position makes it reliant on the sea ports of neighbouring countries for trade with the rest of the world.

Formerly important rail links with Mozambique are being redeveloped to provide access to Mozambican ports but the rehabilitation of the Zambezi-Shire waterway will more directly encourage trade within the region.

Henry Mussa, Malawi's minister of transport, said: "It will therefore drastically reduce the transportation costs of imports and exports as it would provide direct and short waterway access to the Indian Ocean. This will have an effect of substantially reducing the transportation costs of imports and exports for these countries."

Nepad has included the redevelopment of the Zambezi-Shire water system among its key infrastructural projects to promote cross-border trade within Africa.

Nepad has proposed a series of complementary projects to help make the most of the scheme, including the modernisation of the port of Chinde on the Indian Ocean; the construction of a road and/or rail bridge at Chiromo; and the rehabilitation and upgrading of the railway line from Nsanje through Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mchinji to Chipata on the Zambian border.

It has also listed the rehabilitation of the road from Salima through Lilongwe and Mchinji to Zambia; rehabilitation of the road from Nkhatabay through Mzimba into Zambia, Rwanda and Burundi; and improvements to barge services on Lake Malawi as vital to improved trade in the region.

Investments in lake ports

Malawi could also benefit from Tanzania's decision to invest in its lake ports. The Tanzania Ports Authority (TPA) has drawn up a 20-year plan to rehabilitate all port facilities in the country, as well as developing new ports.

While investment at Dar es Salaam and Tanga has attracted most of the headlines, it also plans to upgrade its three ports on Lake Malawi, which is known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania: Manda, Mbamba and Itungi. A tender has been launched for a contract to totally redevelop Mbamba and the successful bidder is expected to begin work by early next year.

The private sector developer will be required to construct a new port jetty and encourage shipping links with the other two countries with shorelines on the lake, Mozambique and Malawi. The contract will also involve the provision of infrastructure to handle the import and export of goods via the Tanzanian sea port of Mtwara on the east coast. Most trade at the 1,265-acre Mbamba site relates to coal, coffee, sugar, tea, timber and tobacco.

No rail link between the two ports is planned but work on improving the slow road that links them has already begun. The section between Mbamba and the town of Songea is underway, while the resurfacing of the main east-west road in southern Tanzania is expected to begin by the end of this year.

Jane Kitilya, the TPA's director of planning, said: "This will sustain continuous growth of port traffic and cope with technological changes in the shipping industry." Kitilya conceded that the lake ports, which were taken over by the TPA from a private sector operator last year, were currently in a dilapidated state and in urgent need of repair.

She added that all three TPA ports on Lake Nyasa would be redeveloped by 2010, while the ports of Mwanza, Bukoba, Kemondo Bay, Musoma, and Nansio, which are located on Lake Victoria, plus Kasanga and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika, would be rehabilitated in due course.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has also commented that opening up trade between Tanzania and Malawi and Mozambique will be the key to boosting the economic fortunes of the south. The southern quarter of the country has largely failed to benefit from the economic growth that Tanzania has experienced over the past few years.
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Title Annotation:Transport
Comment:East African waterways offer cheap and easy transport: the transport potential of East Africa's waterway systems, comprising lakes and rivers, has been neglected but could offer easy and cheap access to and from ocean ports.
Author:Ford, Neil
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6MALA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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