Freight rail and supporting logistics pit-to-port infrastructure in Africa is generally poor - characterised by inefficiencies, maintenance issues, long delays and consequent high cost. 

In fact, except for South Africa that still has the most sophisticated rail network on the continent no country in Africa is showing sufficient consideration of all technical and non-technical aspects in their infrastructure development or expansion plans. There are many rail developments happening on the continents with a few already completed however the sovereigns ability to afford these projects are questionable which I base on the rising sovereign debt levels. First tier infrastructure such aviation, ports and rail have to be motivated on the back of volumes. 

The background to the mining logistics infrastructure problem in Africa relates firstly to technical challenges, in terms of long distances (in excess of 1000km) between mine and ports, more remote mine sites in difficult terrain and harsh operating environments - all leading to upward trending costs. The technical issues, however, are still easier to solve than the non-technical aspects.

Some of the more challenging issues are strategy, leadership, financial, regulatory and human in nature. However, perhaps the most lacking aspect in pit-to-port infrastructure in Africa is a long-term vision and leadership.
Vishaal Lutchman Divisional Director, Transport and Infrastructure, Africa

In fact, some of the more challenging issues are strategy, leadership, financial, regulatory and human in nature – issues such as poor transportation strategies, lack of modern legal and regulatory framework and policies, cross-border delays, security issues, weakening commodity prices, and financing – which persist as significant stumbling blocks, affecting the near to medium term viability and implementation of pit-to-port infrastructure. 

However, perhaps the most lacking aspect in pit-to-port infrastructure in Africa is a long-term vision and leadership. Even with the many challenges, authorities continue to resort to project implementation without integrated development plans for the region or sector. It is clear that there remains a gap in the understanding for the need for these development plans. Simply, development plans that are integrated create visibility of the projects ability to deliver value and secure the project revenues

A number of African states have launched a country “vision” for 2030 or 2050 and in these documents the Governments have pledge commitments to social and economic upliftment – much of which has been planned around re-industrialising these states by leveraging off ongoing investments into the extractive industries. Though – and to put it plainly - these visions and plans don’t provide a clear-cut roadmap on how the Governments intend to take the resources out the ground and turn this into tarred roads or new rail networks. Countries appear unwilling or unable to fund the development of robust development plans and progress the plans to viable projects Further, many African countries don’t have the capacity to undertake the financing or construction of major mining related infrastructure themselves. The necessity then falls on the private sector and often mining companies to produce the volumes which is not always possible. 

Added to this, there is generally not an enabling environment for the implementation of mine related logistics infrastructure; with conflict between governments’ needs for public and social infrastructure contrasting sharply with the mining company’s requirements for operational efficiency, control and security of the logistics chain. This is further compounded by a lack of co-operation between mining companies in terms of potential co-funding around control and operational preferential use rights to the infrastructure. Therefore, the lack of the integrated development plans and the implementation thereof is key to creating sustainable transport systems, assuming all else is in place. 

Poor planning leads to adhoc developments implemented on a project-by-project basis, with not enough forethought being given to how this infrastructure connects with the country’s wider transport networks – or even the important role this infrastructure could play in a regionally integrated transport network system. This lack of forethought and future planning can in fact be debilitating to the full possible functionality of this infrastructure and future economic gains. 

In order to challenge the status quo and develop freight infrastructure networks that can be maximised on beyond mining activities a long-term vision that is underpinned by a multi-faceted approach to an integrated transportation strategy is needed.
Vishaal Lutchman Divisional Director, Transport and Infrastructure, Africa

Therefore, to challenge the status quo and develop freight infrastructure networks that can be maximised on beyond mining activities, alone, a long-term vision that is underpinned by a multi-faceted approach to an integrated transportation strategy is needed. To achieve these, Governments and businesses in Africa must have a meeting of minds on how to address the opportunities. Additionally, there needs to be more active engagement between all stakeholders – government, mining companies, investors and local communities – alike, and in them agreeing on innovative and mutually beneficial solutions to establishing logistics infrastructure. 

For instance, African Governments should look to build on the existing systems in union for collaboration, as doing do will empower these Governments to;

  • Establish more joint initiatives and/or projects that meet their country’s individual, as well as the regional, social mandates for change and growth.
  • Understand and exploit the key levers for growth in country 
  • Share knowledge and best practices, so as to learn from the models of execution that have been used in other countries – particularly on what works and what doesn’t. 
  • Believe in and stick arrogantly to the robust plans and act with integrity without sway 
  • Properly integrate regional strategic and long-term planning (for instance in Southern Africa in support of the SADC agenda and initiatives), as well as adopt the agenda by being authentically committed to the long-term shared vision.
  • Commit to an African perspective which talks about investing within Africa and work to enable strategic intra-Africa trade – for instance, not just focusing on international export opportunities in the short-term, but the opportunities to trade within Africa in the medium- to long-term, as well as beneficiation hubs that are strategically located to supply for the African demand.
  • Understand the complexity in project development 

With so many facets to consider, there is unfortunately no single answer or solution to ramping up on freight infrastructure in Africa. Certainly, the technical competence and capability is available globally and within Africa itself to; plan, construct and operate optimum infrastructure solutions.

However, a multi-faceted approach that adequately engages all stakeholders on their respective needs – and in the most mutually beneficial and transparent manner - and seeks improved co-operation, would still be the best first step in moving towards optimal infrastructure investment and operation. This is far easier said than done, however, and would require a willingness and co-operation, which so far, has not been seen and is often very difficult to facilitate.