Narrative of ‘lack’ is wrong in describing the reality about infrastructure in Africa

Thursday June 21 2018

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile.

Mega infrastructure projects such as the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, which is the the biggest in Africa do not support the narrative that the continent is lagging behind in development. PHOTO | AFP  

EMEKE E. IWERIEBOR
By EMEKE E. IWERIEBOR
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A strong, if not pervasive, theme on infrastructure in Africa is one of minimal existence, or lack of infrastructure. Reference is often made to the age and decay of critical infrastructure.

For example, it is highlighted that many railway lines in Africa were built over a century ago. This theme of lack is reinforced regularly in various media, among other forums.

This generalised portrayal masks the incremental grind and profound progress being made in providing infrastructure across Africa, with successful projects such as the Ethiopia–Djibouti Railway built at $3 billion and Nigeria’s intercity railway built between Kaduna and Abuja, costing about $1 billion.

Nonetheless, I recognise that the infrastructure gap in Africa exists. Many do not have access to electricity, potable water, good roads, and so forth.

The African Development Bank projects that Africa requires $60 billion to $90 billion annually to have universal electricity access by 2025.

Falling commodity prices

Similarly, the World Bank estimates that Africa needs $93 billion yearly, to address infrastructure gaps. These amounts are indicative of the resources and commitment required.

I am also aware that strained economic conditions in many countries, and falling commodity prices, have weakened their capacity to embark on new or even sustain some existing projects, leading to suspension of others. My point, however, is that things have never stood still, and that the theme of lack is only one side of a shrinking story.

An expanding side of the story is my first-hand experience of many transformative and landmark projects in the last decade, across Africa.

Take the transport sector, where modern airports or major extensions have been built in Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Congo, Nigeria and South Africa, among other countries.

Cameroon has built a deep water port in Kribi, while plans for the same are underway in Ghana, Kenya, Congo and Tanzania.

The Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile, with capacity to generate, an estimated 1,200MW, built at a cost of about $5 billion on completion, will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.

Any time I visit Maputo, I am always enamoured by the Katembe Bridge, a part of the $700 million Ponto de Ouro–Bela Vista–Boane road project, the longest suspension bridge under construction in Africa.

My assessment is that, when fully operational, these projects will open new vistas in industry and commerce, enhancing economic integration, within countries and across the continent.

Deloitte Africa’s 2016Construction Trends Report states that, as at 2016, there were 286 ongoing construction projects across Africa, at a cumulative value of $324 billion.

In 2017, as a panelist at the Africa–France Economic Forum in Bamako, Mali, I made a case for redefining the narrative on African infrastructure, from being in a permanent dire state to incremental progress; from helplessness to hopefulness; and from deficit to surfeit over time.

Building local capacity

This has to be so, given that the nature of progress made is resolute and unending. Private sector funding for infrastructure projects has risen, with governments increasingly raising funds from banks and capital markets to finance projects across Africa.

A tremendous amount of work remains to be done to deliver the benefits of modern infrastructure to Africans. Many more developmental projects are required across the continent, harnessing existing resources, improving quality of lives while driving sustainable and inclusive growth.

We must acknowledge the incremental and transformational work being done, while demanding more accountability in governance with measurable performance measures, in line with commitments made and expectations raised.

This is critical, as governance is an entrusted responsibility, and must be taken seriously by holders.

National, regional and pan-African banks, development financial institutions and other economic stakeholders have to take up the challenge, moving from plans to actions supporting initiatives and projects that will transform lives, while building local capacity for autonomous self-propulsion.

Regional integration

In building Africa, there is need to focus on connective cross-border infrastructure that will facilitate regional economic integration.

African governments must deploy resources and use their convening power to mobilise people behind overarching goals; make appropriate policies; initiate and direct action; pull in key private sector players and other stakeholders while leveraging on existing resources across sectors, creating modern states.

As infrastructure challenges are identified, confronted and resources harnessed, there is an urgent and collective responsibility to do more to meet growing expectations of African citizens of the 21st century.

Therein lies the challenge and opportunity — two sides of the coin for African development. Discernible progress is representative of the state of African infrastructure today.

It is also affirmative as it acknowledges extant infrastructure deficits in a context of dynamic, steady and incremental growth. But critically, places responsibility on actions to be taken for further progress.

Emeke E. Iweriebor is the CEO of UBA, East & Southern Africa. LinkedIn: Emeke E Iweriebor; Twitter: @EmekeIweriebor

This story was first published in the African Prospects 2018, African Development Bank Group.

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