Colonial legacy of transport systems in Africa and low intra-regional trade

Most of the transport infrastructure in the sub-Saharan African region dates back to the colonial era. Colonial rails and roads were built by the European colonizing nations with the main purpose of connecting mining areas and agricultural production centers in the interior to the coast, so to allow the exports of raw materials and the import of European manufactured goods[1].

On the other hand, colonial powers basically considered the promotion of regional trade not a priority (due to the small volumes of goods exchanged locally that do not deserved the creation of new roads), in many cases expressly discouraging interaction and integration between African territories. This was especially true when territories were controlled by different and rival colonial powers. An example were the German colonial authorities in Camerun, that did not permit traders from landlocked neighbours such as Chad and the Central African Republic to use the Camerunese roads to access the port of Douala or other seaports in the country, because these territories were controlled by France, the Germany’s bitter rival. Chad traders were therefore obliged to circumvent the Camerunese territory passing through the Central African Republic to reach the Pointe Noire (Congo) or Port Gentil (Gabon) seaports, in order to gain access the ocean[2].

As a consequence, cross-country transport connections between Sub-Saharan African countries have historically been neglected by the colonial powers, a situation that still today persists, as inter-State and interregional linkages remain poor and of limited extension.

Railways are not an exception. A rapid look at the structure of the railway network in the Continent (Figure 1) shows that this infrastructure at the beginning of 1900 mostly connected the interior to the coast, while the few links connecting one African country to another were primarily designed to link resource-rich landlocked countries to seaports on the coast, from where raw materials and commodities could be shipped to overseas markets[3].

The Export-Import Bank of India working paper no. 72 of 2018 (Connecting Africa: role of transport infrastructure) notices that the inadequate cross-country transport infrastructure is one of the main determinants for the low levels of intra-regional trade[4] a factor that is further exacerbated by traffic congestion and delays on these roads, which cause additional costs in truck transportation. This situation raises the costs of goods traded among African countries in a measure estimated between 30 and 40 percent[5], making African products uncompetitive in both the regional and global markets. In fact, transport costs constitute an important determinant of the costs of doing business. Poor transport infrastructure and poor communication facilities tend to isolate countries, thereby inhibiting their ability to participate in global production networks, a factor that leads to the conclusion that Africa’s marginalized position within the global economic system is due largely to the fact that the continent lacks the quality and quantity of transport infrastructure necessary to connect it to the global arteries of commerce and industry[6]

Another problem that characterizes Africa’s transport systems is the fact that they are not integrated and are therefore inefficient. Integrated transport involves the combining of different modes of transport to maximise ease and efficiency for the user in terms of time, cost, comfort, safety, accessibility and convenience. In this regard, except in a few cases, such as in inter-State economic or development corridors (especially those overseen by a specific Corridor Management Authority), in most African countries, transport networks are not sufficiently interlinked. 

This happens because many African countries view their transportation systems in a pure national, rather that in a regional or international context. The importance of international and interregional linkages is crucial for regional economic integration in Africa, especially in a continental context where most of markets are small and fragmented and where such integration could create economies of scale, foster competition, and provide a better environment for attracting both domestic and foreign investments.

[1] Sachs, J.D., J.W. McArthur, G. Schmidt-Traub, M. Kruk, C. Bahadur, M. Faye and G. McCord, Ending Africas Poverty Trap, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (2004)

[2] Ambe J. Njoh, Implications of Africa’s Transportation Systems for Development in the Era of Globalization, 48th Annual Transportation Research Forum, Boston, Massachusetts, March 15-17, 2007

[3] Roberto Bonfatti, Steven Poelhekke, From mine to coast: transport infrastructure and the direction of trade in developing countries, July 16, 2012

[4] Intra-regional exports stood at 17.7 percent of the total exports of Africa in 2016 (Source: UNCTAD), increasing from 11.7 percent in 1996. This is almost insignificant compared to 55.2 percent of intra-regional exports in case of America, 59.4 percent in Asia, and 68.7 percent in Europe. 

[5] Mayaki Ibrahim, Why infrastructure development in Africa matters, available on

[6] See Ambe J. Njoh, ult. Cit. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this: