Comment: Laying the tracks for African success?

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In order for Africa to reach its full potential as a united continent, an international rail network is necessary. This major transportation project would link all of Africa's diverse states on an unprecedented level, ushering in a new age of economic growth, while also impacting a good part of African industries, with special emphasis on the tourism and energy industries. Zandre Campos makes the case.

Personal transportation in African cities varies from person to person. Ridesharing apps, motorcycle or commuter taxis and personal cars are very popular, as is simply walking to destinations. However, many residents have no economically sound way to get to work, and those that do are plagued with heavy traffic and poor street conditions.

The cities are doing their best to improve the situation, investing in rapid bus transit and light rails. While these local developments are vital to Africa's success and will vastly improve the lives of many individual Africans, the continent must think bigger in terms of transportation.

Many residents have no economically sound way to get to work, and those that do are plagued with heavy traffic and poor street conditions."

Currently, Africa relies on trucks and planes for its delivery of goods. However, flying is expensive and not every city, let alone country, has the necessary infrastructure to handle this type of transportation on an economically productive scale.

Trucking is convenient and less expensive, but is less environmentally friendly, less secure and can be, at times, inefficient, especially when considering Africa's poor road conditions and traffic congestion. In addition, not all countries in Africa have a coastline, which makes it impossible for people and goods to circulate in all countries in Africa by sea.

A national rail network offers a remedy to all of these issues. It would connect all of the African states and give landlocked countries easier access to the coastal and port cities, increasing trade throughout the entire continent and not just the coast. This will be especially important to local and smaller farmers, who have always been cut off from national distribution due to poor transportation infrastructure.

Furthermore, the investment in the network itself will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and take years to complete, providing African citizens with a dignified income while they work to improve their home. Once the system is complete, it will need engineers, signal and switch operators, and conductors, adding even more jobs to the economy. As an added benefit, these new jobs tend to pay above average wages, and could offer residents a more financially stable and lucrative lifestyle.

The secondary benefits are also monumental. Railroads are very energy-efficient and emit low levels CO2. There are also multiple alternatives to diesel currently in development — including hydrogen fuel cells, batteries and liquefied natural gas -- which would lower train emission levels even more.

Off the road
The reliance on road infrastructure also leads to highway damages and congestion. No one is arguing that train tracks will never break or experience delays, but they are much easier to fix than a distant road in the Angolan countryside. Meanwhile, moving deliveries off the road will also keep the streets cleaner and safer, and moving products like produce and frozen foods to the tracks will speed up deliveries, keeping food items fresh.

The benefits of such a network go beyond African deliveries and farming. A new rail system can also help improve the growing African tourism industry. The African tourism business is booming, growing 5.6% in 2018. This is significantly higher than the global average of 3.9% and the general African growth rate of 3.2%.

Africa will need better transportation systems to help tourists explore all the continent has to offer, and what better way to do so than through a new interstate railroad system? This will allow tourists to expand their African trips and go places that have never been traversable before, bringing in new sources of revenue to more isolated locales. The centralized system will also no doubt be easier to navigate than the unorganized systems of taxis and buses Africa currently offers.

Of course, the African public will utilize the news system as well. African citizens will be able to travel to locations they have never seen before, allowing them to visit distant family and explore new opportunities. The trains will also make it easier for businessmen and women to travel the country, increasing communication between state businesses and providing new growth opportunities through face-to-face meetings and interactions.

The network will not be without its challenges. Unlike the EU, Africa is not a free-trade zone (because the Continental Free-Trade Agreement signed between the member states of the African Union is still not being applied), so customs, border control and budget management would have to be arranged to meet each state's needs. Certain regions will also provide safety concerns, and there would have to be an effort to ensure that the system does not became a commodity of only the wealthy. Governments should also expect a fight from truckers, as they will see this new network as a threat to their way of life.

Even with these challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Africa now has the opportunity to lead the way in a major economic and green initiative that could revitalize the economy and set a blueprint for nations and continents across the world. Let's hope they take it.

Zandre Campos is CEO of ABO Capital

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