Development of Ports and Global Trade Networks in Africa

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Africa’s expanding role in global trade is driven by the development of its ports and the evolution of its trade networks. As the continent advances in its economic, industrial, and urban growth, African ports are becoming crucial nodes in the global trade system, connecting Africa with markets worldwide.


Africa’s ports occupy a vital strategic position, acting as links between the trade routes of Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ports like Durban in South Africa, Mombasa in Kenya, and Lagos in Nigeria are facilitating a substantial portion of international and regional trade. These ports handle important cargo volumes and drive economic growth within their respective countries.


With a rise in investments from both public initiatives and substantial international private investments aimed at modernizing infrastructure and enhancing capacities, there’s a global recognition of Africa’s trade potential. The Port of Doraleh, significantly developed with Chinese investment, has bolstered its container handling capabilities, positioning itself as a major transshipment hub for East Africa.


Expansion of the Port of Mombasa, funded by Japanese and Chinese investors, has led to increased cargo handling capacity and improved logistical efficiencies, reinforcing its status as a key East African trade gateway. The Port of Mombasa achieved a cargo throughput of 34.44 million tons in 2021, marking a 2.4% year-on-year increase, an indication of its growing role in East African trade.


The Lekki Deep Sea Port, backed by Chinese funding, is set to become one of the largest deep-water ports in West Africa. Designed to accommodate large container vessels, it is poised to significantly increase Nigeria’s trade volumes. The Apapa and Tin Can Island ports collectively handle about 80% of Nigeria’s maritime trade, with cargo throughput exceeding 1.5 million TEUs in 2020.


According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Africa’s share of global maritime trade by volume was approximately 7% in 2020, with projections for growth as port capabilities and efficiencies improve. Also, the report reveals that the Port of Durban accounts for over 60% of South Africa’s container traffic, with an annual throughput of around 2.9 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). Between December 2020 and December 2021, on the Shanghai to South Africa (Durban) route the rate per 20-foot-equivalent unit (TEU) increased from $2,521 to $6,450, and on the Shanghai to West Africa (Lagos) route from $5,291 to $7,452.


African ports are accelerating the continent’s integration into global trade networks. Improved port infrastructure enables faster and more efficient cargo movement, reducing shipping costs and transit times. This integration is particularly evident in the rise of transshipment hubs, which facilitate the transfer of cargo between vessels en route to their final destinations. The Port of Djibouti has become an important transshipment hub, capitalizing on its strategic location near the Suez Canal, which handles about 12% of global trade. Its proximity to major shipping lanes has cemented its role as a key logistics center for the Horn of Africa and beyond.


Despite the promising developments, African ports face several challenges. Many ports continue to grapple with issues like inadequate hinterland connections, limited berthing spaces, and outdated handling equipment. Also, reports show that inconsistent regulatory frameworks and customs procedures can impede the efficiency of port operations. Piracy and regional instability equally pose significant threats to maritime security, affecting trade flows.


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Between 2005 and 2019, Africa’s ports attracted $15 billion in private investment, yet the continent still faces substantial financial needs. Prioritizing ‘smart’ investments for long-term solutions is crucial to fostering significant growth and establishing enduring regional or continental hubs.


Ports, constituting 80% of Africa’s trade, are pivotal for economic development. However, the rush to claim hub status has led to overly ambitious projects that risk inadequate infrastructure. The competition for hubs and investments intensifies, with only a handful of ports meeting the criteria.

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