Trans-Sahelian Highway – a modern replacement for the legendary camel caravans

Analysis in brief: A highway system across Northern Africa’s Sahel region is being completed much more rapidly than the proposed continent-spanning Trans-African Highway. A major transportation advancement, the link’s potential to spark investment opportunities recalls the days when Africa’s first railroads opened new lands for commerce.

Like the Trans-African Highway that has been decades in the making, the Northern African Trans-Sahelian Highway is not just one route but consists of several interlinking highways. This is because neither the Trans-African Highway nor the regional highway for the Sahel can hope to reach the many places required for connectivity – without a map of such a road resembling a spider web. While the trans-African ‘Cape to Cairo’ highway will require decades more work to be realised, the Trans-Sahelian Highway is 90% completed.

An interchange in Algeria along the new Trans-Saharan Highway that is one link of the Trans-Sahelian Highway
Image courtesy the African Development Bank

The investment opportunities arising from the project recall the era when railroads were introduced to Africa in the latter half of the 19th century. More than a transportation route is being built. The infrastructure of motor vehicle development is now being put in place. Like the coming of Africa’s railways, the new highways will bring service delivery systems to provide goods and support for travellers. Entirely new towns can expect to be erected in areas previously unreachable by transport links in areas that have minerals, agricultural potential and tourism sites to exploit. However, not a single electricity point to power electric vehicles exists on a system that is now nine-tenths built. Wi-Fi systems are missing from lengthy sections. These are just two examples of new technologies required to move the highway from the petrol age and into the realm of 21st century business and transportation requirements. From roadside restaurants to travellers’ hotels, a boom in opportunities for small and medium-sized business can be expected.

Uniting seven nations for seamless travel

The Sahel region separates the Sahara Desert from the tropical belt of Africa and contains environments from arid areas to lush savannah that reflect this region of geographic transformation. Although the Sahel’s expanse incorporates the length of the wide upper portion of the continent, the Trans-Sahelian Highway is concentrated in the central and western areas of the region. The countries directly connected are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. One of the system’s seven highways, the TAH 2 (Trans-African Highway 2), which ends in Kano, Nigeria, has its northern terminus in Algeria. Running a length of about 4,500 km (2,800 mi), it is now entirely paved but for about 700 km in Mali. Loans from such financial institutions as the African Development Bank are paying for construction, but it is up to individual countries to build the highway sections running within their borders. Beset by political unrest and chronic poverty, Mali is struggling to complete its portion of the highway.

It should also be noted that the system includes highways that were already in existence when the entire network was announced. Four of the highways that are included in the Trans-Sahel Highway system are also part of the Trans-African Highway system. In fact, the regional highway is designated TAH 5. The four Sahelian highways that are included in the larger continental system are the TAH 1, running from Cairo, Egypt, to Dakar, Senegal; the TAH 2, the Trans-Saharan Highway that originates in Kano, Nigeria and runs north through the lengths of Niger and Algeria; the TAH 6, which at 8,715 km is the longest link in the system as it runs from N’Djamena, Chad, to Djibouti on the eastern Horn of Africa (1); and the TAH 7, the Trans-West African Coastal Highway that connects 12 West African nations, runs south and east from Nouakchott, Mauritania, to Dakar, Senegal. About 85% of the TAH 7 has been paved.

As part of the Trans-African Highway, the Trans-Sahelian Highway feeds into other portions of the continental system. For instance, Nigeria, the terminus of some of the Trans-Sahelian routes, is also the origin of the TAH 8, which spans the continent west to east from Lagos to Kenya’s port city Mombasa. Motorists are increasingly offered a choice of routes. One study found that travellers from the northern areas of the West African countries Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo are more likely to use the Trans-Sahelian Highway than the Trans-West African Coast Highway that runs through the southern portions of their countries.

The regional connectivity offered by the interlinking sections of the Trans-Sahelian Highway in West Africa
Map courtesy of Wikimedia

Transportation requires more than pavement beneath tyres

As noted before, there are no charge points along the Trans-Sahelian Highway. The lack of charge points has discouraged the sale of electric motor vehicles throughout Africa. As a matter of public transport policy, governments are considering introducing a charging infrastructure as the needed foundation for a modern motor vehicle system. The task to build such an infrastructure is a massive undertaking, requiring investment in national electricity systems that must reliably provide the power to charge auto batteries.

The need for the hospitality industry to service the new sections of the Trans-Sahelian Highway have also been mentioned, and this in turn requires investment in cold storage facilities, warehouses and telecommunications. The health industry – by providing clinics and emergency vehicles to trauma centres when accidents occur – will need to work in tandem with private security firms and expanded public police forces that will be needed to keep the highway free of criminal activities and to ensure safety.

Also expect new communities to spring up in areas that will now be made accessible. The Sahel region often surprises visitors with the beauty of its natural vistas. Recreational areas like spas in oases that formerly serviced camel caravans can take root as the highway facilitates travel through a wider area. The highway’s intent is not only to move existing traffic from one place to another but to allow unexploited pockets of opportunity to become viable. Areas where mining output has been hobbled by a lack of a road or rail system may now have a way to move out trucks bearing ores.

From start to finish, an ambitious project

The Trans-Sahara Highway portion of the Trans-Sahelian Highway was approved by treaty less than 10 years ago (on 11 December 2013, with participating countries formally signing in 2014) but has a completion date of less than 10 years: 30 June 2023. Budgeted at US$ 381 million, this link features futuristic ringed interchanges, and its sheer presence across isolated lengths of desert sands represents the vision of the regional highway designers. The goal of encircling the Sahel is also visionary. For thousands of years, this great expanse could be travelled only by the legendary camel caravans, which made the fabled city of Timbuktu the prosperous centre of the Mali Empire. Intriguingly, these caravans exist in the 21st century – some designed for use by adventurous tourists but others serving the purpose of bringing goods to isolated areas where even the Trans-Sahelian Highway will not reach. While it is perhaps comforting to know this timeless means of travel still exists to lend colourful romance to the area, the new highway system is sufficiently extensive to gird the region, opening a host of new investment opportunities.

The critical points:

  • The Trans-Sahelian Highway is a regional section of the Trans-African Highway that is divided into seven connected highways, some of which were already existing when the regional highway project was begun and most of which are nearing completion.
  • About 90% of the Trans-Sahelian Highway is now paved. Individual countries must build and maintain sections that run within their borders, but they must find financing from international banks and institutions.
  • From roadside restaurants to charge points for electric vehicles, a superstructure of support business will bring investment opportunities. Previously isolated areas will be connected for the development of their mining resources and tourism and recreational potential. Entire new towns can be expected to develop along the highway.

(1) This link is being development through a partnership of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Development Bank and the African Union.