Africa’s ports improve, boosting national economies

Analysis in brief: The link between good seaports and booming export economies is well known. African coastal nations are almost uniformly investing in better seaports, sometimes in competition with neighbouring countries. Just as a rising tide lifts all ships, better ports lift national economies.

Africa’s port landscape is improving with upgrades and new facilities

This past decade in Africa has been a ceaseless series of port launches – either the rehabilitation and expansion of existing port facilities or the construction of wholly new ones. Some coastal nations are motivated by a desire to retain or boost their market share of regional shipping business. In other cases, ports by necessity must be dredged to be made deeper to accommodate the ever-increasing size of cargo ships. Whatever the motivation, port upgrades have been followed by an increase in sea shipping through those facilities and a concomitant rise in shipping revenues, jobs and overall economic growth for host countries.

In January 2023, the International Maritime Bureau released its annual ranking of world ports based on efficiency and service. The best port in Africa by these measurements was deemed Mozambique’s Port of Beira. Over the past decade, this main port in Maputo has undergone extensive renovations, including a thorough dredging of the channel to permit large cargo ships to anchor, particularly auto bearing ships. Complemented with a clearance facility dedicated to auto shipments, these upgrades have made Maputo a major import centre for motor vehicles sold throughout Southern Africa. Further to these upgrades were those to the country’s rail and highway links that made the port much more accessible from South Africa and gave South Africa’s Durban port located a few hundred kilometres south on the Indian Ocean a viable rival. Beira’s port followed the Maputo model for its own upgrade and had expansion of its rail and road links well financed by natural gas companies that have begun exporting their products.

On the other end of the scale, South Africa’s ports at Cape Town and Durban were ranked by the International Maritime Bureau among Africa’s poorest performers, along with Tanzania’s main port at Dar es Salaam. The reason hobbling performance at all three was congestion – not of ships but of ground transportation. For decades, Durban has suffered from traffic jams as trucks queue for hours to offload their goods into warehouses and onto ships. Millions of dollars have been lost to wasted petrol and spoiled cargo, particularly perishable goods. On 8 February 2023, Cape Town had to temporarily halt acceptance of refers (refrigerated containers) carrying perishable goods like the Cape Province’s fruits and vegetables for export because port capacity had been overwhelmed. While port authorities struggle to find temporary relief for shippers, permanent solutions seem distant prospects.

New ports are hailed as stars of nations’ transportation infrastructure

The first ship arrived at Nigeria’s first deep-water port on 22 January 2023 to the fanfare of a proud public-private consortium that built the facility. The Lekki Deep Sea Port, built by Chinese companies, cost US$ 1.5 billion and occupies 90 hectares of land of the Lagos Free Zone. What is now Nigeria’s largest port is also the biggest port by size in West Africa. Authorities say ships docking at the Lekki Port, which is 16.5-m deep, could be up to four times the size of vessels that are able to use Nigeria’s other ports: the Tin Can and Apapa ports. The Lekki Deep Sea Port represents the type of modernisation required along Africa’s 26,000-km coastline. Africa has more than 100 ports, but few are capable of handling today’s giant cargo ships or a large number of conventional ships arriving at the same time.

In Southern Africa, Namibia’s Port of Walvis Bay is a regional success story since the opening of its vast new container terminal in 2019, which effectively doubled the port’s shipping capacity. Important to the success of Walvis Bay are transportation links inland. Namibia itself produces insufficient exports and receives insufficient imports to fully utilise its major ports at Lüderitz and Walvis Bay. While the ports were undergoing expansion, road and rail links along what is called the Walvis Bay Corridor were developed eastward across the country. Landlocked countries in the interior were delighted. Walvis Bay is closer to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe than ports in Cape Town, Durban or Maputo, saving trucks travel time and fuel. The Walvis Bay Corridor has also given Namibia Africa’s best highways, in the assessment of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). On 3 February 2023, the upgrade of the Walvis Bay to Kranzberg railway line (approximately 210 km) was completed. The US$ 675 million project will further facilitate movement of cargo by land to Atlantic coast ships.

The massive Walvis Bay container terminal was built on an artificial peninsula that extends into the Atlantic
Image courtesy: The Walvis Bay Corridor Group

Ships needed for ports

No discussion of Africa’s ports can be complete without reference to commercial shipping fleets that use such facilities. Shipping lines are private enterprises and are subject to global trade conditions over which African countries have no control. Between the third quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of 2022, the Liner Shipping Connectivity Index, the shipping industry measurement for commercial vessels using various shipping lanes and ports, reflected how global trade impacts African port usage. During this time, the Index for Africa declined from 18.8 points to 17.6 as shipping lines reassigned ships from African routes to the China-US routes. This was due to a need for ships to carry goods between China and the US as the end to the Covid-19 pandemic led to heightened trade activity. However, some states in Africa lost what is called deployed capacity – the number of ships calling at African ports that can carry African goods. South Africa and the Republic of the Congo lost a significant 16% of deployed capacity during this period.

Governments may improve their ports all they can, but they are still at the mercy of the ebb and flow of global transport conditions, set by shipping companies deploying their vessels to wherever they feel their ships are most needed. Nor is there much that Africa’s coastal governments can do about the aging African shipping fleet, whose ships are on average the oldest in the world, according to UNCTAD. However, by giving African shipping companies tax breaks and other inducements, governments can help improve the fleet. Africa is the home port for many ships whose owners are elsewhere. The Liberian Registry that allows ships to fly the Liberian flag was created in 1948 as means for US ship owners to avoid US labour laws with regard to their crews and avoid US taxation. Liberia’s GDP is significantly boosted by this Registry.

North Africa’s long-established ports on the Mediterranean Sea are Africa’s busiest, carrying goods to and from Africa.
However, the remarkable upswing in activity at Ghana’s Tema Harbour is evident, following
completion of its upgrade in 2019
Data courtesy: UNCTAD


Although Africa’s coastal countries are aware of the activities in their neighbouring countries to upgrade port facilities, with regional sea trade the lucrative prize, countries are primarily competing with themselves. At stake is their economic growth through trade with connectivity to overseas markets by ship. However, ground transportation links are critical components to the viability of ports. Africa’s newest port, the Lekki Deep Sea Port in Nigeria, is not as deep as Southern Africa’s busiest port at Durban. Even so, for decades, the Durban port has been plagued by ground congestion and is the perennial example of why all infrastructure components must be holistically considered by planners.

The critical points:

  • Recent upgrades to port infrastructures in Namibia and Nigeria are boosting those nations’ overall economies
  • Upgrading Africa’s ports is an ongoing project, necessitated by the need to accommodate new large cargo vessels
  • Good ground transportation, such as road and rail links, is vital to the operations of any port