Bridging distances by hurdling nature’s obstacles: How modern bridge technology is advancing African transportation

Analysis in brief: Tanzania’s announced plans to build Africa’s longest bridge from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar is technically feasible. It is also both the continuation of impressive bridge projects continent-wide in recent years and a harbinger of megaprojects to come. All that is lacking is investor commitment.

Bridging the Indian Ocean is no longer a fantasy

Before serious negotiations began on 11 March 2023, the idea of building a 50-km-long bridge from Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam on the African mainland to the Zanzibar archipelago was a fanciful idea. However, engineers at the China Overseas Engineering Group Co. that would erect Africa’s longest bridge have demonstrated that the necessary technology exists.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of a project that would boost tourism both domestic and international to Zanzibar’s tourism-dependent economy was the success of the recently opened Maputo-Katembe Bridge in Mozambique, the country that borders Tanzania to the south. Opened in 2021, the bridge cuts driving time from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province by up to three hours – a significant time saving that benefits tourism and boosts the transport of South African goods using Maputo’s port. Because of such factors as renewed political commitment, availability of financing or pressure from local populations, bridges in other countries that have languished in the feasibility study phase for decades have been pushed ahead by governments.

The Tanzanite bridge in Dar es Salaam has had a marked imped on transportation to and from the city, and boosted
the tourism sector among others. The proposed bridge that will link Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar will be Africa’s
longest bridge and will aim to achieve similar outcomes.
Image courtesy: Africa Press

These major engineering projects are also sources of national pride, statements of Pan-African solidarity and are usually visually beautiful. All these elements characterise cross-border bridges from the stately and now historic arc of the Victoria Falls Bridge built in 1905 between Zambia and Zimbabwe to the elephant-tusk towers of the Okavango River Bridge, opened in 2023, between Botswana and Namibia. Illuminated by dazzling and ever-changing coloured LED lighting, new African bridges are often beautiful national landmarks, such as Morocco’s Mohammed VI Bridge and Nigeria’s Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge, both featuring slender, almost sculpted towers.

History is repeating itself

New engineering breakthroughs and technological advances in construction have long had a way of overcoming sceptics’ dismissal of the feasibility of what would become major transportation accomplishments in Africa. The Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, is the classic example from 1869 that is still one of the world’s essential sea transport links today. In the 20th century, railroads through the rainforests of Central Africa, highways through the Sahara Desert and tunnels through Southern African mountain ranges that were considered impossible have all been built, and all cut transportation times by days and weeks. Isolated areas have been made accessible, and intra-Africa trade has been facilitated.

Africa’s infrastructure was originally laid down by European colonial empires. The purpose of railroads and motor vehicle road networks was to bring the wealth of Africa to Europe through ports also built by colonialists. In the 21st century, it is independent African nations who control the continent’s infrastructure. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has made infrastructure advancement a pillar of its policies to boost economic growth, thereby reducing poverty, increasing employment and travel opportunities and, importantly, boosting Africans’ mobility to make Pan-Africanism more of a physical reality.

A bridge connecting the African and European continents is one of the holy grails of commerce, engineering and intra-continental transportation. The most logical spot for this has always been the Strait of Gibraltar. The UN Economic Commissions for Africa and Europe and the Moroccan and Spanish governments joined on a feasibility study. Like all modern megaprojects, computer modelling has been employed to come up with various designs. Although the bridge would be 14 km in length, far shorter than the Dar es Salaam-Zanzibar Bridge, the challenges presented by the site would require spans between support towers to be an unprecedented 5 km in length. In 2018, researchers from Sheffield University and Brunel University London in the UK came up with a novel way to support very long spans, using massive towers that resemble bicycle wheels whose many spokes support the spans.

More conventional but just as historic is a bridge connection between two neighbouring population centres long separated by a lack of road connectivity: Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the capitals of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo respectively. Between them, the mighty Congo River widens into a large lake. Financing the undertaking has been problematic for decades, given the constant warfare disrupting both countries. Now, with financing from the AfDB, construction is finally underway for the structure that will be for motor vehicle traffic and freight and passenger trains.

Facts on the proposed Brazzaville-Kinshasa Bridge that would span the Congo River.
Image courtesy: NEPAD


The perennial need for bridges in Africa to aid commerce and for the movement of people has entered a new phase, featuring megastructures. New technology is being used to not only span rivers, as before, but now also continents and nearby major islands, boosting tourism and trade.

The critical points:

  • Tanzania has announced that the island of Zanzibar will be reached with Africa’s longest bridge at 50-kms long
  • Technological advances now make possible the connection of Africa to Europe with a bridge across the Strait of Gibraltar
  • New bridges are designed to impress and be beautiful, and then at night, to become colourful canvases for LED light displays