Growth in sea transport made possible by forward-looking policy and investment

Analysis in brief: Recognising sea transport as a critical component in the movement of exports and imports, Africa’s coastal countries continue to expand port facilities. They also partner with inland nations for rail and road connectivity to ships, while regional and continental trade groups produce far-sighted policies to encourage sea shipping.

The state of Africa’s sea infrastructure

Ongoing investment in ports and shipping terminals is seen along the continent’s three coasts and is complemented by shipping facility investments by international shipping lines, such as Hapag-Lloyd and MSC. As a result, Africa was the only region in the world this past year to show an increase in port calls by dry bulk carriers like container ships – up by 2.5% in 2022. The continent also recorded a more than 5% increase in port calls by liquid bulk carriers, such as oil tankers. The upswing in activity is credited not only to rising demand by post-recession African economies but also to upgrades in ports and ground transportation links.

A look at individual ports shows some world-class facilities are making sea shipping cheaper, more reliable and more accessible to shippers. The World Bank’s Container Port Performance Index measures a port’s capacity to manage containers for export, import and transshipment, which ranks Morocco’s Tanger-Med Port as fifth in the world. A major Mediterranean sea hub, the port oversaw 7.5 million containers in 2022, and it is estimated by the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development that 35% of African trade with the rest of the world passes through Tanger-Med. This is due to transshipments. Ships departing from 40 other African ports arrive and offload at Tanger-Med, where their cargo is transferred to other vessels going around the world. It is not practical for shipping firms to have routes to every smaller port, and sea hubs are used the way regional air hubs receive short-haul flights from neighbouring countries and transfer their passengers to long-haul international flights. Transshipments have made Egypt’s Port Said the 11th busiest port in the world, and the Port of Djibouti is the world’s 25th busiest. Co-ordination between shipping lines and transportation treaties between nations was required to enable this transportation.

Decades of experience quickly moving out its oil reserves has allowed Angola’s port at Luanda to achieve the world’s fastest loading time: 98 tonnes per minute, a virtual river of oil constantly flowing into tanker ships. Another world record was accomplished by the Port of Dar es Salaam, which has reduced the time arriving ships spend in port more than any other port. Tanzania’s government has invested heavily in the Port of Dar es Salaam’s facilities and has sped-up clearance procedures. Against stiff competition from the Port of Mombasa in Kenya and other regional ports, Dar es Salaam was named the primary entry point for the Central Corridor and the route to Southern Africa. Since 2006, the port has seen shipping volumes increase by 50%. Policy reforms, this time instituted by the East African Community, cut the time for cargo to move from ships in Mombasa, Kenya, to Kampala, Uganda, via road and rail from 18 days to three days. The cost of transport from Mombasa to Kenya’s capital Nairobi has also been reduced by 56%.

A comparison of African countries with their relative sizes adjusted according to the number of ships who call on their ports and, secondly, how much time these ships stay at port. Egypt and Morocco are the best performers on the time vs tonnage ratio, though West Africa is also on the up with Ghana leading.
Source: UNCTAD, 2021

Ukraine War and climate change show how to adapt

The need for rapid adaptability to changing market conditions has been demonstrated on a continental scale this past year. After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Ukrainian grain imports to Africa, which are crucial to the food security of many African economies, declined sharply. Egypt coped with an 81% fall in wheat imports from Ukraine during the first eight months of the war by replacing the source of imports to the European Union, the Russian Federation and the US. Russia promised African nations to make up for the loss of Ukrainian grain but could not. Ethiopia rerouted ships to replace the loss of wheat supplied by the Russian Federation and Ukraine with shipments from the US and Argentina. The war in Ukraine led European countries to import more gas from other suppliers – including Algeria – to compensate for the loss of shipments from the Russian Federation. Several other African gas producers also co-ordinated with shipping lines to expand shipments to existing or new markets.

The reality of climate change on sea shipping was dramatically displayed when the lakes that are part of the Panama Canal system – facilitating shipping between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for more than a century – were drying out. As a consequence of global warming-induced drought shrinking the canal’s navigable portions, fewer large ships can pass through Panama. The result has been that ships from Asia that used to sail east to the east coast of the US, Europe and West Africa via the Panama Canal are now sailing west to these destinations using the Suez Canal. This is threatening massive congestion at Suez. In response, the canal is raising its passage fees by 15% in January 2024. The fees will not apply to European ships sailing to Asia as usual. The new fees also do not apply to African ships to encourage intra-African shipping.

Morocco’s Tanger-Med containerised terminal is the flagship port for speed and tonnage on the continent.
Image courtesy: Tanger-Med


The importance of trade policies is reflected in examples given above, and also in the direction taken by The African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement. While this Agreement is expected to increase intra-African freight transportation by 28%, it will raise the demand for maritime freight by much more: 62%. This will require significant investment to achieve, including the acquisition of 100 more vessels to navigate inland waterways like rivers and the great lakes.

Meanwhile, expanding trade treaties between Africa and South America has seen intercontinental trade from Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean, which account for a record 13% of global trade conducted by means of containerised shipping in 2022. Investment in sea transport is the underpinning for the implementation of these treaties.

The critical points:

  • Africa’s continental and regional trade organisations recognise sea trade as essential to economic growth, while inter-government trade treaties are boosting port usage
  • Some of the world’s busiest and most efficient seaports are in Africa, and investment in sea shipping facilities continues on a public and private level
  • Investment in maritime transport will be significantly boosted by investment to realise the African Continental Free Trade Area