The Other Side of Africa – Infrastructure

The purpose of this series, The Other Side of Africa, has been to look beyond common misconceptions of the continent and build a positive image of the small-scale and large-scale advances that have been made in different areas of development. Previously, we looked at education and healthcare, and today, it’s infrastructure. One of the crucial and pivotal facets that lead to both short-term and long-term economic development.Contrary to general belief, not all Africans were bushmen and hunter-gatherers before colonisation. What’s interesting to note is that there were advanced trade routes within the continent and trade routes between Africa and the other continents before colonisation. For example, the Aksumite kingdom in Ethiopia had developed a common trade route with India. The Bantu in East Africa had developed common trade routes with the Arab world, and through these constant interactions came the formation of the Swahili language. Ports such as Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa were also used when trading with the Chinese.

Infrastructure within Africa was also progressive for its time. Ruins of kingdoms such as Carthage and Meroe in Northern Africa show the advanced infrastructural capacity that rivalled the Europeans.  Meroe had an advanced iron producing industry that traded commonly with Rome and Greece. Other advanced civilisations were in Ghana, Great Zimbabwe and Zanzibar.

Unfortunately, most of these kingdoms  went into decline. There are many theories as to why this happened, and whatever they are, this is not the forum for that discussion. When the continent was colonised, infrastructure was developed around the European settlements and less around the settlements of the indigenous inhabitants. In addition to this, much of the capacity of the native Africans was used to develop European settlements, leaving no capacity to develop native settlements.

After liberation of the continent, much of Africa erupted in civil war, corruption, and generally spiralled out of control. Infrastructure development was not a priority for many countries, and many settlements built by the European settlers deteriorated. A prime example of this is the small town of Jinja in Uganda. This used to be an industrial hub of the country generating much needed revenue for the economy, but today it lies in ruins destroyed by civil war, corruption and negligence.

Yet, despite this, small advances are being made. Rwanda has made advances in developing the ICT sector of the country. They plan to become a regional ICT leader in a few years, and are often praised by international observers on the work they are doing in “digitising” the country and bringing it into the 21st century. In addition to this, mobile penetration on the continent is increasing at a rapid pace. The large mobile players such as Zain (Celtel) and MTN have invested heavily in the continent to become market leaders.

The Chinese have also been instrumental in developing infrastructure such as building highways in East Africa and cross-continental railway lines across Africa. This has enhanced the capacity for resources and agricultural products to be passed from producers to consumers at lower cost. An interesting observation though, is that many of these developments lead to ports that transport goods straight to China. So instead of China investing in Africa, it’s actually investing in itself, which may be to the long-term detriment of Africa. Future implications of this phenomenon need to be analysed before Africa is imprisoned by China just as it has been imprisoned by Europe for the past few centuries.

A holistic view of  infrastructure development on the continent leads one to conclude that there are small pockets of development, but this isn’t happening at the pace it should be in order to ensure the required economic growth. In addition to this, most of the development is driven by external players, just as it was during colonisation. The future of Africa should be in the hands of Africans, and the development of the continent needs to be driven from within.

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