In anticipation of increasing trade with Africa, governments, port operators and logistics firms have been investing heavily for much of the past decade in new port infrastructure and transport links in Africa. Significant improvements are already being felt in isolated areas, leading to a multiplier effect elsewhere
Many of the world's big port and container developers and operators -- DP World, Hutchinson Whampoa, APM Terminals, Bollore -- have greatly accelerated their activities in Africa in recent years. All are engaged in the construction or operation of existing or new port facilities in the expectation that the recent surge in African trade volumes was here to stay.
Global slowdown. The current downturn, which has triggered a far larger contraction in international trade flows than anticipated, has caught the international port and container industry off guard. The industry has experienced uninterrupted growth in container port volumes since the advent of container technology in the 1960s. After big declines in trade volumes towards the end of 2008, the industry is now braced for its first decline in modern history.
The port and container industry's instinctive reaction has been to put everything on hold, step back and wait to see what happens. African projects at or nearing completion, notably DP World's 400 million dollar Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti, are being seen through. Those at earlier stages of development, such as Coega in South Africa, are being scaled back. Schemes still at the preliminary stage, including port developments in Angola, Mozambique, Gabon, Senegal and elsewhere, are being temporarily shelved.
Investment case. However, the slowdown in port renewal and expansion will probably not last:
Most of Africa's port infrastructure dates from the colonial era. Along with African roads and railways, there has been little or no investment in port capacity or efficiency for five decades.
• The acute bottlenecks faced by surging commodity exports during the 2003-08 commodities supercycle brought home to governments and the private sector alike the extent to which past neglect was hampering future growth prospects.
• Past policy errors -- shortages of financing notwithstanding -- are less likely to be repeated.
• Moreover, African trade, which is less reliant on trade finance than is the case in the rest of the world, has yet to register the sharp contractions experienced elsewhere. Bulk cargoes are down but trade in food, steel, cement and most other manufactured goods -- where prices have fallen dramatically in recent months -- remain resilient, providing further evidence that Africa's recent growth spurt was not entirely dependent on high commodity prices.
Africa's recent strong growth cycle left much of the continent struggling to cope with its existing port capacity. Sustaining the recent upsurge in port and related infrastructure will be one of the most pressing challenges facing African governments during the downturn in order to facilitate the increased future growth now widely expected.