July 17, 2007 – Gaping potholes, many official and unofficial checkpoints and miles and miles of uneven or unpaved dirt roads – this is the scene for motorists along part of the 2,000-kilometer stretch that connects the Douala Port in western Cameroon to the country’s landlocked neighbors in N'Djamena, Chad and Bangui in the Central African Republic.
The corridor, known as one of Africa’s worst for shippers struggling to get their goods to and from international markets, has hampered trade for thousands and is a substantial toll on the price of doing business regionally. The predicament is in sharp contrast to some parts of Africa where infrastructure projects have improved regional transportation.
Dangerous Roads Hamper Trade
“The current conditions are just deplorable. Our nightmare begins either in Douala, Cameroon, or in my country,” said Abdoulaye Dembélé, a timber truck driver from the Central African Republic. “It is a real battlefield. Road conditions will worsen during the rainy season and there will be more accidents...”
Paul Aimé Toukam, a Cameroonian transport operator, owns trucks traveling along the Douala-Bangui corridor. He said it takes courage to get his trucks from the port to Bangui.
“The road conditions are appalling, especially on the Central African side. During the rainy season and ever since rain barriers were reinstalled, trucks take two weeks to travel to Bangui. And numerous indiscriminate checks and accidents are pushing up truck maintenance costs.”
The government installs rain barriers during the rainy season to prevent loaded trucks from causing irreversible damage.
To travel to N'Djamena from the region’s main port in Douala along a stretch of country that bounds equatorial forests in Cameroon with desert-like conditions in Chad can take between 10 and 28 days, according to Jean-Francois Marteau, head of a new project at the World Bank focused on enhancing trade by repairing the damaged infrastructure along this route and by reducing logistical delays in the port and the inland platforms.
The trip spans all kinds of climates and involves challenges to travel including roadblocks, heavy traffic, poorly managed border crossings and even areas such as the one-lane bridge between Chad and Cameroon where the processing of livestock several times per week takes precedence over the passing through traffic.
“It's the worst case in the whole region,” according to Marteau. “This is one of the last sub-regions where you don't have all-weather, paved roads going from one part of Africa to another. “It's a huge challenge during the rainy season and those areas are among the ones where you have the highest costs in the world.”
New Project Will Fix 1,200 km of Road in Three Countries
To combat this problem, the World Bank, in partnership with the European Union, the African Development Bankand the French Development Agency, will pour $680 million (WB funding is $201 million) into three countries – Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic.
Part of the funds will finance the paving of 450-kilometer, two-lane highways in Cameroon and the Central African Republic as well as the rehabilitation of another 400 kilometers of road in Chad and 400 kilometers in Cameroon. Other money will go toward providing technical assistance and computerizing systems at the Douala Port to help implement an effective community-based system which would cut by 20 percent the port clearance delays.
Customs administrations will also be supported in the three countries to implement fully electronic clearance processes, which would help tackle corruption.
Finally, funds will address gaps in the rehabilitation of the Cameroonian rail network, the preferred mode for Chad imports and CAR’s timber exports.
“We will try to facilitate access to Chad, the CAR and the northern part of Cameroon through a comprehensive approach that would encompass the infrastructure – rail and road – and the facilitation issues, which consist mainly of improving customs and control systems along the corridor,” Marteau said.
In a recent mission, Marteau’s colleague, Salim Refas, spoke to M. Agou Augustin, director general of UTA RCA, one of the main transport operators in CAR. Currently, the road and rail system allows CAR transporters to drop off and pick up goods from the main export platform in Bélabo only four times a month in the dry season and twice during the rainy seasons. According to Augustin, whose trucks access the logging station at Belabo, the single road rehabilitation will allow for double the number of trips to and from the station.
Current Transport Inefficiencies Created High Transportation Costs
A major consequence of having a poorly managed system in the three countries being funded has been skyrocketing costs. Transportation costs in central Africa are among the highest on the continent, according to research done in preparation for the Transport and Transit Facilitation project as it is called. For Chad and the Central African Republic, transit costs represent 52 percent and 33 percent of the value of exports respectively.
“I’ll be glad when this project is completed. Everyone in the sub-region will breathe a sigh of relief,” said Paul Aimé Toukam. “We will probably increase our investments in the Central African Republic. Real investment opportunities exist, but current road conditions are a major obstacle to enhancing trade between our two countries.”
While project leaders acknowledge that the efforts will open up trade for the region beyond commodity exports and will contribute to gains in the economy, they also foresee challenges for operators who have become used to the current situation, especially on the facilitation side.
“This [project] has a drawback because people are not used to the formal way of doing business,” Marteau said. “It will be much easier to link those two countries to international trade from an infrastructure perspective, but on the other hand for the informal importers it will require changes in the way they do their business for people to see the actual impact of investment and reforms, and strong government commitments towards combating vested interests in the sector.”
The Transport and Transit Facilitation project is expected to begin in early 2008 and will take five years to complete. World Bank officials expect improvements, following the early results from a similar project in East Africa between Kenyaand Uganda.