Learning How to Walk: The Logistics Industry in Africa

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September 24, 2013

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The logistics industry can be explained using a model of the human body: the delivery crews would be the “hands”, dispatch headquarters the “nerve centre” and so on. In this case, the “spine” that supports the industry would be infrastructure. Proceeding with this analogy, the logistical arena in Africa would be in dire need of physical therapy.

It can be argued that by far the greatest challenge facing supply chain firms in Africa stems from infrastructure. Transportation of goods by road is a unique nightmare in parts of Africa with little to no road networks for vehicles to use. Worse still is where roads do exist but are in such a sorry state of disrepair that they pose a security hazard to the delivery crew by resulting in accidents. Depending on the cargo being moved, an overturned truck could spell disaster. A gruesome example would be the 2009 Molo tragedy in Kenya, which claimed the lives of 113 people when an oil tanker overturned, spilling its contents which eventually ignited, engulfing the area and residents present in flames.

Rail transport is at a greater disadvantage, as in most African countries, the rail network either never developed beyond what was built by colonial settlers or was left to the mercy of the elements through lack of maintenance. What little remains is therefore often not sufficient for transporting goods, and can be slow or cumbersome to use.

Given these limitations, the next best way to freight goods would appear to be by air. Air transport, however, requires availability of trained personnel to operate the air craft, as well as specific conditions for landing and takeoff, none of which are guaranteed many African countries.

Similarly limited is proper technology needed to accommodate safe and dependable air travel. Failure to comply with international standards has landed several airlines in countries such as Angola, Benin, Eritrea and several other African nations on the European Union’s air-safety ban list. All these factors are often outweighed simply by the prohibitive cost of air transport, both locally and internationally.

Another mainstay of the logistics industry is transportation by waterways. While Kenya has been blessed with access to a large water body connecting her to the international seas, countries such as our neighboring Rwanda and Burundi have no such conduit available.

For countries with ports, infrastructure remains a hurdle as far as getting goods from the port to the final destination in areas where no road or rail network is in optimum condition to allow such distribution.

Furthermore, due to poor organization, prohibitive port clearance fees or just plain old corruption, African ports are often a quagmire of shameful proportions with goods remaining trapped in port storage even for years at a time. There have been efforts to ease this congestion locally by constructing a new berth. A designated location where ships dock as they offload or load at the port of Mombasa; a collaboration between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, but the same cannot be said of many other African ports that remain gridlocked.

All of these medium-specific hindrances of course pale in comparison to one of the main threat to African infrastructure: political instability. Where countries can find no peace, within themselves or with their neighbors, government resources that could have gone towards maintaining and developing infrastructure is funneled into fueling or trying to quell fighting, depending on the circumstances. Conflict also comes with a high level of insecurity, rendering previously reliable transportation routes obsolete.

With factors such as these to consider, it can be argued that we in the African logistics area have done better than could be expected. That being said, however, there remains an undeniable need to carry out an overhaul that will strengthen the backbone of the industry enough for us to shed our crutches and learn how to walk with pride.Tracks


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