In exploring why Africa’s railway sector has lagged behind the rest of the world, it is important to start with Marta Marson’s research paper on the industry titled ‘The role of China in African railways’ published in 2021.

Marta observes: In absolute terms, World Bank spent almost 5 billion USD financing 80 projects in 29 African countries from 1970 to 2014 (44yrs). A total amount of more than 40 billion USD has been provided by China to finance 31 railway projects among 17 African countries in the period 2000–2014 (14 yrs.). This is more than eight times the amount spent by the World Bank in a time period three times longer for averagely bigger projects in a lower number of countries. This is possibly due to the perception, among International Financial Institutions, that rail transport is a losing game. (The role of China in African railways. Marta Marson, 2021)

The World Bank and IMF, based in the United States with a strong highway infrastructure, might have encouraged African nations to focus on roads for transportation, unknowingly or deliberately overlooking the potential of railways in Africa.

Some argue that a bias towards road infrastructure may have existed among World Bank and IMF advisors working with African nations on transportation development. Similarly, some African planners might have been influenced by the US model, focusing on roads due to its apparent success. However, it’s important to consider other factors that might have influenced these decisions.

With is back ground It is simple to argue that majority of economists from the World Bank and IMF assigned to provide transportation advice to African nations had a preference for road infrastructure. This also applies to the African planners themselves, who saw the United States as a model for growth that should be imitated or at most, were pressured to do so.

It’s important to remember that while railway transport has been shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75% compared to road transport and trucking, this dangerous phenomenon has also been greatly encouraged by the fossil fuel industry in the west, which dominates the African energy sectors. Not much data on Africa’s energy sector specifically refined hydrocarbons in available, as of 2021, the total consumption from petroleum and other liquids in Africa amounted to roughly 4,293 million barrels per day. Egypt and South Africa were the largest consumers, with 816 million and 543 million barrels per day, respectively. This represented 19 percent and 12.65 percent of the total consumption in the African continent. Nigeria followed, consuming approximately 11.5 percent of the total African consumption (statista.com). At a rate of USD 70 per barrel, this puts the industry at a value of USD 301 billion annually and growing.

It should be remembered that majority African countries do not refine their own oil but rely on importation, this includes the continent’s major producers of the product like Nigeria.

Africa’s energy sector is dominated by companies like British Royal Dutch Shell, Total Energies (Formally Total and ELF), British Petroleum (BP) and others who have dominated the African sector since independence. Some new players have been coming up. In some cases, these corporations appear disguised with different names in order to hide their footprint, one basic example being Shell which calls itself Vivo Energy within the East African region of Kenya and Uganda where it dominates the OMC (Oil Marketing Companies) sector with its sister Total Energies.

On examination of the World Bank’s appalling funding practices for the African railway industry in conjunction with the dominance of western oil firms in the African energy sector, the reason behind the Western countries’ reluctance to provide funds for the African railway sector becomes evident. It was predicted that there would be enormous profits to be made, which is why the World Bank encouraged investment in the road sector. During of his remarks, the Ugandan president mentioned how foreign oil companies within Uganda’s oil sector discouraged the construction of an oil refinery infrastructure until the president made it clear that a refinery must be built for the region.

With automobiles being the biggest and trains the lowest consumer of refined hydrocarbon fuels, it has indeed been proved that; the transportation of 1 ton of goods over a distance of 500 miles, a train utilizes 1 gallon of diesel vs 51 gallons by trucking of the same load over the same distance. It is therefore not difficult to see how these companies working with the IMF and World bank are encouraging and have contributed to these destructive and inefficient phenomena of railway neglect, more roads and hence automobiles on African roads for their profit maximization.


©Kwame Gonza is a Technologist, Industrialist, Railway engineering consultant, and Pan-Africanist member of the ACUP-African Continental Unity Party.


1. The role of China in African railways. Marta Marson, 2021

2. Total consumption of petroleum and other liquids in selected countries in Africa in 2021 (Statita.com)

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